The Translator’s Dilemma

In Eliot Weinberger’s work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, he examines varied attempts at translating a century-old Chinese poem, of which no original copy has existed for hundreds of years. No matter how different the translations are, none of them seem to capture exactly what Weinberger believes Wang Wei’s poem to be. What Weinberger eventually points out is a translator cannot stay true to both the grammar and meaning of the poem without sacrificing its poetry. Each translator has compromised something—be it images paralleling Wei’s empty mountains and bright patches of forest or the syntax used to depict these. This compromise reveals the personal choices that, intentionally or not, influence all translations. Ironically, Weinberger criticizes the 19+ translations only to then point out that the point of translating poetry isn’t grammatical accuracy. He writes,

“The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem. As such, every reading of the poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life” (Weinberger 46).

In this passage Weinberger suggests something interesting, that a translation reveals the translator’s inner world. If a text can be translated perfectly between languages then its ideas and images do not require very much imagination, which indicates it is likely not a poem. Poems require an internal saturation for its ideas to take hold in the reader. The reader must imagine something in response to the poem to understand it. If a text requires imagination, as poems do, then it’s naturally interpreted differently by each reader, even by readers who can understand the poem’s original language. Language is one barrier among many that create unique responses in readers (and translators). But rather than viewing this as an impossible border between cultures, it is the collective reading of poetry across cultures that indicates the borders are really bridges.


Photo by Tim Bogdanov on Unsplash


Dehumanization: Backs against the Wall

In “Utopia” by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, the motif of removing all human qualities from a person is very powerful. It strips all things that make us human; and converts us to simple creatures that only care about survival. The transition from human being to animal is a slow and arduous process. The most common scenario is refugees in war-type scenarios. The ability to empathize and collaborate with humans is not a priority in a situation where food and safety is scarce.  It’s very gradual often starting with the characters barely holding on to their morals, but due to the desperation of the situation have to throw it out in order to survive.

The poor of the city in “Utopia” are pushed to the edge however it’s more prevalent than people think. It’s a powerful motif and is often a fixture of other works of fiction.

“Night” by Elie Wiesel is a WWII novel which follows a young Jew as he survives the Nazi Occupation. The novel starts with the destruction of the temple he frequents and ends with his liberation by the US Army.

“One day when we had stopped, a worker took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought desperately over a few crumbs. The worker watched the spectacle with great interest. […] In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes.” (100)

The desperation drove them to an animistic state and it shows. They are unable to care about their fellow man any more. The are reduced to animals in every sense. At one point these men were the same men that had hopes and dreams, had children, had friends, had the ability to empathize with others. All of that was stripped from them.

If you could choose?

Are you ever just bored of your life, you feel like you’re not doing the right thing, or maybe that you could be doing something better? I get that feeling a lot, sometimes you just want to be doing something else. I tried to pretend what if you could go to a different “side,” a perfect world with no crimes, no violence, never having to experience hunger. Would you choose that side? Or would you stay where you’re at, in your “boring” life?

In the book Utopia there was two separate areas, one being Utopia, and the other being “The Outside.” The difference between the two is Utopia is this ideal world for the rich, where everything is said to be perfect, no violence, no worries. Whereas the outside is for the poor, and starving. You didn’t have a choice in which side you grew up in, rather just born into it. Although you could try to find a way to the opposite side but most of the time it never lead to anything good. For example those from Utopia could find a way to the outside, but would have to pretend to look like an outsider, whereas the outsiders were instantly killed trying to make their way in through the gate.”In Utopia, where death retreats behind barbed wires and becomes nothing but a game that adolescents dream of…”(6) It wasn’t hard telling the difference between the two, mostly because their appearance. With an exception of working, a few outsiders were allowed in, but strictly for working purposes only. If you were from the outside you either wanted to be apart of Utopia, or wanted nothing to do with it. But is Utopia really this perfect world that everyone would rather be in?

In Utopia, “the better life,” you are rich and happy, theres no violence, danger, all your needs are meant, AND you have anything you could possibly want. But does that really make them happy? To just have everything handed to them? Everyone believes that happiness will come with Utopia, but it doesn’t. You wonder though, why not all happiness? How could you not be happy when you have everything? It’s the same reason why we get bored and tired of our lives. It’s just the same thing, nothing changes, we get bored. You think maybe living in this other world could be better.

In Alaa’s case living in Utopia was boring to him, there was nothing to look forward to and nothing to excite him. He would read as an escape, he would do whatever he had to in order to find excitement. “I told him that reading, as far as I’m concerned, is a cheap drug. I use it only to withdraw from my conscious self.”(6) I think he felt like he was in a stimulation, like there was no reality, no risks, you could do anything and you would still survive, because that was Utopia. But is living in a “stimulation” how you want to spend your life? Even if this stimulation is perfect and harmless. A lot of people would die to live or even spend a day in the perfect Utopia life, yet for Alaa it was a hell to even be there. So what would you choose the rich, boring, “perfect” life? Or the poor, hungry, free life? Change can be good, so is it for the better? I know I would prefer to live in “The Outside” rather than having this perfect life turn into boredom and misery.


How can we love a place we’ve never been before?

“Makina could never be sure of what she’d dreamed, in the same way that she couldn’t be sure a place was where the map said it was until she’d gotten there” (33).

In Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, the protagonist, Makina, strives to make it across the border from Mexico to the United States. Throughout the novel there are multiple times that she is let down. This relates to the concept of “unsettled space.” Unsettled space is a concept that is difficult for many people, including myself, to wrap our brains around. What is unsettled space? In my opinion, it’s an area where you have created this image in your mind of what it’s supposed to look and feel like. More often than not, we’re disappointed by the reality of our expectations. This plays into what Makina is expecting when she embarks on her journey to America. As she first clears the border, she sees what she thinks is a pregnant woman in the distance, but is disappointed and shocked when she gets closer and discovers it is a dead body. On the contrary, when Makina sees snow for the first time, she is able to put her unsettled space into perspective, hopefully matching, if not exceeding, her expectations.

There are positives and negatives to the concept of unsettled spaces. One can have their expectations exceeded of a place they’ve never been to when they finally get there. Or, like Makina, one can have their expectations and dreamed torn from what they built in their minds. It’s all about perspective and understanding.

Violence is the Norm

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In the novel Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, translated by Chip Rossetti, violence is normalized by the rich and the poor. Anybody can do a senseless act of violence and no one will bat an eye or get punished.

For example, when Alaa demanded Germinal to “get out” (130) so he can rape Safiya, Germinal was disgusted, but she didn’t even attempt to stop him. She let it happen, and even though she was obviously disgusted, it was only because he wants to have sex with one of the Others.

Germinal isn’t surprised at this act of violence; instead, she feels insulted. Germinal knows that Alaa has sex with a number of other girls, but this situation is different because Safiya is a poor, sick girl who is seen as less than them; so Germinal is disgusted at the fact that Alaa would want to have sex with her in the first place.

“Did you enjoy yourself” (133) and “Have you finished” (132) is what Germinal asked Alaa when he was finished. She only asked him that out of spite and jealously that another woman had his attention other than her. Even in the face of a disgusting act, she still thought about how he wasn’t giving her all his attention.

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In the world of Utopia this isn’t out of the ordinary. Alaa knew that nothing would happen to him if he did this to the girl, because since violence is so normalized, no one really cares. Alaa himself is extremely immoral and has no empathy for sympathy for this girl. Since Alaa grew up having everything he ever needed and wanted at his disposal, he inherited this sense of entitlement, so he knows that he will never be punished for any act of violence that he commits. The only reason he raped Safiya is “to have a souvenir” (130) of his trip. An act of violence that dehumanizes and violates another person is seen as a souvenir in his eyes, and that perfectly explains how normalized violence really is.

Boredom as Motivation?

The definition of utopia according to the dictionary is “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect”, but after reading the novel Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik I saw how their Utopian community was far from perfect.

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Although Utopia is described as a ‘perfect’ community, problems still arose for example; rape, stealing, extreme poverty, prostitution, murder and many others. As much as these problems still exist today, they became more horrendous in a world that was meant to be ideal.

Dehumanization is clearly seen throughtout this novel and is also one of the main themes. The question that comes up then is… how and WHY a community became so dehumanized when it is considered to be perfect?

One of the narrators, who introduced himself as Alaa, explains how boredom within Utopia is what drives people to act out.

“What can you do in this artificial paradise? You sleep, you take drugs, you eat until food makes you sick, you vomit until you can recover the enjoyment of eating, you have sex (it’s weird that you notice how boredom makes your sexual behavior aggressive and sadistic)” (9, Khaled).

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From this quote, Alaa tries to explain himself on why he is the way he is. He was born into a rich, perfect community who thinks they’re are better than the people outside of their Utopia. He explains how boredom is what made him behave inappropriately and made the population dehumanized. He also states how since everything is going so perfect in their community that it became too boring so the only way for them to enjoy themselves was to act out illegally.

To me, it surprises me how such a perfect neighborhood can have so many defiant teens who only have fun when they are high off of drugs or raping women. It just goes to show that what makes a good community isn’t the perfect image that everyone looks for in different areas, but instead it’s the people that make up the community. If the community is filled with misbehaved citizens who dehumanize their fellow neighbors, then in my eyes it is NOT a perfect place to live and definitely not a lifestyle I would want to live.

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Translation: Why is it important?

Translation is a key that can open a door of communication between people who normally could not understand each other due to language and cultural barriers. Translation is everywhere, it can be in the form of changing one language to another in order to understand both sides, this is the most common way we see translation. However, I believe translation can also be in more abstract forms such as art and music, these are forms of translation in the sense that people can mutually understand it even if they do not speak the same language or come from the same culture.

In the book “Signs Preceding the End of The World” by Yuri Herrera, the book has to be translated into english from its original language for us Non-Spanish speaking students to understand. Yet this is not the extent of the translation, depending on where you go in the world you will find the book translated into that certain language. This represents how translation can connect people from different cultures through a book. I would like to end this blog post with a quote from this book, “…if you say give me fire when they say give me light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act if giving?”. This is a pivotal point in the story for the main character Makina. This represents how important translation is because it also allows people to gain perspectives through the process of understanding another person’s culture.

Weak Womanhood in Towfik’s Utopia

In the novella Utopia, author Ahmed Khaled Towfik depicts a world in which the Egyptian economy has collapsed and the middle class has been eradicated, polarizing the population. There are those who live in the privileged and indulgent Utopia, and those who live in abject poverty outside – The Others.

The Others are depicted as animalistic and inhuman by the Utopians, but here a disparity arises between men and women – Utopian or Other. While the male protagonists are given center stage, the women are used as symbolic props in the background, much in the way which women’s bodies have historically and continue to be objectified today.


Through me, she will see what she’s never seen before Aren’t the guys of Utopia just girls with facial hair? Aren’t we the studs that their women tremble for in fear and desire? Don’t their women wish, as they lie in the arms of their husbands or lovers, that one of us would ravish them? (116)

The first example of this is Germinal, a Utopian girl who gets trapped in the Other’s territory with her partner. Here, the man, Gaber, envisions his rape of Germinal as a sort of retribution for what the Utopians have done to him and the Others. The only thing which stops him from the rape is that he cannot stop envisioning his sister, Safiya, as the Utopian girl.

This is where the frailty of womanhood in this novel begins to truly show.

The girl from Utopia had passed out, of course, because of the mix of cough medicine and Parkinol with opium that Safiya had given her to drink…

Safiya, Gaber’s younger sister, assists in his attempted rape of Germinal without a moment’s thought. This is particularly troubling due to the similarities which the novel tries to draw between the Utopians and Others: “The most important thing is that every moment makes me feel that the points of similarity between us are quite strong” (104). Yet, neither of the prominent women in this novel are able to bridge that similarity between their womanhood, and each assists in the rape or attempted rape of the other.

Loyal Safiya had done as I ordered. She’d washed the girl’s dirty face and her filthy feet, which had begun to look like our women’s feet… She ran her fingers over the girl’s soft hair and said, ‘Take your time… You deserve to enjoy yourself, poor thing. You need clean hair and smooth skin. Enjoy yourself

When Alaa tells Germinal that he is going to rape Safiya, he commands her to “Get out!” Germinal, although unhappy, does as he says, allowing the rape of young Safiya, who, Germinal states later, is “just a child” (133).

Safiya’s rape, as Germinal’s attempted rape, is used as one big symbol as Alaa ridicules her: “Your poverity isn’t our fault … don’t you understand yet that you’re paying the price for your foolishness, your stupidity, and your submissiveness?” (132).

While the novel, for all the disparity it depicts between the Utopians and the Others, does attempt to draw similarities between the two classes, showing both their humanity and inhumanity. At least, it does this for the men. The women are utilized purely as symbol through the violations of their bodies, and with no sympathy extended to one another.

Dehumanization: How to Avoid Your Own Guilt

One of the biggest themes in Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia is the idea of dehumanization. This idea is prevalent throughout both sides of society that are shown in Egypt at the time. The rich side of Utopia dehumanizes their own people by avoiding human connection, doing drugs, and separating themselves from virtually the rest of the world. The “others” experience dehumanization in the simplest ways of being treated as less than human by those in Utopia, by normalizing violence in their everyday lives, and by popularizing and normalizing prostitution as a viable career choice.

This act of dehumanizing the people you are surrounded by struck me as very interesting and made me curious to look further into why societies do it. What is the point? Do we do it on purpose or is it something that just happens when desperate times are upon us?

My theory is that dehumanizing a group of people (especially the ones you are trying to take control or power over) is a method used to help subconsciously relieve some guilt and avoid the harsh reality of what you’re doing. If you were to look a person in the eyes, and know their name and their whole life story, it would be pretty impossible to kill them or hurt them because of the guilt you would feel. Should you look away, it would become a bit easier. Don’t know their name or their story? Even easier. Treat them as if they are sub-human, animals, dirt, rodents? Easy peasy.


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This tactic as a way to divert from the horror of what you’re doing is what I believe leads societies to commits things like mass genocides. We can see this in the Holocaust and how Jewish people were illustrated as rats, as sub-human, to make people feel a little less guilty for the awful things that were being done. I think Towkif’s imagery of what it means to dehumanize can teach us a lot about out society and how we handle (or avoid) guilt.

Lifelike Rape Culture in Utopia

One of the strongest images of dehumanization that is seen in Utopia is the prevalence and normalization of women as objects and the perpetuation of rape culture. This is seem from the very beginning in the way the Alaa speaks about women; how he just keeps them around for sex, gets them pregnant, and then moves on to the next girl while the first is recovering from her abortion. Alaa does not make any emotional connections to the women he is sleeping with, they just serve as a body to comfort him in the place of a real connection. He uses women and sex as a coping tool for dealing with the boredom of his life, with no concern with the person hood of these women or how this may affect them. When Gaber decides to finally lash out at Utopia, he decides to do so in a similar way, by using a woman as an object, by treating women as a tool with no person hood; by raping Germinal.

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Women are discarded when they are no longer of use. Source: Lasana Liburd

“She wasn’t a lifeless corpse, since I didn’t want to have sex with a dead body…” (Towfik, 115)

Ahmed Khaled Towfik does a good job at capturing the perspective of a rapist in this seen. Gaber does not care about Germinal as a person, at this point he only views her as the body he plans on raping. He only considers what kind of sex he wants to get from her, with no consideration of her wants in the situation. Though, fortunately, it turns out that Gaber does not actually end up being a rapist, this attitude seen in him is not something too far off from the reality of a rapist. For example, after being sentenced to only six months in jail after the rape of an unconscious girl behind a dumpster, Brock Turner decided to try to appeal his already lenient sentence. Among the letters to the court was one from Turner’s father, who boiled the whole experience down to “twenty minutes of action.”  

It is incredibly dehumanizing and objectifying to only see women as the quality of sex they provided while being raped. Whether that is only viewing her as 20 minutes of action, or as a incapacitated, but not too lifeless body.