Translation, Poetry and Diplomacy

Cairo, Egypt

Could there be a more perfect confluence of topics for a public lecture? Three of the things I love the most (if we changed “poetry” to “literature”) in one talk!

Tonight, the Slovak ambassador spoke in the last lecture of the semester in the translation lecture series. Not a career diplomat but a career translator turned diplomat, the ambassador had an interesting take on diplomacy. In Communist Czechoslovakia, he said, he started reading South American literature because he could escape “from socialist realism to magical realism,” and he began a career as a translator.

Later, when the Slovak Republic was founded, he volunteered for diplomatic service, but he’s continued his translation career, and has promoted translation wherever he’s been posted. As he put it, “for small countries, cultural diplomacy is a must,” and translation is a big part of that. He quoted the old aphorism that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to tell lies for his country,” but he suggested a different definition of diplomacy: to understand is to set up a relationship. This means not only does he support the translation of Slovak literature into Arabic, but also the translation of Arabic literature into Slovakian.

What It Says About Us
But in the Q&A came some of the best stuff in his presentation. He was talking about yet another woman who came to the embassy to say that her son had been kidnapped by his Egyptian father and taken back to Cairo, and could the embassy help her find him? And for years, they’ve looked, but come up empty. It’s not a singular story; it happens all the time. European women come to Egypt, are charmed by some young man, get married, take him back to Europe, and it doesn’t work out. When they separate or divorce, then sometimes the Egyptian parent takes his child back to his family in Egypt, cutting all ties with the mother. It’s tempting to blame this on the Egyptians who are scamming European women. The ambassador had a different take. It’s really the European men who should be blamed, he suggested. If they hadn’t gotten so wrapped up in making money and their own affairs, if they hadn’t forgotten how to romance a woman, who are they to complain when she runs off with someone with the Arab’s gift of words?

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