British vs. American Dialect in Translating ‘The American Granddaughter’

Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, shortlisted for the 2009 “Arabic Booker” and just published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar, is one of the few grown-up books I have thus far acquired at the Sharjah International Book Fair.*

I began reading Kachachi’s 2008 novel last night. And once I’d begun, it was difficult to stop. Of course, there is the essential beauty of the novel—Kachachi’s imagery, the overlapping structures, her fresh look at a young Iraqi-American woman during the Gulf War—but there is also the lovely job Nariman Youssef does with Kachachi’s often-lush sentences.

About her Mosul relatives, the protagonist says:

When they spoke it was as if the kitchen cupboards had collapsed and a cacophony of pots and pans were spilling out. Words burst out of my relatives’ mouths in a burst of qafs and gheins, with the elongated alef at the end making everything sound like the finale of a musical mawwal.

Even if a reader doesn’t know an alef from a yeh (how do you transliterate a ي?), or a mawwal from a polka, the passage still carries the necessary richness.

One thing is bothering me. The narrator’s diction is quite high—a working-class girl from Detroit says, “I pulled into the spacious parking lot in front of Wal-Mart….” Fine. Something has elevated this character, putting her outside of ordinary American speech. I haven’t read so far that I can see the full effects, but I can appreciate the decision.

But, then, certain sentences tugged at me:

It wasn’t the kind of thing you could chat about on your mobile.

And most particularly:

I opened mine and found a sandwich, a bag of crisps, a Coke and a cookie.

This is undoubtedly the British edition of The American Granddaughter; perhaps it will be changed for American audiences. But while my brain accepts that this character might have an elevated, epic diction to reflect her elevated, epic experiences, the poor brain falters in the face of an American saying “crisps” unless he or she is doing a Monty Python impression.

*I have been entranced by the Arabic children’s lit options; the selection here is vast and sparkly. And, as I’ve asserted over at Read Kutub Kids, there is no such thing as a book that’s only good for children. Or, well, it was Auden who asserted it, but I had the good sense to repeat it.

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10 comments

  1. I read the Arabic a few years ago and found many discrepancies and problems. I wonder if the translation “corrected” any of them. For example, when her mother becomes a citizen, she says: the band played the US national anthem: “God Bless America”!
    Most characters are stereotypes: her fellow Arab-American translators (overdressed and needy Lebanese). Her Caucasian boyfriend just drinks beer and watches TV all the time. . .etc.
    Anyway, am curious to read what you thunk upon finishing.

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    • You forgot to mention the manipulative Egyptian woman! I’m not far in yet, so it’s hard for me to have a feel for what she might do with these stereotypes….

      Hah, I don’t remember that there was a national-anthem error. I’ll have to go back and look, although I’d be less likely to notice that than the crisps.

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  2. Yes the Egyptian woman. Oh, and every American will be described as sounding or looking like a certain actor.
    I was asked to review the novel for The National and I did. They paid, but never published it. I guess you can’t say anything critical about a shortlisted book!

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  3. It seems a bit inconsistent: if she found a bag of “crisps”, I would think they’d be accompanied by “biscuits” rather than “cookies”.

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  4. Yes, her diction is quite high, but it can (possibly) be explained by her father instilling in her a love of Arabic language which could extend to a general love of language. There are several passages that point to this. Perhaps the problem stems from the formality of Fusha and seeped into the translation, and therefore the dialect is stiff (I read the Arabic version). At any rate, just because she is working class doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be capable of articulating her thoughts in ‘high’ language. Just my two cents 🙂

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    • Emilie,

      I never objected to the high diction—I believe I state above that I think the high diction works (sure, her love of poetry, her own “epic” experience, whatever). But I do think the switching back and forth between American and British English is disconcerting.
      M.

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