A Discussion with Translator Raphael Cohen about Mona Prince’s ‘So You May See’

Mona Prince’s إنى أحدثك لترى (So You May See) was published in Arabic in 2008, by Dar Merit, and already has appeared in English. This is a very quick turnaround; generally only titles that win the big prizes or are by big-name authors make the language leap that fast. And Prince’s work was neither a best-seller nor particularly well-known in Arabic.

Yes, part of the book’s appeal is its transgressive nature, and one could put a negative spin on why it’s been chosen for translation. But there is an energy in Prince’s novel that grabs the reader by the eyeballs and keeps on tugging that has nothing to do with “taboo or not taboo.” My review will be coming out this week in Al Masry Al Youm. Meanwhile, a Q&A with the book’s very patient and tolerant translator, Raphael Cohen.

ArabLit: How would you describe إنى أحدثك لترى in an elevator pitch?

Raphael Cohen: So You May See is a self-reflective account of narrator Ayn’s long, stormy, and ultimately eternal love affair with Ali. It is a psychologically and symbolically complex work which attempts to inverse traditional views of women. It is also frequently funny and with a declared mystical interest. The novel has two long sections involving Ayn’s journeys in the Sahara and a parallel love affair in Sinai which are closer to ordinary narrative.

AL: Which parts did you find funniest?

RC: I thought both sections involving goats were funny–the goat in the desert and Apollo, the Corsican’s attempt to marry Ayn with the seven-goat dowry. That whole scene in fact. Also the parts where Ayn turns her hand to magic.

AL: The sexual material of the book is a bit on the wild side, with parts reminding me most of the French author and diarist Anais Nin. Did the book ever make you uncomfortable as you were re-imagining it in English?

RC: When I first read the Arabic, I certainly got a shock when I read some of the sex scenes. This was out of surprise for such a radical effort in an Arabic novel—these scenes would be strong in any novel. There is nothing pornographic, which is not what is intended. The sex acts described have a strong symbolic purpose in the work.

AL: No, not pornographic, and not really even erotic—in the sense of being written to provoke a sensual reaction. But they are certainly candid. But when you say symbolic, you feel they’re symbolic of what? Of her freedom, or of something else?

RC: The attempt to create equality, or even a reversal in power between the genders when Ayn becomes as it were dual-sexed. She does however debate with herself whether she is still in the submissive position, even when she is on top.

AL: From a structural standpoint, the parts that stand out to me are the poetic passages, set in verse. How was translating the poetic passages different from translating the rest of the novel?

RC: Obviously the language of the poems is more compressed, but their diction is prose poetry. To me they seemed efforts to heighten the emotional content of Ayn’s thoughts and provided a means to intensify her feelings for the reader. I’ve always been interested in translating poetry so they were fun to work on. Poetry is also used to reveal Ayn’s ‘mystical’ religion.

AL: Yes, so you never associated her with a specific religion (Christianity, Islam) but rather with her own personal (free) spirituality?

RC: I suppose that some interpretations of Islam, specially sufism, are so inclusive of other spiritual traditions, that there would be no reason not to see Ayn’s spirituality as Islamic. Perhaps the interest in magic and dream interpretation are Egyptian.

AL: Did the religion’s slight amorphousness affect the terminology you chose to create the religious/prayerful passages in English?

RC: I tried to recreate an idiom which felt religious in English (some archaism, specific terms) but didn’t consider what religion Ayn adheres to.

AL: About the poetic passages: Did you try to turn them into stand-alone poetry, working on them as separate entities, or did you think of them as a part of the prose narrative?

RC: The poems are definitely part of the narrative — both as commentary/intensification and more directly when Ayn gives Ali poems she has written or from the Arabic canon.

AL: Was there something else that was notably enjoyable, resistant, or difficult about translating the book?

RC: I found making dialogue sound authentic quite challenging. There were also some verses from the classical tradition and a long quotation from a novel by Ibrahim Al-Koni which were hard to render in a way that fitted with the novel. The focus on Ayn’s feelings and the language for the emotions in Arabic was another difficult area for me as translator.

AL: Can you give me an example here, particularly of the way you worked with her emotions? Certainly her emotional life is central to what the book is trying to do.

RC: I had difficulties simply on the lexical level trying to pin down with this woman was feeling.

AL: So what aspect of the book did you most want to capture and re-build in English? Is there a particular element where “if the reader doesn’t get *this*, then all is lost”? The book’s energy, perhaps?

RC: Structurally, the book bounces between straightforward narration and reflection on the writing process itself. Making this distinction appropriately clear seemed important. Capturing Ayn’s internal monolgue (or even dialogue with her self) was also something I wanted to succeed in translation.

AL: You are also translating—or have translated?—Ahlam’s Nessyane.Com. Do you find any additional challenge in translating texts by women? Or is this a coincidence to which you haven’t given much thought?

RC: I suppose I would like to avoid being typecast as a translator of women’s writing and the fact that the first two books I’ve translated are by women is purely coincidental. Given that I don’t have any special difficulty about reading works by women in English, I don’t see why translating them from another language should pose additional problems. That said, however, perhaps as a western male there are elements of the lives and culture of Arabic women that are more opaque.

Author Mona Prince. Lifted from her blog, monaprince.blogspot.com/

AL: Did you work with Mona during the translation process? How?

RC: Mona was an excellent reader of the translation and an enormous help with the many difficulties I had. We met three times for long sessions dealing with issues to bring the most out of the text. The editors at AUC also worked hard to clean up my very British English.

AL: Was there anything you felt you missed on reading the book, but gained (in understanding, appreciation, depth of view) while translating it?

RC: As it’s been almost a year since finishing the translation, I reread the book in English to help me answer your questions. What struck me was the pace and coherence of the novel. Perhaps this is something, as a translator, you pay for when reading in Arabic when nagging questions, and English words, keep popping into one’s head.


  1. Eager to read and order for our library. I don’t even yet see in Amazon. Where to find? Thanks for all your hard work and bringing to light the very nuanced art of translation.

    1. Great! For non-Egyptian readers, I believe the book is available for order through Oxford University Press (http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/LiteratureEnglish/WorldLiterature/MiddleEast/?view=usa&ci=9789774164446)

      You know, I wish AUC Press/OUP would publish more trade paper at lower prices, so that the books would be more accessible. $20 is a lot. Although of course you’ll be getting your money’s worth out of it, with multiple library readers!

  2. I LOVED this novel–I especially enjoyed the Sufi elements.

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