Last night, author Elias Khoury, translator Humphrey Davies, and filmmaker Yusry Nasrallah spoke about the novel(s) and film باب الشمس (Gate of the Sun) in the context of “Translating Palestine” at the AUC’s downtown campus.
One of the many interesting topics, briefly touched on, was the author’s relationship to his work.
It’s common for translators to talk about their invisibility. This can be both a positive, as when readers say “I thought the book was written in English!”, and a negative, as when translators complain of being undervalued. But, in fact, Davies was the only one of the presenters who did not refer to his invisibility.
During his presentation, Khoury frequently spoke of detaching himself from باب الشمس. The book, he said, ultimately did not belong to him. “Because the writer is only an agent of literature, an agent of the human experience. The name of the author is only a name, which…will be forgotten. What will be remembered is the story itself. And here I remember the first time I met Yusuf Idris.”
The first time Khoury met Idris, he said, he was very young, and he just sat goggling at the great Egyptian author.
Khoury added that not all great writers look the part.
“And he replied to me with this very beautiful story. He told me, ‘No, my friend. The great writer is someone who becomes like the author of the stories of Goha. … When someone is really a great writer, you disappear.’ So when you see that I’ve disappeared, then you’ll really know that I’m a great writer.”
Nasrallah did raise his eyebrows a bit when Khoury spoke about someone re-cutting the film to make it shorter. But Khoury seemed to insist that these stories and characters had been unleashed by him, but they did not belong to him.
I will continue to type up my notes and tapes from this interesting discussion; thanks to Samia Mehrez for organizing it and to Elias Khoury for giving us the gift of reading aloud from باب الشمس. As he said, he had to “really rehearse this, because I cannot read this book.” For a long time, he said, “I used to refuse to read because I used to cry.”