One Minute with Olivia Snaije on Translating ‘Bye Bye Babylon’

Olivia Snaije (@oliviasnaije) is a freelance journalist who recently moved back to Paris from London where she worked as executive editor of Alef magazine and then as a commissioning editor at Saqi Books. She is also an accomplished cook: The Ethnic Paris Cookbook, which she co-authored with Charlotte Puckette, was published by DK in March 2007. She recently translated Lamia Ziade’s graphic-novel memoir Bye Bye Babylon, out in English next month from Jonathan Cape. 

ArabLit: Is translating a graphic novel, to your mind, any different from translating a text-only work?

Olivia Snaije: I think it depends on the graphic novel. In this particular case there weren’t any frames or captions as you pointed out so it was more of a flowing first person narrative, similar to text-only, without different characters talking. I would imagine with a more traditional comic you would have to “hear” several voices and try to get the feel for how they would speak in another language, perhaps similar to a play?

AL: What did you feel characterized the tone of the work in French? What were you trying to capture?

OS: What I felt was special about the text in French was that it was obviously told from a child’s point of view, but it also had an undertone of cynicism and black humor which was not childlike at all. So I tried to capture that tone of naïveté mixed with black humor. It’s war made “lite” and yet terrible at the same time. Another feature of the work in French was that it was somewhat colonial, absolutely culturally Francophone yet it was obviously not set in France.

AL: Were the footnotes just echoes of things she’d footnoted in the French? Or did you add any? With the Lebanese conflict, it seems as though you could endlessly footnote the footnotes….

OS: There were no footnotes in the French version. I added them because I felt that certain things would not be obvious to an Anglo-Saxon reader that the French understand because they are more informed about Lebanon as it was a former protectorate and most of the author’s cultural references other than the Lebanese ones are French. I was lucky to be able to work closely with Lamia Ziadé because certain references couldn’t be explained and had to be changed just for the poetic flow of things. Regarding the war we didn’t change much at all. Now that I think about it it’s astonishing she was able to simplify the civil war as she did.

AL: What did you find challenging or engaging about translating this book? What made you want to do it? Who do you hope reads it?

OS: I was very lucky because I felt (I hope!) I was able to get hold of the tone right away so I ran with it. I’m very interested in the Middle East and have been going to Lebanon regularly since 1991 and have read extensively on the civil war so I felt “qualified”. I think if someone with no knowledge of the Middle East had translated it they would have had to take a crash course in the area’s politics. The most challenging thing without a doubt was fact-checking the weapons. I had many email exchanges with a Colonel and spent an afternoon with a Major at the Invalides (the French army museum); both had spent time in Lebanon during the civil war and I was able to check all the weapons with them for language, millimeters, calibers etc. I’m very grateful to them!

I think this is an important book because often people don’t want to read about wars. Novels, and in this case a graphic novel, can often convey what it’s like for people living through a war in a way that a political or historical book cannot. With this book, the colorful, pop images draw you in and before you know it you’re reading about something very very serious. But there’s comic relief too.

Jean Said Makdisi’s memoir, “Beirut Fragments” which I think is one of the best books about the Lebanese civil war, hits home because she described her daily life, what it was like getting the kids to school, preparing meals with water shortages etc etc. I hope people from different walks of life will read it not only to learn that war is no fun but also because it is a very personal account and it took the author 20 years to be able to write about it. It’s also wickedly funny.

Snaije also talked with Ziade about the project for Lebanon’s Daily Star. An excerpt: Her children asked her if everything she had written about had really happened. Mostly, though, they were “happy that I was doing something else besides drawing naked women.” (Read on.)