5 Questions with Amira Nowaira, Translator of ‘The Tobacco Keeper’

Dr. Amira Nowaira translated Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper (read a mid-novel excerpt here), which is out next month from Bloomsbury-Qatar; review forthcoming in Al Masry Al Youm. The book, although fast-paced, is also a complex read, a challenge for any translator. Dr. Nowaira was kind enough to answer 5 questions about the project.

ArabLit: If you had been asked to write a foreword for the book, what would you have said by way of introducing the book & your translation?

Amira Nowaira: The Tobacco Keeper is a courageous work. It delves deep into the roots of sectarianism not only in Iraq but also in the whole middle east. The narrator is a journalist who is assigned the task of writing a report on the mysterious death of the famous violinist Kamal Medhat. As the narrator returns to occupied Baghdad to trace the extraordinary life of the composer, he discovers the three identities of the man he is investigating: a Jew forced to leave Iraq for Israel, a Shiite Muslim in Iran and a Sunni Muslim in Baghdad where he is murdered.

The novel is both a thriller and a serious exploration of the fluid nature of identity, highlighting the artificiality of religious/social/political boundaries. It is a rich and delightful blend of various discourses: journalism, philosophy, literature, literary theory, history and music.

AL: How did you go about finding the novel’s voice(s)? Did you spend any time reading Fernando Pessoa? (Editor: The book spends a good deal of time playing with and responding to Pessoa’s poetry.)

AN: The novel manages to combine lyricism and brutality, poetry and violence, thought-provoking ideas and fast-moving action. In translating the prose, I tried to convey the presence of these inherent paradoxes. I also read various English translations of Fernando Pessoa’s work although I tried to keep my eye focused on the Arabic translation of Pessoa’s text appearing in the novel.

AL: What did you enjoy most about this translation? What parts were a struggle? Were there particular points where you consulted Ali about the text?

AN: Translating The Tobacco Keeper was a huge but enjoyable challenge. For one thing, there was a staggering number of references to various subjects, geographical locations, historical events and figures as well as literary movements and philosophical ideas. So an important part of the task of translation was to undertake extensive research, which was in itself a great learning experience. But some of the difficulties I faced may be summarized as follows:

1. Unfortunately the Arabic text had a significant number of typos. As with some published Arabic novels, little attention is paid to final editing and proofreading. While sometimes it was easy to guess the correct word from the context, there were instances when it was fairly confusing and I had to go back to Ali for confirmation.

2. Although the whole text of the novel is written in beautiful Modern Standard Arabic, there were some Iraqi words and expressions (particularly in conversations) that as an Egyptian I found unfamiliar. Ali kindly provided explanations.

3. The most difficult bits to translate were those expressing abstract ideas and meditations on the nature of identity. These tended to be rather vague and indeterminate. I believe that Arabic readers in general are fairly tolerant with vagueness, innuendos and obscurity. This may not be equally true of English readers. In these instances I had to offer my interpretation of the meaning. It was a balancing act at best, trying to keep some of the obscurity (which is basically expressive of the obscurity at the heart of the human condition itself) while not throwing readers into complete bafflement.

AL: Many of the descriptions are quite vivid; indeed, the city/landscape descriptions are what knit the novel together. I’m going to assume that you haven’t been to Baghdad’s Red and Green zones, for instance? Did you visualize it straight from Ali’s writing, or did you look for any additional photographs/videos?

AN: Unfortunately I’ve never been to any of the three major cities of the novel: Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran. So I had to depend in large part on the vividness of the descriptions in the novel in addition to looking at various maps, photographs and videos.

AL: The book has an interesting discourse on ghost-writing, interpreting, masks, colonial power, and alter egos. Did it make you reflect at all on the act of translation? How do you situate translation here, and your act of translating this book?

AN: This is very true. The novel raises a lot of interesting questions concerning textual ownership. Who actually owns the text? In ghost writing, it is a case of one writer illegitimately appropriating the text of another. In the novel, this also carries colonial overtones, as the appropriator is a well-established foreign/colonial (non-Iraqi) writer while the ghost-writer is an obscure local (Iraqi) informant. In translation, in contrast, the translator legitimately appropriates the text by offering his/her interpretation of it and rendering it in another language.

Amira Nowaira is former chair of the Department of English at Egypt’s Alexandria University. She is co-editor of The Feminist Press’s Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region (Feminist Press 2009). She has translated various works, including Zeina by Nawal Saadawi (Saqi Books 2011), The Tobacco Keeper by Ali Bader (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, forthcoming) and the translation into Arabic of Susan Bassnett’s book Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction (Cairo 1999) and of Randa Abdel Fattah’s novel Where the Streets Had a Name (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing 2010). She is also a contributor to The Guardian and Al-Ahram Weekly.