5 Questions with Robin Moger on Translating Ahmed Mourad’s ‘Vertigo’

Ahmed Mourad’s popular and groundbreaking 2007 novel, Vertigo, came out this past fall in translation (My short review for the Egypt Independent.) Below, five questions with translator Robin Moger:

ArabLit: Even on a second read, I found Vertigo delightfully funny. For instance, reviewer Niamh Fleming-Farrell pulled out this quote as exaggerated and clunky: “His expressive, cheerful pictures were taken with an old Eastern European flash the size of a pot lid that threatened to incinerate the bride, disfigure the groom and maim a few guests in time for the buffet…” But to me: funny.  I suppose I can see Fleming-Farrell’s point, but I still insist that it’s amusing. Is there a cultural element to translating the humor of this book? Did you pay any particular attention to translating the humor? Did you find the book funny?

Robin Moger: I’m really glad you found it funny. I did, too. I am sympathetic to the criticism that some lines overextend themselves as they strain to reach the funny button, but like you, I like that line. I think it goes on to make the point that Gouda (the photographer) loves wedding food, which explains “in time for the buffet”. I picture him fantasizing about trampling mutilated guests en route to the cake.

Translating this humour, which runs pretty consistently throughout the book, requires first of all that you’re sympathetic to it—that you get it and hopefully like it (which I did)—and secondly (the “cultural” bit, perhaps) that you understand the sort of characters and atmosphere it evokes. I think if you weren’t familiar with it, it might sound a little bizarre and affect the way you conveyed it. That said, there are times when it can be pretty intense, like the scene when Omar and Ahmed meet up with their schoolteacher friend. If you’re not sympathetic or tuned in to the madrasat el mushaghebeen-type bantering humour (I think he references that play in the scene) it could sound fairly peculiar or utterly flat.

I think my main effort went into conveying the bounce and drive and general exuberance of the narration and dialogue, rather than the humour per se. It’s a big part of the book’s appeal and most of all I feared being a dead hand.

AL: What did you think were the particular pleasures and challenges of translating Vertigo? How was it different from translating The Laborer/A Dog with No Tail?

RM: Vertigo was fun. Wisecracks, action, drama, the dark heart of a corrupt system, baddies, belly dancers… I speak for myself, of course, but I don’t get a lot of that as an Arabic translator. I found myself having to think hard to avoid flattening out of all the energy and drive in the book. It’s a thriller, but the voice is not that of formulaic genre fiction: it’s warm and good-natured and in its own way quite moving (I’m not necessarily referring to the love interest). There’s something very true to life about it and very plaintive, too. The part where the lovers’ walk along the Corniche is ruined by the prurient policemen struck a chord with me: I think he wrote very well and subtly about Ahmed’s panicked uncertainty and Ghada’s disappointment.

The Laborer is another very funny book, but much wryer. It was much shorter, too, much more distilled. I think comparatively I spent longer on it than with Vertigo, but changed it very little from the first draft once I was done.

AL: Were there things you discovered in the book while translating it that you hadn’t noticed on the first or second read? What do you find interesting or noteworthy about Vertigo?

RM: When I first read it, I was left a little breathless and overwhelmed, but every time I returned, and especially when I was going through line-by-line and translating it, I was struck by how lucidly and uncomplicatedly Ahmed conveys so much of the atmosphere and character of Egyptian life. I found it a true and sympathetic portrait of Egypt, of attitudes to sex, religion, government and dignity, which was all the more effective for being completely unpretentious.

There’s a ton of dialogue, as well, and Ahmed writes that particularly well. It’s central to the way he outlines his characters, all of whom are strongly drawn and appealing or revolting as the case may be. I developed a particularly powerful loathing for the rich bully-boy Habib Amin, despite the fact he hardly features in the novel. Testament to Ahmed’s surprisingly deft touch amidst the hectic pace.

Another thing to mention is the fact that it’s a thriller—though as I’ve said, an unusual one—and a good one at that. It borrows a lot from cinema and the stage in some ways but it transcends them. Would it be too portentous to say that he’s made the genre viable in Arabic, or at least shown the way? Finally, I’d like to say that I appreciate the body count in the first chapter, though my mum told me she almost stopped reading at that point.

AL: Now that the book is finished, printed, out in bookstores, what sort of relationship do you have with it?

RM: The usual: check its rating on Amazon, lovingly finger the spine. I’ve re-read it a few times because on a personal level I find that helps me think about translation and how I’d re-do things. I’ve also done a lot of thinking about the book that I certainly didn’t do at the time. For instance, I never knew Ahmed had been a photographer to Hosni Mubarak until afterwards, which was extraordinary. (Editor’s note: More about Mourad as photographer from The Guardian in “By day, I shot my boss Hosni Mubarak. By night, I dreamt of dictator’s downfall.”)

AL: If you were to have written an afterword vs. a glossary (I assume this was the publisher’s call?) what would you have put in the afterword?

RM: The only debate we had was glossary vs. footnotes, and that was quickly resolved. My personal guess (I should emphasize this) is that BQFP want to play down the fact this is literature in translation, so as little of that sort of thing as possible and no translators’ names on the cover. If so, I’m all for it. Perhaps an afterword would be a bit of shame, in that it’s hard to write anything that wouldn’t cast a gloomy pseudo-academic pall over the text. Perhaps something about its debt to cinematic/popular depictions of heroes who fight moral corruption, both in terms of plot and the use of language and dialogue, yet
how it transcends these roots to say something brave and true about Egyptian society.

I would want to point out that in terms of Arabic novels it was also something of a departure, something new, though no doubt someone will tell me I’m wrong about that. I think it would make a terrific film. (Editor’s note: Vertigo is scheduled for production as a Ramadan serial later this year.)

Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic literature currently living in Cape Town, South Africa. He graduated with a degree in Egyptology and Arabic from Oxford University in 2001 before travelling to Cairo to work as a journalist for the Cairo Times magazine. Following its closure he became a full-time professional translator.