Two Visions of Elias Khoury’s ‘As Though She Were Sleeping’

I reviewed the Humphrey Davies translation of Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping last August. Now, the Marilyn Booth translation is out from Archipelago, and Khoury is roaming the US giving interesting talks (such as this one in New York); thus, it was time for a review of the second translation.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

The 11th novel of renowned author Elias Khoury takes readers deep into the dream world of a woman in Palestine in the 1940s.

‘As Though She Were Sleeping” is a gentler take on the stories and landscapes that have marked Elias Khoury’s powerful and often disturbing work.

Khoury, mentioned in recent years as a contender for literature’s Nobel Prize, has set most of his stories in Lebanon and Palestine. His best-known novel, “Gate of the Sun,” is a sprawling look at post-1948 Palestine. Khoury is particularly interested in the links between storytelling and trauma: His 2002 novel, “Yalo,” foregrounds a rapist’s confessions; several of his novels are set during the Lebanese civil war.

Part of the softer tone of “As Though She Were Sleeping” comes from its earlier setting. It begins and ends in December 1947, before the establishment of Israel. It also centers on an apolitical Christian woman from Beirut.

Milia’s life has its hardships, certainly, but her traumas are mostly of an ordinary sort. Great changes take place during her lifetime, but Milia says that politics give her a headache. Nazareth “was boiling over, but she [Milia] did not really notice anything out of the ordinary.”

The book begins and ends in the fraught Nazareth of 1947, but without emphasizing the city’s tensions. Gentle Milia isn’t blind; she can see that a tragedy is coming. Yet her focus is on giving birth. She slips in and out of dream-memories as she lies in a hospital bed and pushes out her son.

The book is filtered through this dream state, with Milia reliving and reshaping moments from her past. As in many of Khoury’s novels, the narrative barely crosses space or time; we end where we began. The book’s UK translator, Humphrey Davies, called “As Though She Were Sleeping” “one of the least linear books ever put down on paper.” Instead, the narrative revolves around its core images in ever tighter circles. Go on; keep reading.

How do the two translations differ?

The first paragraph of Humphrey’s translation, released last year:

Meelya’s lids parted to reveal eyes veiled in drowsiness. Then she decided to close them again and continue with her dream. She saw a small white candle, its pale flame flickering in the  fog. Mansour was carrying the candle and walking ahead of the taxi, the air buffeting his long coat, but she couldn’t make out her husband’s features. Reaching for the glass of water that was usually on the bedside table, she didn’t find it. She was thirsty, the dryness splintering against her tongue and the back of her throat. She pulled her arm from beneath her head on the pillow to stop the tingling running along it to her neck, turned over onto her back and reached for the glass of water, but didn’t  find the table. Shaking herself, she found that she was sitting  up. She leant back, resting her head against the wooden edge of  the headboard. Where had it gone, the white wall against which she used to lean her head, feeling the cracked paint flaking beneath her long hair and becoming entangled in it? As she crossed her arms over her chest, they touched her naked breasts. She was overcome by fear, and a chill crept into her thighs. When she reached towards them to still their trembling, her palm touched their nakedness. She moved it upwards, to the base of her belly, and felt cold blood congealing there.

The first paragraph of Marilyn’s translation, released this year:

Milia’s eyelashes drew apart over eyes still curtained in drowsiness. She would just close them again, she decided; she would pick up the  trail of her dream. She saw a small white candle giving off a wan light that  trembled and flickered through the fog. His fist closed tightly around the  candle, Mansour walked ahead directly in front of the taxi, the wind buffeting his long overcoat, but she could not make out her husband’s features  clearly. She reached for the glass of water that she kept habitually on the  bedside table but found no glass there. She was thirsty. The dryness diffused along her tongue and broke against the roof of her mouth and down her throat. She dragged her left arm out from beneath her head on the pillow to arrest the numbness creeping from her upper arm toward her neck. She turned over in bed, and over again, and then lay finally still on her back. She put out her hand for the glass of water and found no table there. She shuddered, jerked upright, and suddenly found herself sitting against a wooden  headboard. Where had it gone, that familiar white wall against which she  propped her head? She could always sense the peeling white paint cracking and splintering beneath her long hair, even commingling with it as she rested her head on the wall. She pressed her arms to her chest, just touching the warm skin of her breasts. Suddenly she was afraid and the coldness of it slunk into her thighs. She placed a hand there to press away the trembling in her legs. Her palm brushed against naked skin, glided upward as far as the top of her thighs went, and she felt blood collecting there. Gone cold, the blood had formed a solid mass at the lowest curve of her belly.

Four different cover designs:

Khoury appearances yet forthcoming:

April 26 • Minneapolis, MN
Reading and celebration with Elias Khoury at Open Book in concert with Mizna
May 4 • New York, NY
PEN World Voices A Literary Safari reading
May 10 • New York, NY
Reading and party with Elias Khoury at Alwan for the Arts
TBA • Austin, TX
Reading and signing with Elias Khoury at University of Texas, Austin
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8 comments

  1. Hmm, based on those paragraphs, I vote for the HD translation. Although I do like the spelling “Milia” better than “Meelya”…:)

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  2. A GREAT example of how two perfectly faithful translations by seasoned translators can vary so much and thus how much “art” there is to translation – that it is not simply a matter of trans-literation from one language to another. And what a “teachable” moment one could make of it.

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  3. I like the first one translation better, too, but wonder if reading both to the end might make less clear which is better, basing it on the whole rather than just a small piece. Do you have an opinion on the two? From the paragraphs above, HD’s translation seems to flow better.

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    • I do have an opinion on the whole(s), and perhaps you’re right, that it’s impossible to judge from small snippets.

      As the site’s official cook notes above, both are accomplished translators and both have interesting approaches to the text; both are worth noting. Overall, I think that Marilyn’s version manages the lyricism better, holds together the long sentences, the musicality, and is a prettier read. I’d be interested in discussing it with someone else who’s read both wholes.

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  4. I ve read the davies but can’t see me getting the us version unless I buy it from amazon or next visit to london ,but I like Davies translation on whole ,but if I get chance I get it and come back ,all the best stu

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