Bahaa Taher on Translating Books to Radio

The first-ever (2007) International Prize for Arabic Fiction went to Bahaa Taher’s tenth fictional work, Sunset Oasis. It has since been translated into English, French, Greek, Norwegian, Turkish, and other languages; its latest adaptation is to radio. Mohga Hassib interviewed Taher for the Egypt Independent:

Taher told Hassib that, as with another book of his adapted by scriptwriter Mohamed Aly, “we also had our differences over things related to the production. But I generally have a strong stance of not interfering with the creative process for radio, cinema or television.”

Taher also said: “[Aly] did insert a few things that were not in the novel. But he is more aware about what is best suited for radio.”

The cover can and should be a visual translation of the book. I like this one.

The book is told in successive first-person chapters, which Taher said he “finds difficult” but also “prefers.” He told Ati Metwaly, in an interview for Majalla published last month, of Sunset Oasis, that “I started writing this novel in a third-person. I had three chapters ready when I felt there was something wrong… I didn’t feel it… I decided to rewrite all with a first-person narrator, giving each protagonist its individual voice.”

In one controversial section, there is a chapter narrated by Alexander the Great, which Taher told Hassib was difficult to fit to the radio medium:

The original cover works well.

The chapter that deals with Alexander the Great in “Sunset Oasis,” for instance, is problematic. But, I really liked the solution Aly presented in the radio show. He turned it into a dream that shifts between Mahmoud [the narrator] and Catherine [who has an affinity for Egyptology]. It is an odd dream that was successfully made in a fantastical way.

In a 2009 interview (with me, for QC) the book’s English-language translator, Humphrey Davies, said he particularly enjoyed re-creating the Alexander chapter:

 It does stand out, obviously, but it stands out in the Arabic. It’s different because the Arabic is different. It’s more lyrical; it’s very distinctly lyrical. It’s very regal. I particularly enjoyed translating that passage. There’s something I particularly liked about that. I think it’s not just the language, but the idea of the sort of anti-Alexander the Great. Someone who’s not fulfilling all the stereotypes of a gung-ho world conqueror, but who is very introspective, self-doubting—an ultimately lost character.

I don’t get this cover. What does it have to do with the book?

When I spoke to Taher last year, he was generally positive about his translations to other languages — with a noted and much-talked-about exception. Taher also said that, in general, he’s also happy to see books move to film, radio, and other media — the question is all in how it’s done. The new production must be judged not as the book, but on its own merits. He told Hassib:

With the film adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s “Adrift on the Nile,” I had a different experience. I saw the [1971] movie when it first came out and I did not like it. Then I watched it again a month ago. I felt how unjust I was in judging the movie and how amazing it actually is. It had great actors such as Emad Hamdy, Adel Adham and Ahmed Ramzy; a great cast and a successful movie.

Maybe this is a compromise between English 1 and 2, above.

A favorite adaptation of Taher’s, he said, was the stage adaptation of his Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery; he has had less luck with film (all his film adaptations have been cancelled).

Taher also said he is a fan of radio, because “[With radio], no one imposes a certain image on you; you are the one creating and imagining the scene.”

Although Taher has written several popular and well-loved novels — such as Aunt Safiyya, trans. Barbara Romaine — he began as a short-story writer, and some of his most successful creative works have been stories. I asked Hassib to throw in a question about short stories, and she very graciously did. Taher said:

…the short story is the highest form of narrative and is closest in its narrative to poetry. Because it requires the same intensification as poetry and the same talent as poetry in order to say a lot of things in a very limited timeline. … A short story is like a poem to him. It has to contain the soul, brevity and the beautiful language.

Read Mohga Hassib’s complete interview with Taher on EI