‘Translations’ Residency: Three Languages on an Equal Footing

This summer, Rawad Z. Wehbe took part in the Translations residency, which he found to be an amazing experience:

By Rawad Z. Wehbe

I had the invaluable opportunity this summer to attend the first installment of Translations, a residency comprised of workshops, discussions, and exchanges concerning translation and writing. Tucked away in the historic French village of Lagrasse, our group of thirty-five translators, authors, scholars, and students (like myself) spent the week (July 7-14) eating, breathing, and sleeping translation.

None of Translations’ workshops set out with the intent to produce a ready-to-publish translation of an entire novel or short story. Our objective, in my opinion, was far more important. In a nutshell, the goal was to dismantle barriers of distance and construct a free social and intellectual space where people dedicated to language and translation could meet, share, and collaborate with their peers from various parts of the world. Translators Barbara Skubic and Michelle Hartman have advised that translating should not be a lonely or isolated endeavor. Instead it should be a communal and collaborative one. Such was the space that Translations successfully fostered.

While the climate in Lagrasse was social and friendly, it was also productive. According to the program schedule, a total of fourteen workshops were to be organized by a brilliant team of individuals from all over the world with a keen interest in and talent for translation. The working languages were French, Arabic, and English. While the residency accommodated every language combination and direction (ex. Arabic-French, French-English, etc.), I was particularly interested in Arabic-English and English-Arabic. So it was unfortunate when I was informed that Sinan Antoon and Abdelmounem Chentouf were unable to attend the residency.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of work to be done and Omar Berrada did a profound job directing some of the most engaging collective translation efforts in which I have ever participated.

It was especially generous of him to open up his Arabic-French workshops to English speakers and lead discussion trilingually, a task that is as difficult as it sounds. Under his supervision we read and translated the following: letters between Muḥammad Barādah and Muḥammad Shukrī compiled in a monograph titled Ward wa-ramād (Rose and Ashes), love poems from Alf laylah wa-laylah (A Thousand and One Nights) with the poetic prowess of Sarah Riggs, and a short story titled “al-Wahm” (“The Illusion”) by Malika Moustadraf. Here is a short excerpt of my translation of this short story:

The fire inside raged. He was hungry for many things and that beast, desire, sleeping somewhere within his body howls with harsh voracity. His eyes were glued to the thick behind bouncing provocatively in a disgraceful and dreadful manner. Wherever he turned he found protruding breasts aiming directly below his waist, arousing him, mercilessly bearing pressure on his nerves with violence force. He would gulp down his coffee so as not to act on any crazy impulse he would later regret. The neighborhood kids had caught even the Imam in the act a number of times stealing a glance at the young girls feeling what was below his potbelly; his antique rosary moaned between his fingers. Our Imam, you are excused. Wasn’t it Eve who robbed Adam of paradise? Is she not responsible for robbing you of your gravity?

From a workshop on the translation of sound. Courtesy Rawad Z Wehbe.

Along with Berrada’s workshop, I also joined Robyn Creswell’s on Abdellatif Laabi’s avant-garde 60’s Moroccan magazine titled Souffles in French and Anfās in Arabic. By translating poems and other portions of the magazine we hoped to “explore the vision of a new Moroccan poetics,” explains Creswell in the program, “and investigate its positions on nationalism, bilingualism, and the post-colonial situation.” The manifesto of the magazine addresses the dilemma faced by French educated Moroccans who wanted to create a new French language different from that of their former colonizers. The experimental nature of the magazine made for a very interesting translation experience. The magazine included Arabic poetry on which the Arabic-English groups collaborated together. Here is a stanza of a poem I translated by Ḥāmid al-Huwāḍarī titled “Palestine”:

Because beneath the wounds, the chains, the shackles
The setting sun submits.
My blood, clotted with sand, circulates
Through the eyelids…
A friend, friend,
And a loved one.

All slaughtered by the falcon.
Hold on, my daughter, to the Pegasus buried in his den.
Because some here
And some there

Are talking about Bou Hmara
Chanting verses of exploding napalm.
Because the rest
Fundraise in ballrooms.
This way they establish for us
A foundation
In the grammar
In the language…

Authors who attended the residency partook in a special workshop. Each writer selected one of their own works to be translated from one language to the next until we had all heard it in French, Arabic, and English before the end of the residency. Group discussion and Q&A sessions with the authors were scheduled daily, allowing attendees to formally address any topics of interest or concern, regarding the residency or translation in general. Film screenings and other activities were also organized by the directors.

I was mostly impressed with the multilingual nature that permeated every interaction of the exchange. Not once did a single language supersede or subvert another. When asked a question in French, a translator was not far to offer his or her interpretation. If that French speaker was bi-lingual I did not hesitate to respond in Arabic and was not surprised to hear my statement being translated into English to include someone else in the conversation. All three languages operated on an equal plane governed simply by respect and love for original expression. After all, what is language but a translation of our attitudes and emotions.

Rawad Z. Wehbe is a departmental scholar in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. His interests include Arabic literature and translation studies.