Author Hisham Bustani and Translator Thoraya El-Rayyes on Translating, Together

Author Hisham Bustani and translator Thoraya El-Rayyes discuss how they have worked together to translate Bustani’s stories.

ArabLit: Is there something you thought would be particular challenge to a translator (English-language or otherwise) about your stories? What was it?

Hisham Bustani: There are two challenges that will face a translator who is dealing with my stories. The first is the “feel” of the story; the second is the “flow”.

“Feel” is related to my use of language as a tool to convey multiple layers of meaning about the themes I address. In my writing, there is a connection between the structure of the written piece and the subject matter. The structure of writing should reflect the subject matter, as it does in the plastic arts, where the structure itself (color, texture, form) is the only tool for expressing subjects and themes. I try to translate that into literary writing. A translator has to be able to grasp that aspect and be aware of the multiple layers of meaning, to be aware of the association and tension between the subject and the structure. A translator has to be aware of the multiple meanings and the psychological burden of the words, sentences and contexts. I think this feel is clearly reflected in the English translation of my story Nightmares of the City (first published in English in The Saint Anne’s Review, Summer/Autumn 2012, republished electronically on the Arab Literature (In English) website). Thoraya was very successful in relaying this into the English version.

“Flow” is related to my use of language. As you know, the Arabic language is often described as being “poetic”. I tend to utilize that in a modern sense, where the music in the language is liberated from the “beat” or “rhythm” but is rather present in “melody” and “harmony”. This is present in the subtle poetry embedded in the text. It is present through the elevation of some commonly-used words in colloquial speech (some of them very obscene) into the aesthetics of a piece of literature. In the above-mentioned story, this is best represented in the section called: “The Bus That Never Comes”. It is also reflected in History Will Not Be Made On This Couch,” another one of Thoraya’s translations of my work, which is featured in the latest issue of World Literature Today. When he read it, my friend Norbert Mattes (a Saxophone player and the editor-in-chief of the German review, Inamo) commented “Oh it is great… I will play the sax”. Stephen Morison Jr., an American short-story writer and contributing editor to Poets & Writers magazine, said “love the story… I’m thinking it’s also a prose poem”. I was extremely happy with those comments because they show how successful the translator was in conveying the “feel” of my literary writing.

ArabLit: Was there anything that has given you particular trouble with Hisham’s stories when it comes to re-building them in English?

Thoraya El-Rayyes: In general, I find the biggest challenge in translating from Arabic into English to be the different word order in the two languages. The way that Arabic sentences are structured creates a kind of tension which is hard to translate into English. I think this is because Arabic sentences tend to begin with action — or in other words a verb — and the reader has to continue reading for the subject and object to be revealed. This creates a kind of suspense in the act of reading the sentence that can be hard to translate into English which has a subject-verb-object sentence structure. The other challenges I faced in translation were quite generic issues related to preserving the socio-cultural connotations of certain words and images.

I was lucky with Hisham’s work because he doesn’t use the flowery prose that so many Arabic writers use. This flowery prose may read well to an Arabic reader, but it is difficult to translate this style into English without it sounding cheesy.  Actually, I think the whole concept of “cheesiness” doesn’t really exist in Arab culture — it is practically impossible to even translate the word cheesy.

AL: Do you think there’s something to be gained by working consistently with a partner-translator, rather than having different translations done by different people? Do you think there’s perhaps something to be gained by switching up?

HB: The main thing here is to have an excellent, capable translator. In my opinion, the best translator should have English (or the language translated to) as her/his first language, she/he should be very proficient in Arabic (or the language translated from) as a second language. She/he should be a writer and connoisseur of the literature of both languages. And, above all, she/he should be bi-cultural. It is not enough for a translator to be bi-lingual. She/he must understand the cultural contexts to yield a proper translation, since language exists not in empty space but in cultural contexts. Therefore a successful translator should have experience and close familiarity with the cultures that form the context of the languages she/he is working with.

If one is lucky enough to find a translator with these criteria, and one that relates to and deeply understands the fiction of a specific writer, then it will be a great advantage working with this translator.

In addition, and in contrast to some opinions, translation should be an interactive effort between the author and the translator, especially when it comes to the style and structure of writing, which I guess is the most difficult part to convey or “translate”. Having a single competent translator will deepen the understanding between the two and result in a better translation.

ArabLit: Do you gain something be translating multiple works by Hisham? You begin to get into his rhythm; or does each one have to be recreated from scratch?

TER: Hisham has a versatile writing style- each story has its own voice- so I haven’t become accustomed to translating a certain writing style. I prefer that actually, it is far more interesting.

AL: Did you work together? How?

HB: Yes. As I said above, translation should be an interactive effort. So in my case, Thoraya did the preliminary translation, leaving out some words or phrases that needed further discussion. Then after the first draft was complete, I read the entire piece and discussed my comments with her and listened to her remarks and comments on my notes. Finally, Thoraya drafts the final version.

This proved to be an excellent process for combining the translator’s creativity in re-building a story in another language while maintaining the author’s original style, feel and flow.

By the way, this “luxury” is only available in translations to English because I am good at it, while I cannot understand other languages, so translations into them will be far beyond my capability of discussing them with the translator.

AL: Did you work together? How?

TER: Initially, I try to do as much as possible on my own as I’d like the translation to reflect a reader’s perspective on the text rather than the author’s. Admittedly, the reader I am talking about is me, so I suppose ego comes into the issue as well. But for words or phrases that I find challenging, I go back to Hisham and discuss several alternative translations. I would find it difficult to finish the translation without these conversations, they have become an important part of my process.

Hisham: Did you consider doing the translation yourself? How do you think it would be different if you did it yourself?

It would be a disaster! I already tried translating my own stories into English some time ago, and the result was not very promising. I lack the specific knowledge of how words, phrases, and sentences “feel” in English. I don’t know their different connotations, their psychological and emotional impact. Translating literature into English is completely different than being good in English on the everyday level. This is why I can confess out loud that I am totally incapable of doing such a thing.

AL: What made you want to take up this project?

TER: Hisham had translated one of his stories into English and asked me for feedback. It was awful. I started by suggesting a few edits to improve it, then became obsessed with certain passages in the story that were beautiful in Arabic, but had become completely disfigured in the process of translation. I ended up rewriting almost the entire translation.

AL: How does it feel to read the stories in English? Do they still feel like they’re you’re own? Or are they different?

HB: I feel that they are as “mine” as their Arabic original, but with the new edge of new language structure. Maybe it is because the translation is excellent and representative. Thoraya managed to adopt the structure really well into English, and also managed to capture the essence of the themes as I felt them in the Arabic stories. When I re-read my stories in Arabic, I can still feel within me the “emotion” I wanted to express through them. I still got that “emotion” when I read the English version so I am “connected” to the translations in that sense.

When I read the English translation of “History Will Not Be Made On This Couch” in a conference in Lund, Sweden, I still related to it “emotionally” as its Arabic original. That shows in the video I guess. The anger is preserved. The frustration is preserved.  The piece just has another parent now.

AL: Do you want to keep translating? Why/not?

TER: Yes, I’m addicted now. I have always been known for being very detail oriented and precise to the point of fussiness. The process of spending hours mulling over individual words and phrases to find the ideal translation suits my pedantic mind.

Hisham Bustani was born in 1975 in Amman, Jordan. He writes fiction and has three published collections of short fiction: Of Love and Death (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2008), The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2010) and The Perception of Meaning (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2012). Bustani is acclaimed for his contemporary themes, style, and language. He experiments on the boundaries of narration and poetry, using the internal music of language as a driving force. He often utilizes philosophy, physics, biology, cosmology and visual art in his fiction. The German review Inamo has chosen Bustani as one of the Arab world’s emerging and influential new writers, translating one of his stories into German for its special issue on “New Arab Literature” (No. 60, December 2009). He was also featured in the March/April 2012 issue of Poets & Writers in the report “Middle Eastern Rhythms: A Report from Literary Jordan.” His translated fiction has appeared in The Saint Anne’s Review andWorld Literature TodayRead the story on WLT: History Will Not Be Made on This Couch.”

Thoraya El-Rayyes is a Palestinian-Canadian writer living in Amman, Jordan. Her translations of Arabic short stories have previously appeared in World Literature Today and The Saint Anne’s Review.


  1. This is a fantastic description of the translation process.

    1. Thanks! I like to take credit because I was nearby when it happened. At least, digitally nearby.

      1. Definitely.

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