If You’re in NYC: A Conversation on Sonallah Ibrahim, Literature, and Revolution

On Monday, March 4, from 7 – 8 p.m.,  Robyn Creswell (scholar and translator of Ibrahim’s That Smell and Adam Shatz (reporter and LRB editorwill talk Sonallah Ibrahim at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building:

sonallahIf you plan to attend — as you should, if you’re nearby — you can reserve your (free) seats online.

Robyn Creswell not only re-translated Sonallah Ibrahim’s pioneering That Smell for New Directions, he also provided the necessary context for the novel, using his own introduction, Ibrahim’s 1986 introduction, and excerpts of Ibrahim’s Notes from Prison to create a way in for the English reader. 

Creswell writes that That Smell‘s previous translation, by Denys Johnson-Davies, did not capture Ibrahim’s text because “Ibrahim’s lower-middle class characters speak a plummy version of English and the unbroken block of the original Arabic text — a layout that fits the stream-of-consciousness narrative — is transformed into tidy paragraphs and indented dialogue.” (Johnson-Davies’ translation is now out of print; I have not seen it.)

But Creswell’s translation has the flat, pared-down-ness of Ibrahim’s work. And yet this is not enough: Creswell doesn’t just use the text itself, but all the additional materials (and scarves up his sleeve) to make his full “translation” of Ibrahim’s work. Creswell thus (nearly) puts the English-language reader in the position of the Arabic reader in 1966, when That Smell was “a fiction to frighten the status quo.”

From Ibrahim’s Notes, trans. Creswell:

From June 1962:

The thing I seem furthest from, thought I think about it all the time and hope to achieve it, is to deal with man from within. So many sentiments, so many strange and knotted interior operations.

From June 1963:

Must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.

August (1963)

The mood in the prison has become unbearable. Terrible noise. I can’t sleep at night or in the afternoon. I wish the prisoners were gone. I don’t know how to work; I’m constantly depressed and nothing changes my mood except reading a good story or something about the writer’s craft. I’m confident I know how to write, but what nearly destroys me is not knowing the level of writer I’ll become. Many thoughts run through my head, which I want to express but can’t. I don’t know how to express my thoughts clearly in speech. If I try to write them down, the thoughts run away.