On Translating ‘In Praise of Hatred’: Portraying Suffocation in Prose

Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred was named on this year’s exceptionally strong longlist for the International Foreign Fiction Prize.

Coming this September, insha'allah.

In my review the novel for the Egypt Independent (“The Great Hate Story“), I noted: “Love is a subject that has animated great poetry, novels and memoirs for a thousand years and more. Hate has been explored comparatively little.” Khalifa’s dense, beautiful book does an excellent job of exploring the dimensions of, and human uses for, hate, which he shows as much more than simply “the absence of” or flip-side of love. 

The novel is smoothly translated by Leri Price, who answered a few questions about her process:

ArabLit: The book has a tremendous density, like a planet with a stronger gravity. A large number of characters in small, suffocating spaces. Did this affect how you translated the novel? Were there any English-language models you thought about that have a similar style, of which you (consciously) used aspects?

Leri Price: I was certainly conscious of that sense of claustrophobia when translating the book – I actually tried as much as possible to work outside! I was aware that I was trying to portray that suffocation linguistically, as I think Khaled does very effectively. His sentences are often constructed in a spiral and this means that you work very hard at not going very far; or, conversely, that a lot of development is constrained within a very small space. This was an aspect of his writing that I tried very hard to convey.

Another technique I drew on was repetition. It is often misunderstood (or is, alas, lost in translation) that in Arabic, which is so nuanced and comprises such a rich vocabulary, repetition is a conscious choice rather than a lack of option. I was constantly aware of this while translating In Praise, as the repetition of certain words throughout the novel – hatredpores, fragrance, blind – have an almost hypnotic effect, and times come to weigh very heavily on the reader. This is even more interesting when you think of the words – Alawite, Brotherhood, al-Assad – which are never heard in this book.

I didn’t consciously draw on any English-language models when I was translating. As much as possible I try to concentrate on what I’m reading rather than what I am expecting to read.

AL: The book has a resonance now that Khalifa could not have expected as he was writing it–at least not fully. Do you think it changed the way you translated it at all (vs. translating the work in 2009), as it changes, perhaps heightens, the reading experience? 

LP: I think it must have done, although if I’m honest I couldn’t tell you exactly how. The anecdote in the translator’s note about Aleppo University is completely true, and seeing as I was immersed in the novel during the day and news about the unfolding crisis at night, it probably added to the claustrophobic aspect you mention in the previous question. It certainly meant that this book became more than just work – it was my own way of expressing my horror at the situation in Syria, and solidarity with people subject to the whims of such volatile forces (although as I hope is conveyed in the book, there are also choices to be made on an individual level). So perhaps that means that there is more passion in the translation than there might otherwise have been, which I suppose could be to its advantage or disadvantage.

AL: What was your role in the editorial shifts in the English? 

LP: I was quite heavily involved in the editorial decisions in the first three chapters, and they mostly involved cleaning up my English and hammering out minor inconsistencies and the like. I was very lucky to have an excellent editor at Transworld and we corresponded a lot with regards to these. Although I was aware that the editor wanted to make changes to the ending, I didn’t actually understand the proposed extent of the final revision until just before the book went into production.

AL: The book — as you note in your afterword — is not a historical document, although it touches on many happenings (the American and Arab involvement in the Afghani-Russian war; the beginnings of a civil war in Syria in the early 1980s). Were there any historical moments were you felt it necessary to look up events yourself during the translation process? 

LP: Yes – almost all of it! I had a vague understanding of the history of the era, but not enough to feel like I could translate it successfully. I spent a long time reading up on twentieth-century Syrian history, and although in the end it was only necessary to use a fraction of that information, I felt that it helped my understanding of the novel. It also helped that I had visited a lot of the places mentioned in the book, and I found that it helped fix a lot of the history in my mind.

One of the most upsetting areas of research was torture used by the regime, and I certainly wish I could forget that.

AL: This is a powerful book; its exploration of hatred transcends the particularities of life in Syria and offers a fresh look into the human heart. Were there aspects of the book that only appeared to you on second, third readings, once you were closely engaged in it? 

LP: It’s a book that sticks with you for a long time. Even now I sometimes find myself thinking about the ambiguity of the writer’s attitude to the characters, and his simultaneous affection for and criticism of their glorious eccentricities, and their reckless career towards their fates.

One thing which emerged for me was the intertwined nature of the fates of the characters. A choice that one character makes has far-reaching consequences for others. I don’t mean that there are only strong, active characters or passive, victim characters – just that even as the characters try and isolate themselves, they are still connected very deeply to others around them.

AL: Were there most enjoyable, most difficult aspects to translating this book? Did you work with the author at all, either for clarification or in the editorial changes?

LP: The most enjoyable aspect was my involvement with the characters as they developed along paths which ultimately proved quite tragic. I felt so much for the narrator’s uncles and aunts, and the choices they insisted on making. I also wanted to shake the narrator awake at times, such as the moment when she silently watched Radwan during the gun battle near, when he is frantically trying find and comfort her; I thought that was one of the most chilling examples of her total self-absorption. But then I also enjoyed following her transformation as she grew up.

The most difficult aspect has already been touched on briefly – the light-headed feeling of translating a novel about a country effectively at war as it started to crumble into war once again. Of course it doesn’t begin to compare with living through either of those experiences, but even as an observer it was heart-breaking.

Once the first draft of the translation was prepared I wrote to Khaled quite frequently and he was very patient and very thorough with my questions. I consulted him on many matters of clarification which I hope he didn’t think were silly! The publishers approached him directly about the final cut.

AL: Can you share your thoughts about the final cut?

LP: ‘The final cut was a very bold one, and certainly it mean that the published translation was very different from the original, although I still think that the underlying message was the same. It is absolutely not a decision that a translator can make, as it is so far outside the job’s remit, unless it is something which has been agreed previously between writer and translator. I think it is probably a useful thing to recognise that a translated work is never quite the same as the original, which is why I chose to highlight it in my translator’s note — I wanted to be transparent with the readers, as it is easy to forget when you’re reading that there is still a filter in place between you and the original work.

Of course, editing text is a vital part of the writing and publishing process and there isn’t a single classic which hasn’t had every word scrutinised and advised by writer, editor, friends, colleagues. IPOH itself was heavily edited between the first edition published in Damascus and the second in Beirut, so there isn’t a single ‘definitive’ published version; in retrospect this is quite an accurate reflection of the work itself.