Why Khaled Khalifa’s ‘There Are No Knives in the Kitchens of This City’ Will Succeed in English

On December 11, Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal. ArabLit checked in with Elisabeth Jaquette, who has translated an excerpt of the novel:

 No Knives (1)ArabLit: You translated an excerpt from the beginning of No Knives?

Elisabeth Jaquette: Yes – I translated an excerpt from p. 7-16 (the first ten pages), which is now in the hands of Yasmina Jraissati at Raya Agency.

AL: What attracted you to the novel? What made you want to translate it?

EJ: I still very much go by word-of-mouth recommendations when it comes to reading fiction, and a number of people pointed me towards No Knives this past summer with high praise, including several bookshop owners.

As a translator, I am quite drawn to writing with political weight to it. No Knives attracted me both for its political value and for its literary merits; Khalifa’s prose is incredibly rich, which is both a challenge and a joy to work with. Of course not everything that makes a good read in Arabic would make a good read in English (I’ve been contemplating the latter part of the equation more closely since running And Other Stories’ Arabic reading group this fall), but this novel struck me as one that would succeed particularly well in translation. As an early reader, some of the first translations that made an impression on me were The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez — stories where a family’s fate is set against a country’s historical and political landscape. I think that particular structure works particularly in conveying a particular time and place to readers otherwise unfamiliar with the context.

AL: As you began to translate — vs. reading the novel — did it change for you at all? Did you see/understand/feel it differently? Notice new aspects of it?

EJ: I certainly gained a greater appreciation for the richness and precision in Khalifa’s prose when translating it. Time is fluid in these opening ten pages; the narrator moves effortlessly though his memory of the past, the immediate events of the novel, and foreshadowing of what is to come, stitching them all together in his telling of it. It results in constructing a world with great depth, a quality that stood out to me more strikingly upon translating the section, or at least, upon a second reading.

AL: In the excerpt you translated, what were the biggest challenges in rendering the text in English? What do you foresee as challenges if you were to translate the whole work? Or pleasures?

EJ: Khalifa’s writing is filled with a rich vocabulary and quite precise metaphors and similes, and working out how to handle the metaphors in particular in a way that works in English was new for me, as the writers I’ve translated before tend towards a more pared-down style. To some degree I agree with Adam Talib when he said that extended metaphors aren’t yet “a right that Arabic authors have in translation” — in comparison with Arabic, there is a narrower range of what metaphors can do in English. On the other hand, I think that one of the most invigorating things about translation is that you get to use the stylistics from another language to stretch the boundaries of English prose, to make room for something new and beautiful. Figuring out how to massage metaphors into text that retains the imagery of the Arabic without being overbearing in English — that’s both a challenge and a pleasure.

In terms of the whole novel, there is a visceral quality to Khalifa’s writing; his description engages all your senses, it’s filled with smells and sounds, and I imagine it would be a challenge to get those multifarious qualities across in English.

AL: What do you think is unique or notable about Khalifa’s prose, and translating it into English?

EJ: One aspect of Khalifa’s prose that I find particularly striking is that each paragraph is often a self contained unit. In a sense, his paragraph acts the same way a good poem or short story does, where the last line is a twist of the knife or catches in your throat, which gets at what I said before about his prose being very precise. It’s very emotionally engaging.