Palestinian novelist Raba’i al-Madhoun and American translator Elliott Colla recently were interviewed by BBC’s Razi Iqbal (starts at 15:00). Colla talked a little about his life-journey and how he came to translate al-Madhoun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv:
Iqbal asked Colla how he came to translate The Lady from Tel Aviv, and his first answer was quite straightforward: He reads Arabic literature as part of his job, and “when, in 2009…Rabai’s novel was shortlisted for the IPAF award — or the Arab Booker — I read it. And the story just grabbed me from the outset.”
But the story goes back further. Colla said, in response to a question about whether he’d always been sympathetic to Palestinian stories:
I grew up a young Christian Zionist in Southern California. And my experience of meeting Palestinians in Cairo actually changed my life. So starting to learn Arabic put me into direct contact with Palestinians, who were kind enough to practice my pidgin Arabic with me, and to tell me stories that completely confounded everything I knew. So the more I learned to listen and the more I learned to converse with people in the Arab world, the more I learned that what I thought I knew was a set of stories we tell each other in the United States, or say in the West. But that people’s experience there was quite different. I started to say I was an evangelical Christian Zionist and a Republican, and I’m not that at all any more.
“Fortunately,” al-Madhoun interjected.
“De-provincializing myself is one way to think about it,” Colla said. “And this happens to anybody who seriously learns another language.”
Iqbal went on to ask about how “translation,” or lack of proficiency in English, might be an issue in Westerners understanding Gazans’ lives. Colla saw literature as a better avenue to understanding. “We think, largely, in the West of Gaza in terms of humanitarian crisis,” he said. But authors are, on the other hand, “describing humanity.”
“It’s really about people living lives,” Colla said. “And this is why I wanted to step up to translate this novel, because we do not get stories of lived life in Gaza. We don’t get small stories, we don’t get characters.”
“It takes this ‘humanitarian’ thing and turns it into humanity.”