Hala Salah Eldin — the editor of Albawtaka Review — says she will be issuing the “very first literary audio book in the Arab World,” 10,000 copies of a short-story collection that has been translated from English to Arabic. The stories will be voiced by prominent women authors and distributed free:
The audio book is titled This Is Not Chick Lit: Stories by Ordinary Women In and Beyond Turmoil, and, according to Hussein, “We have three Nobel prize winners in the list, and the rest are great authors who wrote passionately about women’s lives and challenges.” The authors include Louise Erdrich, Cynthia Ozick, and Margaret Atwood.
Also, acclaimed Arab women writers will give voice to the translated stories for the audio book: Mansoura Ez Eldin, Iman Humaydan Younes, Alia Mamdouh, Iman Mersal, Miral Al-Tahawy, Samar Yazbek, and others.
Hussein answered a few questions about the project:
ArabLit: How did you choose the stories?
Hala Salah Eldin: I didn’t veer off my usual technique. A story is a delight only when it tells a world’s tale. It’s no longer a glimpse or a section of a life as it used to be in the first half of the twentieth century. A full-fledged spectrum of life is the right description. I fall for layers and layers of subtle narration and hidden secrets that we, readers, have to dig for ourselves. Margaret Atwood’s story “Giving Birth” is a case in point, where she took a physical materialization and linked it to a coy celebration of language. You wouldn’t think that delivering a baby and manifesting how language eludes us all will go together! Sounds fun? Read the story in Arabic here.
I also see conciseness as a vital factor in the craft; it enables us to create this wide expanse, not to exclude information for the sake of excluding it, but to work with the mind so we are tickled and intrigued by its details. Alice Munro’s feminist story “Meneseteung,” with its delving into the past then relapsing into the present, seems to give more than one lesson on how to twist hints and elusions into shaping an old vision that is actually a requirement to go through the present.
It’s so boring this cultural interaction thing and people have been chewing over it for years, but it’s true that translated fiction doesn’t just entertain us for the mere fact of being an exotic experience and turn us all into voyeurs; it’s valued for the faint sound that echoes in your ears – with no loss of face, “You have felt this character’s pain,” “you would have done the same in this situation.”
I also like a story to tell me something fresh and unprecedented about humanity. I was told before by an astonished reader that he discovered – through Albawtaka Review – that Westerners feel and act like us! It’s so boring this cultural interaction thing and people have been chewing over it for years, but it’s true that translated fiction doesn’t just entertain us for the mere fact of being an exotic experience and turn us all into voyeurs; it’s valued for the faint sound that echoes in your ears – with no loss of face, “You have felt this character’s pain,” “you would have done the same in this situation.”
But there is another thing that I think about during this process of cherry-picking. The project is titled This is Not Chick Lit: Stories by Ordinary Women in and Beyond Turmoil. You would think it’s a feminist project of some sort, it can be, but it’s not totally feminist or even postfeminist. I loved to show the world how women proudly write, how their characters not only occupy themselves with sexuality, men’s betrayal and inequality in workplaces – famous feminist themes, right? – But women seen in these stories are also fascinated by music and feel cheated when it fails them, condemn poverty and work to defeat it, tackle racism, alienation and the holocaust. These issues are not seen to be particularly feminine, rather global, as if global is contrary to feminine.
These issues are not seen to be particularly feminine, rather global, as if global is contrary to feminine.
The project is a celebration of both the authors and the female self, in which a woman is not a reflection of gender issues, but a vital factor, an executor, and what a lovely thing that is when it’s all wrapped up in excellent techniques and superb narration from these Nobel Prize winners!
AL: Did you consider at all how they’d translate into Arabic?
HSE: My same old technique. I stick to the position of being there by not being there – yes, 10 years of translating fiction haven’t changed me much, never needed to, language is so pleasantly yielding – though I was told recently that I play with words more. Sometimes, I catch myself making bold decisions and stretching my techniques for the benefit of the text — nothing fancy, words still give the exact impression.
I wish the texts weren’t so free of blasphemy and sexual scenes so I could brag about how I never “clean” texts, but all of them are so.
It’s just that Arabic is so rich you can pick from lots of alternatives, and every one casts its own connotation, a treat for the mind — and the ears in this audio book. I wish the texts weren’t so free of blasphemy and sexual scenes so I could brag about how I never “clean” texts, but all of them are so. A mere coincidence that served to appease my mind. After all, the DVDs will be handed out to entities such as The Cairo University and The Association for the Blind in Benghazi. And we don’t want any obstacles getting in the way of the project, do we?! I keep telling myself.
AL: Which were the most difficult to translate? why?
When I finished the story, it felt like I survived it!
HSE: Gosh, “Fleur” by Louise Erdrich! First, I’m clueless about poker! The female character supposedly “messed with evil, laughed at the old women’s advice and dressed like a man,” and beat men in poker. I had to read about its variations and watch Youtube videos. Second, Erdrich’s description of scenes and surroundings — any translator’s nightmare — is intricately bewildering, and the mere description of a fight between a villain and a sow is an example of literary perfectionism. When I finished the story, it felt like I survived it! Read the miracle here.
And how I loved Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Cousins” — an epistolary story — it can’t be easier. Read the letters here.
AL: Why did you choose authors to read the stories instead of actors?
HSE: Because I don’t want anyone to act. I want to keep it as close and intimate as possible, regular in a way. I hope listeners will think of the reader as one of them, as someone easy to approach. Authors will impart the feeling as well as the poetry of fiction and they will color the texts with their own understanding.
I do believe that they, being authors, will interact in a way inaccessible to actors, and I hope that the audio version will be the story’s third — after the original text and the translation — embodiment in reality.
I do believe that they, being authors, will interact in a way inaccessible to actors, and I hope that the audio version will be the story’s third — after the original text and the translation — embodiment in reality. I told them all — and I did leave them the choice — that what I’m looking for is not theatre work, rather it’s how they manifest the characters’ souls. Every author gets to choose her story, as this is an act of love, not duty. This is in fact very real, not as cheesy as it sounds, and you could clearly tell which author loved which work more. Besides, the stories tend to be realistic in nature, no science fiction, no fantasy involved, and who is better to present real, ordinary women than real, ordinary women?
AL: 10,000 copies will be distributed free in Egypt and Libya. Will others be able to purchase the recordings?
HSE: The recordings will be posted online in Albawtaka Review’s website once they are made. This is Not Chick Lit is a free endeavor. The audio versions — as well as the written texts — will be available to listeners and readers. Our main target audience is the blind, but we would never disregard the needs of the sighted people.
AL: So the recordings will be digitized and placed online?
HSE: Yes, they will definitely be online in Albawtaka Review’s website, and possibly in my funders’ websites: The International Fund for the Promotion of Culture and The British Council in Cairo, but they will be un-downloadable! I know. I know! It’s essential to try to keep the material within the boundaries of the contracts I signed with copyright holders. We don’t want to end up handing the material to others who might violate copyright laws.
Hala Salah Eldin is Albawtaka Review editor and general manager of Albawtaka Publishing House. Albawtaka Review is an Arabic independent (non-governmental) non-profit online quarterly concerned with translating English short fiction into Arabic. You can read a brief introduction in English about the project at http://albawtaka.com/whoareweenglish.htm You can also read more about Hussein here.