Translator Nashwa Gowanlock has been working with Prof. Paul Starkey at the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) Emerging Translator mentoring scheme. Through her work at the program, she’s produced — among other things — these two translations of short-story stories by Egyptian author Yasser Abdel Latif.
I was drawn to these two pieces for the exact reason I found them such a challenge; their poetic form. Having mainly translated poetry in the past, I felt the tingle of possibility as I read through these two short stories by Yasser Abdel Latif, knowing that I was set to uncover myriad delicate phrases lined with vibrant underlying echoes. And I wasn’t disappointed: from its first lines, A Dream of a Night of War, transported me to the scorching scene of crowds of students heading out to school in the morning, “in a scene reminiscent of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.”
But the challenge here lay in protecting that efficiency of language in order to maintain the resulting tension and surprise created by the writer. In The Prophets Abdel Latif presents a realm of character and conflict in just two concise paragraphs like two bold brush strokes. Unlike translating longer prose, there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre; each word had to be weighed for consistency in tone and no line could be spared an editor’s hard-hearted cuts. The end result is two relatively short translations that I hope encapsulate a much greater mood and spirit, as the originals do.
A Dream on the Eve of War
By Yasser Abdel-Latif, trans. Nashwa Gowanlock
It was early morning as a stream of students spilled out onto the streets towards their schools in a scene reminiscent of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. If homes are the land of milk and honey then schools, in their harshness, are the scorching desert of Sinai. People elbowed their way through the crowds, some riding bicycles but most walking. In the middle of all the commotion I spotted her, blushing as she staggered ahead. She looked only about 12 or 13 years old but was clearly handicapped, her right leg shrivelled into a thin rod.
I chased my way through and when I finally reached her, whispered in her ear to ask if I could help. She spoke so quickly that I could barely make out what she was saying. Then she suddenly grabbed my arm with both her hands. When I started walking it was as though I was cradling her.
That day, on the way to the school — that also happened to be my school — we began to experience strange feelings towards each other, somewhere between compassion and a sort of love. I was around two years older than her and at school we quickly became a joke, a love story so unique it begged to be ridiculed. Perhaps if I’d experienced similar feelings before then it would have saved me the pursuit of these morbid paths that played a part in eventually scarring my soul.
In another dream I was stumbling around in the darkness of a vast ruin. The ground had been blackened by a blazing fire that had engulfed any sign of vegetation and left it arid. The grey horizon shimmered with brief bursts of light that would then disappear, like lightning with no echo of thunder. I recognized her charred corpse among the rubble from her withered leg.
by Yasser Abdel-latif, trans. Nashwa Gowanlock
Two months before my father died, his first cousin passed away. They were around the same age and each burdened with an incurable disease, hers in her liver while his was in his heart. Not a day would go by without a phone call passing between them as they asked after one another’s health, or, to be more precise, checked that the other was still alive — that reassurance giving them a glimmer of hope that they themselves had longer to live.
When she finally died my father was left reeling. Worried over his own existence, he fell into a deep depression, so much so that he didn’t go to her funeral, even though he was physically able. Instead, he allowed his illness to function as an obvious excuse for his absence. In his eyes, being next in line for death in our family was enough to absolve him of all responsibility, and gave him the right to brood over his impending death.
Then, on the morning after the funeral, her three siblings came to visit him, swathed in traditional saeedi clothing and imposing turbans, to offer him the condolences he owed them. The social norms had been reversed and it was painfully clear. By visiting him, it was as though they had become prophets bearing a message that didn’t need to be opened, the envelope marked with death’s black stamp.