On translating Arwa Saleh, ‘Looking for a Trace of the Present in a Trace of the Past’

Samah Selim spoke at Cairo University last Thursday, at a talk moderated by Nada Abdel Sobhi, on “Why We Transate: Some Notes on Love, Loss, and Longing.” Mona Elnamoury was there:

By Mona Elnamoury

Photo by Ola Hafez

Photo by Ola Hafez

In her talk at Cairo University last Thursday, Samah Selim charmed the audience with her hearty genuine talk about translation and love. Selim came to talk about translation in general as well as her current project: Arwa Saleh’s non-fiction book Al-Mubtasarun: dafatir wahda min gil al-haraka al-tullabiyya, which was published in 1997, the same year its author took her life.

The English title is still being debated, and Selim said she considers The Stillborn a temporary and unsatisfactory  suggestion. However, in order to talk about such a difficult sensitive project, which is loaded with pain and haunted by suicide, Samah needed first to talk about why translators are drawn to translating, what controls their choices, and the peculiarities of their relation to the source and target languages. That was both revealing and inspiring to translators such as myself.

Selim insists that our relation to language is complicated. For instance, if one takes into consideration immigration or minority-language rights or a hundred other issues, our relationship to language has to do with many concepts that go beyond words.

In her talk, Selim said that some of the concepts that control our relation to language are:

…identity, pride, nostalgia, seduction, mourning, anxiety, envy, rage, and ambition to name a few. This is why I believe that the kind of perfect bilingualism we imagine, where two languages co-exist, side by side in the same self, in a kind of fluid, working harmony is always really just a utopian dream. The ‘possessor’ of two languages is always a person at odds with herself, always lacking that one thing that she must constantly long for and work towards but never achieve: equivalence.

Equivalence is an ever-fleeting concept in translation, especially literary translation. To prove her point, Samah gave many examples, such as Assia Djebar: “In Algerian author Assia Djebar’s writing, language is both a prison and a set of wings with which to fly free.” Djebbar deals with not just two but three languages: Algerian Amazigh dialect, Arabic fusha and French.

“For Dhebbar, there is the mother tongue (Amazigh) which is an oral language, the language of first speech, of home, of intimacy and tenderness, but also of the invisible and cloistered female body.  There is the father tongue (Fusha), the language of writing, of education and eroticism, of potential freedom, but also of the father’s strict law and of social prohibition. The conqueror’s language (French) is the language of blood and seduction; of unspeakable violence and loss. The speaking self and the conqueror are blinded by love for each other as they struggle in a war to the death.”

Selim’s personal relationship to words is as complicated as the examples she tackles. Leaving Egypt at age two after acquiring the mother tongue (Egyptian colloquial), being educated in English ( the conqueror’s language), learning Fusha and delving into the culture at 16 (the father tongue) all made Selim keenly aware of the subtleties of how we think of languages and ourselves.

Selim argues that Gayatri Spivak,  in her essay, “The Politics of Translation,” proposes a way out of the mother tongue/father tongue/conquering tongue dilemma, by claiming “a form of radical agency for the translator; an agency that moves not just between two languages, but between two communities of struggle living in different languages.” In Spivak’s thinking, via Selim, any translation practice that is not based in this radical agency, this deep consciousness of connected struggles, “can only reproduce the power relations of colonialism.”

Selim goes on to explain what Spivak wants translators to translate: It is “the deep and unique specificity of the woman writer in Palestine,” rather than just glibly and competently rendering it into uniform, uninflected English, or what she calls “translatese.” This, she says, is the only ethical way to translate. Why? Because it is only in this way that the dreams, desires and interests of the two language communities in struggle — Arab or Indian feminists on the one hand, and British or American feminists on the other — can be faithfully served, the only way that they can come to recognize each other as equal, if very different, partners in the same struggle.

What a plan for translators!

Then Selim explores the best translation, from Spivak’s point of view. It is what she calls a form of “intimate reading,” “the most intimate kind of reading, where the translator, in love, surrenders to the text being translated, allows the text to speak through her but in its own peculiar language and voice and history. Surrendering to the text means paying close and loving attention to the rhetorical structure of the text. It means having the courage not to shy away from the radical difference of the text, or from its silences.” It is what she calls a form of being “with the text,” laboring to make it speak, in its own voice, to the other language: not just English, or French, or Italian, but an English, French and Italian that is alive to the possibilities of its own transformation in the real world.

And this seems to be the kind of reading Selim adopts in her own translation practice.  This is the kind of reading she is doing for her important and difficult project of translaring Arwa Saleh’s book. There is more, though, than translating the book. Selim seems to revive Saleh’s figure, epoch, even failure because her target audience is not only in the West.

8577334Arwa Saleh seems to have haunted Selim since 2000. For a whole decade, she had been trying to find Saleh’s works. She has only found the book in question, and the hunt is still going on for the rest of journalistic work Saleh did. To Selim, rendering such a difficult and painful book is more or less a personal mission. “The book is only 80 pages long. It is a relentless, sometimes wistful, sometimes bitter, often raging but always incisive critique of the post-67 left generation in Egypt from what one could call a proto-feminist perspective.”

Selim’s feeling of disillusioned failure about the current political situation cannot be missed in her translational choice of Arwa Saleh’s book. She, however, says it clearly that she is invoking the whole Saleh’s era in the hope of understanding and then finding peace:

I, like many others, became obsessed with failure, obsessed with trying to understand it and come to terms with it. Why had we failed? What was it about this failure that was the product of our own immediate mistakes? To what extent was this failure rooted in the past, to what extent was it built into our political inheritance, our genetic political being? So I went back and re-read Arwa’s book, looking there for answers to these questions, looking for a trace of the present in a trace of the past.

Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic and is part of the Seshat continous creative writing workshop and storytelling project. She also writes.

More on Arwa Saleh:

Archetypal Intellectuals, Devastated Revolutionaries, Kitsch Mythologies, and a Writer Who Dared to Look at Herself 

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Categories: translation

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