Blue Lorries, a strong contender for the Banipal Prize of Arabic Literary Translation

Blue Lorries, written by Radwa Ashour and superbly translated by Barbara Romaine, is currently in the running for the 2015 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation:

By Sawad Hussain

51BLWcBDUfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The novel is told from a first-person perspective – almost in the form of a memoir – and details Egypt’s ongoing political upheaval beginning in the mid-1950s and ending in the late 1990s. The reader follows a young girl and, through her, sees how individuals (including her own father) who are deemed to be political dissidents are whisked away to prison. Later we see how Nada herself becomes a political activist and bides her time in prison before passing on her passion for standing up to the government to the younger generation in the form of her two stepbrothers.

Premature loss and dealing with the loss of one’s loved ones is a major theme throughout the novel. Many of Nada’s close political contemporaries as well as family members die either by natural causes or by way of suicide or suspected murder. The novel also dwells on the realities of prison life, including the mental and physical torture one faces, as well as the challenge of re-integrating into society.

The story itself is neither the most riveting nor the most poignant that I have read, but what struck me instead is the complete mastery of the translator over this slippery text. Blue Lorries is a maelstrom of pre-Islamic Arabic verse, musings of and on Foucault, poetry games, unfinished letters, songs, and political slogans. At times, the reader can get lost in the narrator’s extended streams of consciousness, which occasionally incoherently lapse between the present and past. This appears to be an intended effect. After having read and studied excerpts of the Arabic text, I must commend Romaine on creating an English text that I dare say is stronger in cadence, voice, and tone than the original itself. It is as if she took a magnifying glass and amplified the emotion in each of the character’s voices that the author was trying to express.

The entire novel is written in Modern Standard Arabic, and, at times, it is difficult to truly connect with certain characters, such as Nada’s mother, who we get to know through one of her unfinished letters discovered after her death. Though the Arabic reads well enough, it is Romaine’s translation that evokes a deeper emotional reaction to the mother’s explanations of all she has done and failed to do.

As a translator, one of the most impressive and delightful feats in the English version is where Nada and her father unwind in the evening by playing a beloved poetry game. In this game, the first player recites a line of poetry and the next player can only recite a line of poetry that begins with the same letter as the last letter of the previous line recited. While reading this section repeatedly in the English, a myriad of questions sprung to mind: Did she stay true to the original ending letter of each verse in Arabic? For example, if it ended with a “ن,” did she start the English verse with an “n”? How would one reflect a line of poetry starting with an “ع”? How did she stay true to the Arabic verse in English while still respecting the rules of the game? Or did she come up with different lines altogether? I ruminated over how I would approach such a challenge, and would be eager to pose the question to other Arabic translators.

An investigation of the original showed that Romaine kept true to the exact meaning of each of the poetic verses – but almost magically found a substituting word in English (that does exist in the original Arabic verse) to start with and end each line. Therefore, the actual letter that starts and ends each verse in the Arabic is different in the English. The best way to illustrate this is to simply replicate a few lines of the Arabic (p.46) and English (p.43) below:

إذا الشعب يوما أراد الحياة                    فلا بد أن يستجيب القدر – راء
رماني الدهر بالأرزاء حتى                   فؤادي في غشاءِ من نبالِ – لام
لا تنه عن خلقِ وتأتى مثله                    عار عليك إذا فعلت عظيم –ميم
ما كل ما يتمنى المرء يدركه                  تجري الرياح بما لا تشتهي السفن

Should the people one day yearn for life, then fate to them must yield – d.
Destiny with grievous losses has assailed me, until its arrows do my heart engulf – f.
Forbid not that which you do yourself, for in doing so lies great shame – e.
Each man may not achieve what he hopes for, to the will of ships do winds contrary blow – w.

Though by no means the only solution to translating such a section, this definitely is laudable as it respects both the essence of the poem and the game. Even if Blue Lorries falls short of winning the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, I strongly recommend a parallel study of the Arabic and English texts of this novel for all those aspiring Arabic translators out there as well as those more confident in their craft. With conundrums galore, it would be a superb exercise for anyone wanting to hone their translation skills.

Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur who holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies.  She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history and literature. Her dream job would be to translate and review Arabic literature full-time.