Translator Samah Selim on Being Haunted by the Author’s Ghost

Samah Selim is one of two translators who has won both the Arkansas and Banipal translation prizes. Rachael Daum talked with her about her rules for translation, relationships with authors, and being haunted by the ghost of Arwa Saleh: 

By Rachael Daum

Rachael Daum: I really enjoyed your list of rules for translationfeatured on the Arabic Lit blog a few years ago. How do you go about reading for pleasure, and how do you decide what you would like to translate?

samahselimcropped2010Samah Selim: Thank you! That’s an interesting question. Generally, though not always, when I read for pleasure I’m not thinking per se about translating and vice versa. For me, the desire to translate comes out of an intentional intellectual and/or aesthetic curiosity about the text I’m reading, a deliberate engagement with it. It’s a ‘next level’ of reading that can interfere with pleasure. So I try as much as possible to keep those two levels distinct in my reading process (besides which, not all translation-worthy texts are ‘pleasurable’ in the sense in which we use the term). If I’m reading a book and I think halfway through, ‘wow, I might like to translate this’ it’s usually because the architecture of the book is building to a powerful crescendo of meaning. This includes things like its narrative construction, its semantic energy and the broader magnetic field of design, intention and ways of knowing that it generates.

Most importantly, I think about what this particular book might give to the English-language reader; how it might open up a space for thinking, dreaming, discovering, struggling in another territory than the one on which the reader stands.

RD: You’ve translated (and won awards for!) books from both Egyptian and Lebanese authors. Do you notice great differences in style and language usage between authors of the two different countries? If so, how do you negotiate that?

SS: Not in my direct translation experience, though it’s certainly true if you look at the work of the last couple of generations in countries like Egypt and Lebanon. It also depends on genre, the language of fiction being more likely to engage dialectical variations than non-fiction say. Modern Standard Arabic does of course include lexical variations and variations in diction and style from country to country (interestingly, this is also true when it comes to translation into Arabic: Egyptian readers sometimes complain that MSA Lebanese or Moroccan translations are more obscure than Egyptian ones). Certainly in Egypt contemporary fiction is increasingly moving towards a form of MSA that is much closer to the language and rhythms of everyday Egyptian speech.

For the most part though I feel that striking differences (or let’s say innovations) in style and language are much more properties of the particular genre and the individual author rather than being country-specific phenomena, and that’s what I try to work with.

RD: I’m interested in your translation of Mohamed Makhzangi’s Memories of a Meltdown: An Egyptian Between Moscow and Chenobyl. The book seems very much about the in between: the character is between cultures and languages, and even the book seems to go between fiction and journalism. How was that to translate? What challenges did you face, and what did you enjoy or not enjoy about it?

SS: Memories of a Meltdown was my first translation ever and so it was really a trial and error learning process, but it was also a process of discovering my own language as a translator. In some sense it was an ideal first translation for me. The structure and style of Makhzangi’s prose is streamlined and limpid, which saved me from having to make a lot of the kinds of complex ‘editorial’ decisions that become necessary in translation with more densely rhetorical texts (where for example, a sentence can run on to five or six lines with multiple clauses and metaphors, etc). The main challenge as I remember it was to elicit the book’s powerful lyricism in English without falling into the trap of sentimentalism, which Makhzangi himself does occasionally in that work.

RD: You’re quite an experienced translator: Do you have any specific pieces of advice for young translators?

SS: I think the general advice in the 11 rules piece you mention above still pretty much covers it all. What I’d emphasize again now though is the importance of being fully engaged with the both the text and the ‘place’ from which it comes. This is what makes a translation alive. Also, translate, share and discuss as much as possible, even when there’s no contract in sight. Like any form of writing – even more so perhaps, good translation is a practice that requires both passion and discipline.

RD: What’s your relationship like with your authors as you translate them?

SS: If you mean my working relationships with living authors I’ve translated, then I’d say that so far they’ve always been cordial and distant. By that I mean that I’ve never translated in a close back-and forth working relationship with the author as many translators do. I suppose this just always seemed like a mutually agreeable procedure, and that the authors in question were happy to leave the translating to myself and the copy-editors. If you mean my relationship to ‘the author’ in a figurative or metaphorical sense, well, that’s a more complicated question. When I translate one of my main concerns is how to render the author’s voice.

Usually – not always – the author is someone to whom I have a prior, affective attachment. So the relationship is an important one in the sense that the whole translation is colored and defined by the nature of this affective attachment – particularly, it seems, in the case of dead authors. I’ve talked about this in the context of my in-progress translation of Arwa Saleh’s “Al-Mubtasarun”; about how that translation is the working out of a kind of haunting by the author’s ghost.

RD: You also write your own work. Do you see translation influencing your voice when you write, or are they very separate things for you?

SS: Since pretty much all of my published writing is academic, I’d say they are very separate things. Having said that, I have been trying to move towards a different and more accessible style of thought-writing and I’ve noticed that my occasional recourse to peculiar English constructions is probably influenced by a kind of generic reverse translation from Arabic.

RD: I understand also that you’re currently writing a book about translation and popular Egyptian fiction in the 20th century, am I recalling that correctly? What trends do you notice in contemporary Arabic fiction? What would you like to see translated (by yourself or others)?

SS: Yes, I’ve been working on this project for years. I’ve published a number of articles on the subject and hopefully the book will appear sometime in 2017.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot more non-fiction and older stuff from the first half of the 20th century or even earlier (at the moment I’m reading the George Bohas’ edition of the Baybars Sira), and I would definitely like to see more of this kind of stuff translated.

But I have read a few recent novels and I try to keep up on prize longlists, etc. I think there is a trend towards the ironic postmodern mode broadly defined that includes an adventurous (scandalous even) attitude to language (I’m thinking here of Nael al-Toukhy, Muhammad Aladdin and Ali Bader). On the other hand, writers like Sinan Antoon and Muhammad Rabi’ work in a kind of neo-realist, symbolist mode that takes things like truth and intention very seriously. Either way it’s a dark world.

unnamedRachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical.