Fouad Laroui and Emma Ramadan on How To Keep ‘Dassoukine’s Trousers’ Funny in English

This interview first appeared — in a tighter, faster-paced version — over at Bookwitty. Here at ArabLit, the longer version of our three-way chat:

Translator Emma Ramadan with author Fouad Laroui.
Translator Emma Ramadan with author Fouad Laroui in NY this March.

Fouad Laroui has a gift for simultaneously expanding his readers’ minds, spinning a yarn, and making us roll our eyes and laugh. Fellow Moroccan writer Laila Lalami has been calling for translations of his work into English for at least a decade. Finally, a collection of his short stories, The Strange Affair of Dassoukine’s Trousers, has been translated by Emma Ramadan and published by Deep Vellum.

Laroui, also an economist, writes scientific work in English and has published two poetry collections in Dutch. He writes poetry in Dutch, he says, to keep it private. “Short stories are different: you are not expected to lay bare your soul, you just tell a story. For me, it’s like telling it to a couple of good friends – or good listeners, it is usually the same thing.”

Fouad Laroui and his translator Emma Ramadan both sat down, like a few good listeners, to talk with Bookwitty’s Marcia Lynx Qualey about The Strange Affair of Dassoukine’s Trousers, the titular of which won France’s Prix Goncourt in 2013.

Marcia Lynx Qualey: How serious were you when you said “I write poems in Dutch so that I am sure nobody I know would be able to read them”? By contrast, you intend your short stories to be (widely) read? Do you have a particular or imagined reader?

Fouad Laroui: When it comes to poetry, I often feel ill at ease at the idea that someone would actually read what I write. Poetry is so personal, so intimate… Being read is like being spied on by a peeping tom. On the other hand, why write poems if you just tear them up or bury them? Publishing in Dutch is the ideal solution to this dilemma. The two books do exist, they have been published by a respectable publisher (Vassallucci / Prometheus), they were on sale for a while, they figure in libraries’ catalogues, yet I have never met anyone who had read them. Since my family and my friends cannot read Dutch, there is a distinct possibility that no living soul has ever set eyes om my poems. It is a very reassuring thought. Every January, the publisher sends me a nice little letter with an account of my royalties for the past twelve months. It amounts every time to exactly 0,00 euros.

By contrast, I have actually met people who have read some of my short stories and I am very happy about that. Short stories are different: you are not expected to lay bare your soul, you just tell a story. For me, it’s like telling it to a couple of good friends – or good listeners, it is usually the same thing.

MLQ: What element of this collection particularly grabbed you, made you feel, *yes,* this is what I want to take on?

Emma Ramadan: What I loved about these stories was how funny they were, how clever they were, while still shedding a new and valuable light on Morocco, on language, on our globalized world. It’s so rare that truly funny books are published in translation – almost as if there’s this idea that translated literature has to be incredibly serious, “important,” heavy. I’ve heard people say that reading translated literature is like eating your vegetables. Why is that? Probably because there’s so little money in translated literature that American publishers feel like if a book hasn’t won 7 awards and gone through 16 printings and been translated into 30 other languages, it’s not worth it. These stories show a book doesn’t have to be a chore to read to expand our minds, to teach us something new about a particular place or way of life.

MLQ: So, as Emma says, the stories do sometimes expand our thinking. Do you ever think of this, as you work?

FL: I do, from time to time. As a reader, I want to learn something, almost in every page of the book I am reading – that’s why I love biographies (I am currently reading Abraham Pais’ book on Einstein). As a writer, I want to reciprocate. My publisher hates it. “Fouad, it’s not a lecture, it’s a novel!” In my new novel (‘Ce vain combat que tu mènes au monde’) which Julliard publishes next month (August 2016), there is a whole chapter on the History of science – my publisher has succeeded in reducing that chapter from 100 pages to 20… On the other hand, you don’t have to give a lecture when you write. The reader can learn a lot ‘about a particular place or way of life’, as Emma says, in a novel which does not look like a college course.  That is why I love reading Jane Austen.

MLQ: Many of your stories have a strong oral element, stories that foreground storytellers (as well as listeners getting a word in edgewide), while, as Laila says in her introduction, the reader eavesdrops. It would be quite a feat to shoehorn them into classical literary Arabic, but was there ever a time when you thought of writing in Darija?

FL: I have thought of writing in darija, as an act of heroic folly. Someone has to start. But how do you do it? There is no established tradition you can refer to. What alphabet would you use? If you use the Latin alphabet, you could be accused of being a traitor who wants to undermine the Arabic language and, as a consequence, Islam (think of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk). If you use the Arabic alphabet, there are some redoubtable technical problems… It will take 2, 3 or 4 generations of daredevil writers before darija is established. I can’t wait that long. I shall continue to write in French.

MLQ: You’ve said that a Dutch translation of your work seemed to you “cruder, less polished” than the original, and surmised part of that had to do with the language. How do you see yourself in the English-language mirror? Do you look different?

FL: No. I like what I see in the mirror. The English translation is much closer to the original tone and nuances. I suspect that this has to do with the fact that English has been used by all kinds of people, of cultures, of temperaments. Dutch seems cruder because the Dutch tend to be straightforward: they ‘tell it as it is’. I remember an occurrence when I had to use the word… shall we say ‘derrière’, in describing a young lady. I used an old and cute little French word, ‘popotin’, to do so. The Dutch translator used ‘kont’, which is the Dutch equivalent of ‘ass’… The nuance was gone. I was mortified when I read the translation.

MLQ: Does Fouad’s fluency in English restrict you from playing around with possibilities? You’ve now had two living, English-fluent writers in a row: Is this a benefit or a drawback?

ER: I didn’t feel restricted at all! Some of the other authors I’ve translated have wanted to be more hands on, more involved. With Fouad, I asked him about parts I didn’t understand, and then he read the whole translation over once I had finished it and sent me some notes on places where I missed a reference, but he didn’t try to change the way I had translated plays on words or jokes or anything like that – which I like to think is because he approved? Maybe he can speak to that. But Fouad’s fluency in English was definitely a benefit for me.

MLQ: A sense of being both amused and amusing weaves through your writing, even in the poetry, where I expect it least. There’s also a wide range of humorous tints, from dark to buffoonish. Why…humor?

FL: My uncle, the famous historian Abdallah Laroui, once told my French publisher: “My nephew’s style is ironic and humorous. I have no idea where it comes from: we Laroui’s are renowned for our lack of humor.” If my uncle the genius cannot answer the question, how could I?

MLQ: Did you read the dialogue aloud as you read it? What aspects of the soundscape did you particularly focus on capturing and recreating in the English?

ER: I definitely read the stories aloud after I translated them to make sure they came off as realistic dialogue, to make sure the jokes worked (at least to me). Fouad’s voice is really strong throughout these stories, and in all of his work. The voice sort of screams off the page and so I think the humor is very much crafted in his voice even in English – I didn’t try to Americanize the humor or make it sound like jokes I would tell. The humor actually reads as a bit British to me.

MLQ: So the humor (humour?) reads as a bit British to Emma. It reads as French to me, or maybe French cosmopolitan. What would uncle Abdallah say?

FL: Uncle Abdallah would grumble something like: “What can you expect from a Moroccan who was educated in French schools and then spent years in Cambridge and York?”

MLQ: Did any aspect of the humor resist translation?

ER: Fouad is really, really good with plays on words, and this book is full of them. Translating that sort of thing is always quite difficult, but I managed to find solutions I liked for all of them but one. One thing he does in the story “Bennani’s Bodyguard” is he misspells the French word for bodyguard (guard du corps) throughout the story (once as gardkor, once as gardicor, etc), to reflect and poke fun at the accent of Moroccans speaking French. And once in the same story the characters call a BMW a BM, which Fouad explained to me was to poke fun at how these young Moroccan kids were so unfamiliar with expensive cars that they couldn’t even get the name of a BMW right. Things like that I ended up dropping in English for the most part, this play with accents and dialects that works so well in French but didn’t seem to in English. But overall I think the humorous story arcs work in English. The idea of swimming in sand or on grass is just as ridiculous in English as in French, and in “Born Nowhere” too, poking fun at Morocco’s bureaucratic systems or at this uncle who goes to these extreme lengths to ensure his nephew can vote for him in an election twenty-one years later – the situations are absurd but also believable in countries like Morocco, and therein lies the humor, which I think translates. One thing about Fouad’s humor is that it certainly requires a certain understanding of the world, of what life might be like in other countries. But I think your average reader of short stories in translation is someone familiar with, or at least interested in, other countries and cultures, someone with an open mind and the ability to imagine.

MLQ: I think in some cases it’s better to skip the joke rather than to ruin it? That one sour or hamhanded joke can sink a story?

ER: I agree! And I certainly hope I didn’t do that in my translation. Others will have to be the judge.

MLQ: I see that “Dislocation” has been read as an anti-feminist story, because of its ending. But I’m interested in why you chose that incantatory manner, why that was the path to get to your end, the slippers-off relief of the final moment.

FL: When I was a student, I was fascinated by a question posed by Freud: how come that badly injured soldiers keep on re-living their horrible trauma, the moment that the bullet hit them? Would it not be more natural, from a Darwinian point of view, that we evolved a mechanism by which we could forget traumatic memories? When I started writing Dislocation, I put myself in a kind of trance in which I started by asking myself a ‘traumatic’ question: how would it feel to be an absolute foreigner, with nothing familiar in the world around me? And then, remembering Freud, I kept on asking and asking the same question, with some increment, a new idea, a new memory, every time. I wrote the whole story in one go, till the last word. I then ‘woke up’ and realized that I had been writing for hours… The slippers-off relief had brought me down to Earth, to life, to the familiar and reassuring world.

MLQ: Emma, how did you see the ending of “Dislocation,” where the wife takes off the husband’s slippers?

ER: I was surprised when someone at the event Fouad and I did at CUNY in March brought this up as a point of contention. I read the ending as a man who feels completely out of place in the country he lives in coming back home, to the only place on earth where he feels like himself, because it is filled with love and acceptance and above all, habit. That moment when his wife removes his slippers, he’s reminded of why all of his dislocation is worth it – he has chosen this life for himself because of his love for his wife, the love they share makes his discomfort as a Moroccan living in Utrecht worth it, and in that moment when she takes his slippers off, all of his panic disappears. I often do little things like this for my partner, and never do I feel as though I am allowing him to impose his male domination upon me. Maybe some readers are tempted to interpret it that way because the character is a Moroccan man and we have that preconceived notion of Arab/Islamic culture.

MLQ: How do you see your work talking with Driss Chraibi’s?

FL: Something strange happened when my first novel, Les Dents du topographe, was published in 1996. I received a phone call by Driss Chraibi, who had got my number through my publisher. At that time, I thought he was dead (no one had heard from him for a long time), so I suspected a hoax. But after a while, I realized it was really he who was talking to me. I remember only one thing: he told me that Les Dents du topographe was the new Passé simple. Now, as you know, Chraibi’s Le Passé simple, published in 1954, is probably the Great Moroccan Novel. You can imagine how elated I felt. The next spring, I went to France, to Crest, to visit him. It became a tradition: I kept on visiting till his death in 2007. We shared many thoughts, inclinations, points of view, the only difference being that he was a kind of anarchist and I do not believe in anarchism, I am far too rational for that. We shared a lot of laughs – and food: his Scottish wife, Sheena, could make a wonderful couscous (no haggis, fortunately).

MLQ: Did you imagine any English-language texts as you were working out how to make it sound?

ER: Honestly, no – I don’t read a lot of “funny” books come to think of it – how sad is that? I mentioned earlier Fouad’s voice felt very strong to me and I let that guide me. But I was reminded of the book Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi and translated by Bernard Adams, which is really funny and the humor also hinges on having an understanding of many different cultures.

MLQ: Fouad, do you read funny books? What strikes you as funny in writing (or film)?

FL: I love reading ‘funny’ books, but then I find almost every book funny. Céline’s masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit makes me laugh when I am supposed to cry. A truly great book… When Kafka was reading his short stories aloud to his friends (a very small circle), he used to burst frequently into laughter. We are too serious or not cruel enough. What strikes as funny is how clumsy we are when we try to take life too seriously.