Swedish Translator: How Is It Possible Salim Barakat’s Books Haven’t Been Translated Into English?

Pity the Anglophone reader, who has no access to Salim Barakat! Translator Jonathan Morén answers questions about his relationship with Barakat’s work, why it wasn’t longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction this week, and why it hasn’t (yet) made its way into English:

Salim Barakat.
Salim Barakat.

How did you initially come across Barakat’s work?

Jonathan Morén: That was already in the early ’90s. I had just started studying Arabic, and tried to read whatever Arabic literature I could find in Swedish translation, just to get an overview. I came across five of his short animal poems in an anthology, that were very different from everything else in that book, and I just fell in love with them at first sight. During my next visit to the (now defunct) Arabic bookstore in Stockholm, I found his Diwan, opened it … and realised I didn’t understand a word. It was completely intimidating. So that day, I just put the book back on the shelf and bought one of his children’s books instead… I was hoping to get back to him sometime in the future, but I kept postponing it, because the language kind of scared me. And then, to my great surprise, he suddenly moved to Sweden in 1999, and his books started appearing in Swedish translation, and from then on, I was back on track.

Which of Salim Barakat’s novels have been translated into Swedish? What sort of reception have they received? How does he fit into the world of translated literature in Sweden? 

JM: There are no less than eight books by him in Swedish (and I’m at work on yet another one): four novels, three volumes of poetry, and one volume containing his two autobiographies. My colleague Tetz Rooke translated the first three ones, and I have done the others, sometimes (when working on the poems) collaborating with an Iraqi poet and translator.

Two of the novels are from his early, magical realist period (that actually ended in the mid-90s), Arwah handasiyya (‘Geometric spirits’, on the Lebanese civil war) and al-Rish (‘The Feathers’). The other two are more recent: Kuhuf Haydrahudahus (‘The Caves of Haydrahudahus’, the first of his two novels about a centaur kingdom) and a very abstract poetic novella called Mawta mubtadi’un (‘Dead novices’). His prose works have been very well received by the critics here, though many of them admit to being completely lost as to what the books are actually about. (But the same thing goes for the Arab critics.) As for the general readers, I don’t really know. They probably find him a bit difficult and scary and confusing (which, to my mind, are the best things you can hope for from a novel or a poem).

I doubt that there is such a thing as a general look to Arabic literature among Swedish readers. And with good reason. If you look at the Arabic writers that have received the largest amount of public attention here during the past years (Alaa al-Aswany, Nawal El Saadawi, Hassan Blasim, Samar Yazbek), they really don’t have much in common. People who read and enjoy one of them do not necessarily care about the others, or about Arabic literature in general.

I don’t think there’s any point in lumping them all together just because they happen to write in the same language. (Much as you wouldn’t lump Shane Jones, Annie Dillard and Philip Roth together under the umbrella of American literature.) And I wouldn’t say Salim Barakat writes “Arabic literature.” He’s writing wonderfully weird books, and they just happen to be in Arabic. I can’t think of any other Arabic writer that even remotely resembles him.

Have you worked with him during the translation process?

JM: Thank God, yes, and I don’t know if it would have been possible to translate these books otherwise. Usually, I go to visit him at home and we spend an entire day going through all my questions on the text. He’s been most helpful and patient. But I don’t think he would be very keen on writing answers to 20 pages of questions. If he had been living somewhere else, it would have been a different thing entirely.

If you were a large English-language publisher and had to pick from among his works for the first and second to translate into English, what would you choose? Why? What sort of elevator pitch could you give them?

JM: That’s a tough question, there are so many to choose from. On the one hand, you really can’t go wrong with any of his first four novels, they’re all excellent. On the other hand, they don’t really represent the kind of books he’s been writing lately. Many of his recent books are some kind of symbolical/mythical fairytales, set in entirely ficticious worlds. (For example, he published a wonderful 500-page novel entirely about the jinn last year.)

But if I had to pick only two books, perhaps I would go for Mu’askarat al-abad (‘The Camps of Infinity’), the only one of his first four novels that hasn’t yet been translated into any other language (though there are rumours about a Spanish translation being planned). It’s a beautiful, and actually quite accessible, story about five Kurdish sisters, the ghosts of their parents, and their very mysterious neighbours. And among his later books, I have a soft spot for Huriyyat al-ma’ wa-banatuha (‘The Mermaid and her daughters’), a dark and twisted story about a cruise ship looking for mermaids. Or possibly about a civilisation falling apart. As for marketing, I don’t know, I’m not a salesperson. (How would you promote Italo Calvino to the mass audience, for example? You just wouldn’t, right?)

There have been a number of excerpts of Barakat’s work published in English, but no full-length translation. Certainly there are difficulties to translating him into a different language. But you obviously believe it’s possible. What are the particular hurdles? How did you meet them?

JM: It’s truly remarkable that there is no full-length translation into English of what is to my mind the most original novelist writing in Arabic today. I have heard of several attempts being made, that have stopped half-way through (and of translators saying “I’d love to translate this, but I have to make a living, and I can translate three or four ordinary novels in the time it takes me to do one book by Salim Barakat”).

A few years ago, Salim told me he thinks it’s his destiny never to be translated into English, but I refuse to believe that. And the rumours of his difficult language are only partly true. There was a peak in difficulty around the turn of the century, when he wrote three novels (that he once referred to as his “cathedrals”) with extremely dense and complex language. I tried to translate one of them on and off for seven years, and I finally had to give it up. I found it wasn’t possible. But many of his later works, for example the two novels published in 2016, are not really difficult at all, as far as the language goes. And the more you read of his works, the more you get into his worldview and his way of thinking. Sure, he uses a lot of obscure and obsolete words, perhaps reflecting the things he’s reading himself, mainly classical Arabic texts and philosophical works, but on the other hand, you never have to grapple with colloquial expressions in his texts, and I’m very grateful for that.

Barakat’s celebrated by great Arab writers like Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, yet he hasn’t received any acknowledgment from the big new Arabic literary prizes, like the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, not even a spot on the longlist. Why do you think that is?

JM: I guess that’s a bit like asking “Why has Cecil Taylor never received a Grammy?” They’re different worlds.

Personally, with a few exceptions I have very rarely been impressed by the titles on the IPAF shortlists. Innovative and experimental writing simply doesn’t seem to end up there, for some reason. And with the IPAF nomination process being the way it is (only a very limited number of titles allowed from each publishing house), I guess his publishers are tactical enough not to nominate a highly idiosyncratic writer that will refuse to travel around promoting his works on book fairs. Salim might make the 15 minute train ride from his home to Stockholm once every two years, that’s about as much travelling as he can stand. Instead he’s travelling in his mind.

Jonathan Morén is an acclaimed translator and senior lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Philology at Uppsala Universitet.

Barakat excerpts online: 

From Rampaging Geese, trans. Thomas Aplin

From The Iron Grasshoppertrans. Mona Zaki

From Jurists of Darknesstrans. Marilyn Booth

From Caves of Hydrahodahose, trans. Sawad Hussein