Translating ‘Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge’: ‘Evil, Banal, and Kind of Understandable’

Translator John Peate talks about the challenges of translating Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge — his first full-length novel — what attracted him to the book, and what kept him coming back:

What aspect of the book first attracted you? For myself, throughout the whole first chapter I wanted to pound it against a hard surface or punch Darwish in the face. I’m not sure if that’s an attraction per se….

John Peate: Darwish’s self-centredness is unflinchingly portrayed, but, having spent time around academics, I found the characterization attractively familiar, in good and bad ways. That his plan to orchestrate the other characters to come to the party falls apart provides a neat framework for all the other missed opportunities and incompletenesses the book explores. The book encourages us to look at the characters in both passionate and dispassionate ways and that, I think, sustains the interest. That said, I first worked on the book for an excerpt from the Rami chapter (3) which I did for the Arab Booker shortlist judges — and the image of someone like Rami on a train mulling over his whole inexorable fall surrounded by indifferent fellow travelers was alluring.

What attracted you to the world of literary translation? Or, more importantly, what keeps you coming back?

JP: I kind of fell into it when a friend of friend mentioned that Bloomsbury were looking for translators to work on the Beirut 39 project, and I thought: why not? I was doing my PhD and figured some practical experience might help me sharpen my analysis. Then one thing led to another, especially thanks to Margaret and Samuel at Banipal magazine; my academic links also led to meeting other translators at workshops and so on, and you suddenly find what a thankfully small world it is if you’re trying to get interesting commissions. Literary translation doesn’t pay many bills, but it’s an inspiring, challenging pursuit, especially when the nine-to-five gets dull. I think translation’s unique appeal — especially between languages as diverse as Arabic and English — is working with the recognition that “equivalence” is impossible aim, yet somehow also an aspiration too.

There is a certain appeal at one level like that of completing a crossword puzzle, and also, if I am being honest, of toying vicariously with the trappings authorship while not having to take full responsibility or provide the imagination — something I don’t have.

Do you have an elevator pitch for the book? If someone asked you, “What’s it about, John?” or “Ahh, I’m so busy these days, why should I bother?” how would you answer?

JP: I would be the world’s worst pitcher I think. I think it explores what you might call Orientalism but through believable, engaging characters in a concentrated way, not drily, but in a way that portrays how such apparently philosophical questions underlie lived experiences. Yeah, that’s a terrible pitch.

Did you have a character among the chorus you found most sympathetic? One you found least sympathetic?

JP: The great thing about the book is that you can one minute want to shake almost any of the characters by the shoulders and then at the next sympathize. Even the central character in Goliath’s Eye chapter, is simultaneously evil, banal, and kind of understandable, in an appalling way. Anyway, I guess Rabab Al-Omri’s my favorite…though you would want definitely to stay on the right side of her in real life.

The characters are, in many ways, what carry the book — and its their different voices that sustain it. How did you work to re-craft different voices for each of the different chapters/characters? Did you have a tonality in mind, as it would read aloud or in your head? A way of structuring sentences, making word choices?

JP: I’ve studied and worked with Arabic for quite a long time now — fifteen years — but am still only what I’d call intermediate in it. The novel is written in Standard Arabic throughout which in one way you might think makes it easier but, since it is not really the way most people actually speak in real life most of the time, issues of tone and how speech patterns tell you something about character tests your ingenuity. I tried to do it through the register of vocabulary, the rhythm of the sentences, but even those can seem crude tools. I also had to bear in mind — as the author reminded from the outset — that he had intended an understated general tone, without ornateness of language, which I tried to honor while also distinguishing between voices, trying to make them sound as real as they did in Arabic.

There are so many missed trains and planes, dying cell phones, lost opportunities, mistakes made (in the Reaganian passive). How do you think Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge fits in here, as a title?

JP: You might see those plot devices as contrived but in many ways I think they, in a dramatic way, return you to this theme of possibility/impossibility of connection — a dilemma the book leaves it up to the reader to decide on, I think. So the title’s ’embrace’ alludes to Luqman and Marieke’s encounter in Chapter 5 — not coincidentally the longest chapter I think — with a certain irony attached: an embrace which oddly expresses an understanding of ‘simultaneous love and impossibility’ as the characters put it.

Although you’ve translated many shorter works, I believe this is your first full-length novel? Did you change your process, at all, vs. translating stories and excerpts?

JP: I have to confess that I hadn’t thought much about that until I got into working on the novel, but, given the the timetable you work to, you can plow through the thing without giving enough thought to the sustaining of themes and motifs across chapters.  I had to do lots and lots of reviews of the first rough full draft in a way I hadn’t felt to be so onerous before.

If you were going to write an introduction to the re-issue of book in 20 years, what do you imagine you might say?

JP: I hope that would mean that people would still be reading it. In one way, the themes the book addresses are longstanding, and yet imagining how the relation between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in twenty years time will look is like staring into a black hole, given the kind of changes going on. It’s hard to say how the book will look to people then, though I doubt that what resonates about the book now will be of only historical interest.