Algerian Writer Samira Negrouche on Her 3 Mother Tongues, Translating Poetry, and Collaborative Writing

Yesterday, ArabLit re-published Samira Negrouche’s “Seven Little Jasmine Monologues,” translated and championed by poet Marilyn Hacker.

Today, a brief exchange with Negrouche about literature, translation, and collaboration:

What brought you to writing the “Jasmine Monologues”? Has how you read your poem changed in the time since you wrote it? How does it read/feel to you in the English, vs. in the French?

Samira Negrouche: I think it happened when a trip to Cairo had to be canceled. I was invited for a seminar a few times before the main protests in Tahrir Square — it took a few weeks before it was clear this was totally canceled. During that time, all my attention went to what was happening in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Damascus, Sanaa. I remembered every detail and every person I knew in each city: my last trip to Morocco during the February protests, the recent situation in my country, the images from the news… I wouldn’t say everything mixed up, but I had the feeling it was somehow connected, with of course specificities in each country. It was, for me, even connected to what then appeared in Greece, in Spain…. I wanted to write down the little trip that was going on in my mind, linking images as if they were at times a whole same story.

Actually, in the original text, I only use the first letter of each city. Mentioning the Toubkal was clearly about Morocco, but the image — or the essence of it — could have been Damascus or Tunis.

The English version has its own life, and this is what I like and admire about Marilyn Hacker’s work, it never feels like a translation. There aren’t flow accidents when I read her translations.

These fragments were finalized in January 2012, and while I use some details very specific to that period, I think they perhaps have more sense today, with a certain distance. I don’t know, what do you think?”

In a recent interview with al-Araby al-Jadeed you mentioned Etel Adnan as a poet you come back & back to — and she also gets a mention in “Jasmine Monologues.” Are there particular books of Adnan’s that you recommend to others? What do you particularly look for/to in her work?

SN: That fragment also became the starting mention of my latest book, Six arbres de fortune autour de ma baignoire. That image of the flower and the spring, which is definitely not bucolic, echoes a poem by Djamal Amrani about the lmond tree that is waiting to flourish again. The flower, the tree, the land — war gives another dimension to these words.

Back to Etel Adnan: Her voice is simultaneously that of an intellectual and an artist. I admire her work as a poet and her integrity. I could mention two of her books I frequently go back to, The Arab Apocalypse and Le Cycle des Tilleuls.

Which Algerian authors do you find yourself most in conversation?

SN: I am in conversation with so many of them. Amrouche, Dib, Sénac, Djaout….

But as we are around Algeria’s independence day, and as I mentioned it before, I very often go back to Djamal Amrani with whom I was close friends until he died in 2005.

July 5th and November 1st were always traumatic dates for him. He had been tortured during the colonial years and these celebrations meant a lot to him; he expected something better for Algeria. “A chacun sa révolution,” written in 2003, was dedicated to him.

Meeting him was very important in my life. He told me so much about Algeria’s history, its cultural scene, and especially its poets and writers.

There was a period when so many intellectuals and artists had to leave the country, and many others were killed, such as Azzedine Medjoubi, who escaped a first attack at Djamal’s house. And he himself had to leave his house. Djamal was the only living poet I knew at that period, and with whom I had a long open dialogue.

In that very sensitive period, it meant a lot to me.

And before that: What do you remember of the books you read as a child? (Anything from your grandfather’s bookshop that sticks in your mind?)

SN: I remember reading writers from the Maghreb, and classical French Literature, but also German, American, and Russian literature translated into French. One of my first fascinations was Jerusalem by Pierre Loti, when I was 11 or 12. I see the book differently now, but I am still fascinated by the almost impossible Jerusalem, impossible at least with my Algerian passport.

What interested you in having your work in an “often corrupt” translation by Anna Moschovakis? What made you move toward translating, and how do you see your own translations of other poets’ works?

SN: You know…I like to listen to the good feeling of a poet. When Anna began first translating Coffee No Sugar (this is Zoe’s title, while in Anna’s it became Flat White), I guess she was working on a “regular” translation book project. Then the flow, the music of the text, or perhaps the questions arising from it made her ask me if I would allow her to write inside my text. Of course I said yes. I was curious about the process…

I think she felt so free that it became that very interesting dialogue.

What I like about Anna’s work is that she was deeply interested to understand what would make us, or our contexts, different. She initiated a deep dialogue between us. With her “corrupt” translation, she could not have come closer to me, and to my words and life.

This made us continue the dialogue with writing “Thanksgiving 2016.” We didn’t publish it yet, but we performed it at Berl’s Brooklyn and Columbia Maison Française in December 2016.

But why do I translate ? Simply because I have had the great opportunity to be raised multilingual. The three Algerian languages, that I like to call Algerian, are what I consider being my mother tongues. Being born in an Amazigh-speaking family in Algiers doesn’t change that I heard Arabic and French since my childhood; the geography and the music of these languages are mixed, they are part of my imagination and my intellect.

I am then very curious to listen and to learn other langues. It is second nature to translate everything I think or hear, all the time. I sometimes mix the feminine and the masculine because it is different from one language to another, but I usually correct it in a second…

Translating poetry is a very rich process. Both translating and being translated. Every language brings its geography, which is challenging but opens the way to new possibilities in experimenting with language.

Every translation I do is a challenge. I try to give it all the time it deserves, but I very often find with time that I would do it differently today. It’s not an exact science, right?

I suppose not!

You’ve also collaborated with Zoe Skoulding. What do you find interesting/fruitful/enriching about collaboration?

SN: Yes! And this is thanks to Alexandra Büchler, who thought we would well connect together. With Zoë, we translated each other with the idea of making a collage with both our texts.

We worked on a performance called “At 179 degrees,” a text / sound collage that we performed at Ledbury Festival, at the Mosaic Rooms in London, and later in Wales.

I loved her book, The Museum of Disappearing Sounds, and when she found out about my passion for music and sounds, we had a very rich dialogue together. I mean, it enriched me in my thinking process about my work. As we were performing in the UK, we both thought it would be interesting to use Arabic and Tamazight in our performance, which I did for the first time. I read translations of my poems in classical Arabic and Tamazight and sang old poems from the Algerian oral patrimony, and the sounds are definitely not the same.

Zoë made me sing in public !

Are there translations of your work into Arabic with which you’re happy? Has your work been translated at all into Tamazight?

SN: A very few have been translated in Algerian newspapers and some were translated by Jalal Al Hakmaoui, the Moroccan poet. Some of them were republished by Al-Araby al-Jadeed, thanks to Najwan Darwish. I think there are few more on the way.

Also, a very few have been translated into Tamazight, but these have never published.

Of course, I would be more than happy if I had a book published in Arabic and in Tamazight. But perhaps, as we are a multilingual country where usually those who read can read in at least Arabic and French, we don’t naturally think of translating each other’s work, or we do it only for international events abroad (translating from Arabic or Tamazight into French, mainly).

Samira Negrouche was born in Algiers in 1980.  She is the author of several poetry collections including: À l’ombre de Grenade, Iridienne, and Cabinet Secret – a work with Enan Burgos.

Negrouche writes in French and translates Arabic poetry and has participated in interdisciplinary projects involving drama, video, photography and plastic arts. Le jazz des oliviers was published in Algeria by Tell in 2010 and was subsequently translated and published in Italy the following year.

In Paris, she recently published an anthology of contemporary francophone Algerian poets, Quand l’amandier refleurira (Editions de l’Amandier), and has created a show called “Soleils” that focuses on francophone Algerian poetry from the Thirties up to the present day.