Paula Haydar on the Tightrope of Translating Award-winning Novelist Jabbour Douaihy

Paula Haydar‘s translation of Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain was the highly commended runner-up of the 2014 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Next month, her translation of Douaihy’s startling and wonderful The American Quarter comes out from Interlink Books, to be followed next year by the multi-award-winning Lebanese author’s satiric Printed in Beirut:

In a brief email interview for ArabLit, Paula Haydar talks about how she came to translate Douaihy’s work, what she sees as its signature elements, and the particular challenges of translating this masterful novelist.

How did you first come across Jabbour Douaihy’s work, and what was your journey to translating it? 

Translator center, author at right. Photo courtesy Paula Haydar.

Paula Haydar: I first became acquainted with Jabbour’s work while a graduate student in the MFA Program in Literary Translation at the University of Arkansas.  A dear colleague of mine, Nay Hannawi, was translating Jabbour’s اعتدال الخريف I’tidaal al-Khareef, Autumn Equinox, as part of her MFA thesis work (which she later published and for which she won the UA Translation Award).  We would read and discuss each other’s translations in Translation Workshop classes.  I remember enjoying and admiring Jabbour’s writing style from that time as well as appreciating the various struggles and victories Nay was experiencing.  I was also lucky enough to meet Jabbour in person during yearly summer visits to Lebanon with my husband and colleague, Adnan Haydar. Adnan introduced me to Jabbour years ago and we have enjoyed many visits at cafés in Ehden in the Lebanese mountains.

My work on June Rain began when Bloomsbury-Qatar Foundation Publishing, which was seeking a translator for the novel at the time, was referred to me. I had already published several translations of Arabic fiction by that time. At first I was hesitant to take on the project, considering not only its length (around 350 pages) and the relatively short time frame requested by the press (twelve months), but also because I could tell from reading the first few pages that the novel’s style and scope would present me with many daunting challenges.  Never having been one to shy away from contests, however, this might have been the very reason I agreed to do it.  I knew I would stand to learn a great deal from this author and that in the process I would be pushed to grow as a translator as well.  I knew I would have plenty of struggles along the way but felt confident I was up to the challenge, especially since, as always throughout my life as a literary translator, I had Adnan’s strong support and encouragement to help me see it through. Moreover, the novel’s setting, story, descriptions, and most of all, its characters, had hooked me in from the opening paragraphs – which, I might add, were among the most difficult to translate.

How would you describe the signature elements of Jabbour’s style, as you found it in, for instance, June Rain, American Quarter, Printed in Beirut? And how is American Quarter a distinct project from his other novels, as you read it?

PH: Jabbour is a master of detail.  His descriptions of places, people, scenes and situations are filled with visual imagery, sounds, smells, and other sensory images. Not only is he able to paint colorful tableaus in words, but he often surprises his reader with that extra detail about a character’s personality or an incident from his or her past that conjures a smile or tears or makes one pause to ponder the deep irony being portrayed. The overall effect is to securely situate the reader inside the world of the novel where he or she can connect with its characters on an emotional, sensual, and intellectual level. In June Rain, the narration shifts from the point of view of numerous characters, but the story always moves forward.  Within the scope of individual chapters, readers easily grow attached to characters and in many cases chapters end on an evocative note – something sad or something comical – leaving the reader with a feeling of longing to return to that character’s point of view in a later chapter.

The structure of American Quarter is different from June Rain.  While there is a similar shift in focus from one main character to another, the story is a bit more plot driven.  In June Rain there are long passages in which the author describes in great detail various socio-cultural and socio-linguistic elements that provide important and interesting background for the main events of the story.  This is not the case in American Quarter which, as a distinct project from his other novels, succeeds in a big way in conveying the cultural world of the impoverished neighborhood of Tripoli that serves at its setting, by juxtaposing characters from different echelons of society. As readers, we cannot help but empathize with each of these characters and comprehend their actions, even if we don’t always condone them.

It’s those extra details about the trousers and the woman’s shoe – the left one no doubt! – that strike the reader and leave a lasting impression. 

In American Quarter, Jabbour constantly surprises us with that extra detail or piece of a story that I alluded to above.  For example, in the heart-wrenching story of the suicide bomber who blows up an entire Kurdish village in the midst of a wedding celebration, we learn about the history of the people, the names of all the traditional musical instruments played by the ensemble, all of whom were killed in the explosion – except the tanbur player “who’d gone to relieve himself behind the trees a short distance away only a few minutes beforehand. And if he hadn’t had to spend several minutes, like every time, untying his baggy serwal trousers and rewinding the red turban that fell off his head while he was urinating, he wouldn’t have been spared either. A piece of the tabla drum landed on him where he was, as did a woman’s shoe—the left one, and bits of wood and metal debris fell all around.”

It’s those extra details about the trousers and the woman’s shoe – the left one no doubt! – that strike the reader and leave a lasting impression.  Jabbour adds even more unforgettable details in this scene – such as the grandmother who also survived because, in her senility, she’d boycotted the wedding celebration out of jealousy; she should have been the one getting married! 

Printed in Beirut is a very different project as well.  Its tone is light, intentionally comical, and in addition to revealing the scandalous activities of Karam Brothers Printing Press, it is chock full of allusions to art, literature, history, music, sculpture, and other worldly topics.  Indeed, it is daunting to consider Jabbour’s breadth and depth of cultural knowledge, which seems to span a vast swatch of time and space. Also important to note is that Printed in Beirut is entirely fictitious.  Though set in Lebanon and based in many ways on real circumstances and characters, Jabbour expressed to me during a recent visit that he wanted to break away from the usual Lebanese novel themes of war, oppression, etc. and create a story completely out of his imagination.  There is no doubt, too, that he also wanted to tear away the mythical façade of “Great Lebanon” and, by creating a fictitious yet very believable scandalous story, reveal the bed of lies and theft that can often be found at the core of Lebanese society, or, by extension, any human society. This is social criticism at its best.

If you had to pitch English-language readers on why they’ll enjoy this book, what would you say? Who do you imagine reading & enjoying the book?

PH: Same reason anyone would want to read any good novel! It’s a riveting, moving story about a place and people one could not otherwise know about except through the lens of a masterful writer-storyteller. Sometimes it makes you laugh, other times it makes you cry, and it often gives you pause and reason to ponder our nature as human beings.

Do you feel yourself gaining expertise in the project of translating Jabbour’s oeuvre as you translate a third of his novels? Do you feel there’s a benefit to growing a partnership between an author and translator? What have you learned in the process? What are the challenges that have been distinct to translating Jabbour, and particularly The American Quarter? (Were there different challenges in translating June Rain?)

PH: Jabbour’s style is very challenging at times for the translator.  Sometimes sentences span entire pages.  Arabic is designed for this and allows for the stacking up of phrases and sentences and images without burdening or overwhelming the reader.  Not so much with English. What I have learned most about translation from working with Jabbour’s novels is the importance of word order, sentence structure, and sentence breaks in English, and how to move things in just the right way to keep the energy where it belongs, thus making the English strong and effective.  Where Arabic likes to start with the verb, for example, English likes to postpone verb placement and save a sentence’s energy for the end. Where Arabic likes to stack adjectives, similes, and metaphors in succession following the nouns and ideas they relate to, English likes to build these in a kind of crescendo at the front end.  These are the kinds of challenges and puzzles I have enjoyed solving while translating Jabbour.

What I have learned most about translation from working with Jabbour’s novels is the importance of word order, sentence structure, and sentence breaks in English, and how to move things in just the right way to keep the energy where it belongs, thus making the English strong and effective.

Although I didn’t plan it, this is the third time that I find myself translating a series of three novels by the same Lebanese author.  Prior to working on Jabbour’s three novels, I translated three novels by Rachid Al-Daif and before that three novels by Elias Khoury. In all cases, it has been extremely rewarding for me as a translator to work so closely and in such depth with these authors — not so much on a personal level as on the level of a very close reader of their writings.  There is no one in the world, including maybe even the author him or herself, who reads a work of writing as closely as a translator.  There have been times when I asked questions of authors that revealed things about their writing to them they were not aware of themselves.  This is the nature of the author/reader relationship.  Authors have ideas and visions in mind when they write, but once written, their ideas are open to readings that may have nothing to do with their intentions.  Similarly, there are things in authors’ subconscious that find their way into their writing as well.

On the other side of the equation, readers see what they want to see and find a way to connect what they read to their own background and their own ideas and sentiments. The process of translation brings this question of interpretation under a magnifying glass. Translators are constantly walking a tightrope, trying to walk that fine line between translation, which attempts to recreate the original work in a new language, keeping it exactly as it was while simultaneously making it appear to have been written in the new language from the start, and interpretation, which is a less transparent version of the original, clouded by the translator/interpreter’s own ideas and desires.  When I have worked extensively with the same author, all of whom were living authors, I would add, I have not only had the chance to become intimately familiar with their style and thought processes, but I have also had the luxury of being able to ask questions directly, thus avoiding the pitfalls of over-interpretation that can mar an otherwise good translation.

How do you work with Jabbour in the translation process? Have you ever communicated with one of the translators working with a different target language, say French?

PH: I do not work very closely at all with Jabbour (or other authors) in the translation process. From time to time I reach out to him – via Facebook messenger in fact – to clarify ambiguities in the original, but in general I do not discuss the translation work with him very much at all. Just yesterday I had the opportunity to visit with Jabbour in Lebanon and we talked briefly about how the original and the translation are two separate entities, each with its own world, language, rules, and author.

Just yesterday I had the opportunity to visit with Jabbour in Lebanon and we talked briefly about how the original and the translation are two separate entities, each with its own world, language, rules, and author.

As far as conferring with other translators of Jabbour’s novels, I have never communicated directly with them or even considered doing so, really.  I do find it useful now and then to use the French translation, when available, as a resource when trying to clarify ambiguities.  In the process of tracking down specific passages, I have enjoyed seeing the skillful way Jabbour’s French translator has dealt with challenging sentences like the ones I described earlier.  I admire her work, and even though I have not read the French version thoroughly, I can say with a high degree of certainty that it is extremely well-done.

How do you feel about translator’s notes, prefaces, footnotes, maps, etc? Of course you have to work with the publisher, but what would you ideally have (or not have)?

PH: As a general rule, I try to avoid such things as much as possible.  Most publishers are of a similar mind and I have been lucky to have excellent editors who help with that. We all seem to feel most comfortable providing needed details or descriptions within the body of the text.

Since the location and milieu are so important…. Have you traveled around Tripoli, or how did you get a sense of the places you were re-crafting in English? 

PH: Yes, over the past twenty-five years, I have had the chance to visit and live in Lebanon for periods ranging from one month to one year, nearly annually.  I feel I have an excellent sense of the settings of Jabbour’s novels, especially American Quarter, not only from visiting it in person, but even more so from living it vicariously through my husband, Adnan.  Having grown up in Tripoli quite close to Bab al-Tabbani, Adnan has a treasure-store of memories and stories that he has shared with me over the years, long before American Quarter was even written.

While translating, when I would share passages from the novel with him or check a reference or image, his reaction was always the same – one of actual recognition of details that sparked real memories from his own childhood and young adult life.  For him, there is not much space between fact and fiction in American Quarter, at least in terms of the setting and character-types described in it.  For me, working with American Quarter and with all of the Lebanese novels I’ve translated, especially Jabbour’s, the combination of being drawn in, via the linguistic tableau of Jabbour’s remarkable talent as a writer, into the world of life in Lebanon during the recent past or during the years of my husband’s childhood or his parents’ or grandparents’ childhood experience there, and Adnan’s recollections and responses to reliving it through the novel as well, have been the closest thing to satisfying my personal yearning and longing for my own roots as a Lebanese-American who, by chance or by fate, was lucky enough to start learning Arabic as a college student so many years ago and begin the journey back to the land of my ancestors. Who hasn’t wished they could go back in time and see their parents or grandparents as they were in their youth, and see, hear, smell, and taste the things around them or know what they thought and felt and what their experiences meant to them? This is what translating Lebanese fiction is like for me – not a window into a foreign world, but into my own world, the world that might have been had my grandparents not immigrated to America at the turn of the century.

Paula Haydar has translated eleven novels, for which she has received numerous commendations and awards, including a Banipal commendation; a longlisting for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards; the Silver Award for Fiction; the American Translators Association Prize for student translation; and the University of Arkansas Press Award for Arabic Translation.