‘Limbo Beirut’: Anna Ziajka Stanton on Translating a City

Tomorrow at the American University in Beirut, translator Anna Ziajka Stanton and author Hilal Chouman will be talking about the PEN-longlisted Limbo Beirut:

The talk, open to the public, is set for 4-5:30pm in AUB’s West Hall, Auditorium B.

The event is part of “Tarjamat” series of talks at the AUB, which has also included talks by Lina Mounzer, Sahar Mandour, Suneela Mubayi, Thoraya El Rayyes, and Hisham Bustani.

″Limbo Beirut″ is mostly set in Beirut in May 2008, when Hezbollah and Sunni fighters clashed in the streets – a frightening after-echo of Lebanon′s fifteen-year civil war.

As the book unfolds, each of its five interlinked stories bumps up against the others. They affect each other in large and small ways, some of which don′t become clear until the final pages. Although the characters each have different and complex relationships with Beirut, a sense of place is very important to the story.

Ahead of the talk, Stanton shared some of her thoughts about translating the book’s geography.

When I first began translating, the many references to specific sites in the capital (streets, neighborhoods, landmarks) were an ongoing challenge for me. Partly because I don’t know Beirut very well (I was there only once for a week in 2006), and partly because the Arabic names are transliterated multiple ways online, rendering them difficult to Google reliably (e.g. زقاق البلاط on p.28 appears online as Zokak el-Balat, Zuqaq al-Blat, Zuqāq al-Balāṭ, etc., to give just one example; I ended up with Zokak El Blat in the translation), I struggled to parse out the stories’ geography–to comprehend the route that the narrator in Chapter 2 takes to escape the specter of Takara, speeding through narrow streets in the pouring rain, or to follow the narrator in Chapter 5 on his fateful walk along the corniche when his girlfriend breaks up with him.

But it wasn’t just about names, Stanton said:

The further I got into the process of translating, the more important it began to seem that my text be able to do the work of topography — the writing of place — needed to make Beirut intelligible as a spatial configuration to Anglophone readers. Despite the inevitable inadequacy of Google, I spent long periods staring at online maps of Beirut, trying to plot the movements of the characters. I looked at images of the downtown, of Clemenceau Street, of the Rouche rocks, of the coastline, tried to imagine watching the sunset from the top of a building. I talked to friends who grew up in Beirut or who had called it home for any length of time. I went to see Lebanese art at a museum in New York.

Eventually, Stanton said, she came to a working solution:

Of course Beirut as a place also has a particular history that cannot be delinked from the civil war, which devastated large areas of the capital and carved up its neighborhoods by militia or sectarian alliance. Yet Limbo Beirut is importantly post-war in its conceptualization of urban space, with characters who neither affirm nor transgress any particular notion of spatial usage but inhabit the city simply as a city, and it was ultimately by following this thread of understanding its role in the novel that I found myself capable of accounting for it, as the precondition that makes everything else possible, the basis from which the writing of the text in Arabic or English must begin. Not by learning the city as a two-dimensional representation but by starting my translation with this work of trying to experience Beirut affectively, as a setting for the unfolding of human life, did I finally feel qualified to translate this aspect of the novel. Of course, I’m also looking forward to reacquainting myself with the actual physicality of Beirut this week, and no doubt whatever solutions I arrived at while translating will inevitably end up seeming partial at best compared to the reality of the place.

Those in Beirut can join Stanton and Chouman for Friday’s lecture at 4 p.m. in West Hall Auditorium B.