Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: The Creative Writing Workshop

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Hilary Plum, who teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and in the Northeast Ohio MFA program.

Plum talks about teaching Arabic literature in translation as part of the creative-writing course — particularly translated work by Youssef Rakha, Adania Shibli, and Hassan Blasim — and why teaching with translations is “ideal for student writers.”

Why include works in translation — as well as a discussion of translation — in a creative-writing class? 

Hilary Plum: Really I teach literature in translation because that’s what I want to read.

It seems natural to teach translation in a writing workshop because the workshop model emphasizes creativity as dialogic and dialogue as a creative practice. Translation provides a vital model for understanding a text as the work of more than one writer: understanding authorship as collective, collaborative. The idea of the single author—with the Romantic aura of genius—still predominates in the US publishing industry and general literary culture. And in many writing workshops this ideology is somehow assumed even as the nature of the workshop undermines it: our thinking about writing in workshop is collective; the pieces that emerge result from conversation and are in conversation with one another. Looking at translation is a way for writers in a workshop to look at how authorship manifests collectivity and dialogue.

If in the classroom you’re able to compare multiple translations of a single work, and/or read essays by translators on their craft, this offers rich and rigorous examples of how choices are made on the level of word, phrase, syntax, diction, metaphor, image, so on. Such examples of precision and multiplicity are ideal for student writers.

Often there’s a spoonful-of-sugar rhetoric around reading, or teaching, literature in translation: that one reads literature as a means to read “news from elsewhere,” to learn about another place or culture. This learning happens, but not uncomplicatedly. If it’s the aim then there’s a high risk of misfire, maybe dangerously so. Rather literature interferes with what we think we know. It could be the case (and I think some of your questions are exploring this) that teaching literature in translation teases this phenomenon of interference to the surface: maybe the classroom then has to grapple directly with what we as readers don’t know about what the text seems, at least to us, to be saying. Maybe literature in translation is an especially potent means to make readers confront the facts of our position as readers.

Do students question these inclusions? (Why translated? Why Arabic?) Do reading responses tend to be any different for translated works? 

HP: In my experience students generally like these inclusions, often quite a lot, and are curious about and engaged by them. They may or may not separate out works in translation from other things we read —this could depend on whether the instructor draws attention to the fact of translation and helps offer some ways to think about it, beyond simple acknowledgement. They don’t generally question why we’d be reading something translated, say, from Arabic. They’re hungry to read and up for a big range of reading experiences.

Sometimes the response to these works launches some anxiety about what’s “lost in translation” into the room. Sometimes some cultural stereotypes get expressed or brushed up against. But any clichéd or stereotypical ideas must sit there on the table where we all take responsibility for answering them together. And where a text is there beautifully to counter and complicate them. This is what I meant above about how literature in translation asks readers to bear witness to our own positions. Here’s a text that is addressing us; it both was and wasn’t written for us. Here’s a conversation we’re overhearing, a work that’s both here and there, now and then. These are the questions of all literature, but translation presents them with particular resonance. How do we read, how do we ever read? If sometimes this conversation includes some rote or even (very rarely) troubling comments, then moving beyond those is precisely the work of the course.

I think creative writing instructors may be especially suited to teach works in translation—and should take it as their task!—because creative writing classrooms are already active sites of not-knowing and non-mastery. Because so many of the course texts are student work, you just never know what will walk in the door, and it will be work of a moment, not of a canon; a work of learning, not of expertise. As a teacher of creative writing, you’re an expert in an artistic practice; you’re not a scholar who has mastered some demarcated portion of a discipline. If, for example, we read Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles (in Robin Moger’s fantastic translation), I don’t stand in the front of the classroom as a scholar of contemporary Egyptian literature or even with all that deep a knowledge of Egyptian history from the mid-’90s on. I too am learning how to read the novel; what I can offer as a teacher is companionship and experience in learning how to read. One tries to model a clarity and humility of engagement.

But I want to add an anecdote about teaching Hassan Blasim’s short story “An Army Newspaper,” translated by Jonathan Wright—or rather not teaching it. This is pretty much my go-to text whenever I’m asked to teach something; it’s a story about what writing can be used to do, the relationship between literature and propaganda; it’s a deep commentary, grotesque and beautiful, on the role of the writer in society. It’s a means to witness the silence of the dead. I don’t know how many times I’ve taught it; across settings usually people like or love it (because it’s an amazing story), and in any case they’re always able to read and discuss it. But one time I was thinking to teach it in a literary program for adults who were, as I recall, mid- or late-career professionals. I proposed it alongside a couple other options, including Sherman Alexie’s great story “Indian Education” (which I also teach often). Both stories raised, I was told, “potentially divisive issues,” and concern was expressed that people didn’t want to have conversations about race and American colonization with their coworkers (which assumes that they’re not already having those conversations, or otherwise experiencing the cost of silence on these topics). But what I will long remember is that the administrator of the program specifically objected not to the profoundly upsetting content of the Blasim story—which memorializes the vast numbers of dead in the Iran–Iraq War—but to a passing reference to a blow job that occurs on the second page. In that moment, a blow job was seen as more disturbing to the fabric of middle-class American society than the fact of the Iran–Iraq War. Let me say again that the students in the course were middle-aged. Blow jobs were known to them. I quit the gig. Somehow I think that just as you can use the Blasim story to teach most things about literature, you can use this anecdote to teach some things about what some US institutions think the problem is versus what the problem is.

What sort of contextual background do you think is important in a creative-writing course, when students are looking at these stories & novels? 

HP: My approach is that I want students to become skilled at reading work whose context they may only partially know, whose context they can’t authoritatively speak to (which is of course true of all work). This means not being secure in ignorance, but becoming more knowledgeable about how knowledge and its opposites work. In a creative writing course we’re meant to be reading these works as practitioners of contemporary literature—again, not as emerging scholars, mastering the period of 18th-century British literature, etc., or learning how to apply specific theoretical frameworks important to the discipline. Our framework is, roughly, ideas of writerly craft, and there’s a lot of disagreement among creative writing teachers about what that means (disagreement that, interestingly, doesn’t even have to get reconciled that often). Literary theory and disciplinary structure are there in the classroom, too, of course, but we can encounter them more freely and with fewer obligations than in a literature course. And the workshop structure always means, even when we’re reading outside texts, that this is much more a seminar than a lecture, driven by students as much as by the instructor.

If in a general course I present a text in translation accompanied by a complex apparatus of context, that can alienate the students from the text; it can send the message that works in translation aren’t meant to be read by common readers in English, when that is exactly the reader for whom the translation is meant. This is a tension that can come up with translation in the academy—in academic contexts, many preferred forms of response to international literature can only come from those who know the original language. But literary translation is not meant for those readers, really; it’s meant for those who just know how to read a novel or poem in English, say (a knowledge that itself is always incomplete, still in progress). So I am inclined to teach the translation as something that’s addressing you, the student in the room, the one browsing in the bookstore who picks up the book. Because it is. My role is, then, to help you practice reading it: to help you find a practice of reading that includes and honors and engages with this text.

Yet of course I do offer contextual background. I tend to do this a bit chattily—maybe a presentation on an event or historical figure; maybe a timeline; maybe a range of maps or charts portraying changes in populations or environments over time. Maybe a short excerpt of another work of literature or a historical source that may illuminate our reading of this text. An interview with the author and/or translator. A compilation of diverse reviews of the book. Some works in translation have an explicit relationship to a work of literature in English, or a canonical work of world literature that students are likely to know, and we can start there, where students can get a foothold, then proceed. It depends on the book—and sometimes, yes, I’m caught wishing I’d offered more context, or really that I had more myself.

Of course one’s reading of a text changes each time, alongside whoever is in the room. I frequently teach an excerpt of three translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s long poem Mural; I do this for all the reasons described above, but mainly because I love that poem and have been trying for some years to write about my experiences of reading it across multiple translations. So when I teach it I am asking students to help me read, and they do.

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields, winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose (2018); the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016); and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013). She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and in the Northeast Ohio MFA program and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center.