Neza Bozic on Translating Hisham Matar’s ‘The Return’: ‘The Most Intense Literary Work I Have Ever Done’

Neža Božič is the translator of the Slovenian edition of Hisham Matar’s The Return, which came out as Vrnitev in the Slovenian in December 2017. She talked with scholar and translator Yasmine Motawy:

By Yasmine Motawy

Bozic has a BA in translation, and works from English and German into Slovenian. She has translated more than ten novels by prominent authors, including Bernhard Schlink, and another dozen for young adults by writers like John Green, Tomi Ungerer, and Andreas Steinhöfel, as well as many many picture books. She has also been very active in the search for quality titles to translate.

Yasmine Motawy: What was the process for the translation? Who found the book and connected you to it? Why did you accept the assignment?

Neža Božič: I read about the book in an account by a Slovenian journalist Branko Soban, who writes on numerous topical themes, often ones occurring in Arab countries, and was immediately attracted to it. I have also always been interested in international relations and the Arab world in particular. Since I found the book immensely impressive, I recommended it to the important Slovenian publishing house, Mladinska knjiga. It was already being praised in international newspapers and had begun receiving prizes, so the book was quickly approved and scheduled.

YM: Why did you and the editor/publisher imagine there to be a Slovenian reader for The Return? What was that expected reader like? What other literature on the Arab world has that reader possibly read?

NB: The events taking place in the Arab world have certainly stimulated greater interest for books from Arab countries or about them. But Libya in particular has been vaguely in the Slovenian imagination; we already knew basic facts about its past, the Gaddafi era, the circumstances of post-Gaddafi Libya, and, recently, the refugees coming to Europe from there. The refugee situation has impacted the entire European continent and in The Return was a voice that came from that part of the world with a poetically written story with a strong human element, albeit a disturbing one. I consider the book an opportunity to start a conversation about the personal in the political, and one that offers valuable insights into another culture. In general, Slovenia translates a great deal of world literature, and Slovenians are good readers, interested in Arabic books amongst others, particularly the Naguib Mahfouz trilogy, Alaa Al Aswany’s books and Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi.

YM: When I personally read this, I was mentally jumping from Arabic to English and back in places; at any point did you feel that you were immersed in a culture within a culture? or twice removed from a culture? Or translating twice?

NB: On every page there was something that I wanted to look up! Thanks to the internet, I was able to clear up a great deal, especially the locations, the music, and the buildings the author referred to. I found myself going on tangential research multiple times, researching the Benghazi cathedral for instance, or looking for additional information about the paintings he describes, and so the process took way longer than usual for me.

Matar’s sentences are often poetic and rather lengthy. It has been suggested to me that Arabic sentences are often longer, so I found it interesting that he retained this from his culture even when he was writing in English. I remember one sentence that was so long and intense that I had to stop and take a breath! After the first version of translation was done, I put it away for a little while and when I looked at the Slovenian text afresh, I had to break up many sentences to make them shorter.

Arab names were a challenge because the book had the English transcription of Arab names. I reached out to Barbara Skubic, a colleague who translates from Arabic, and she gave me some useful instructions on how to change them into Slovenian directly from the Arabic original.

YM: Where did you take liberties, where did you choose to “under-translate,” where did you fall in love with a line?

NB: My translation philosophy is that there should not be too many liberties taken with the original text. I believe I was so deeply immersed in the original, that I managed to feel and choose the best words and solutions for the translation. Some passages were really demanding, especially the author’s digressions on death, which touched on some profound philosophical concepts that I had to sit with until I was happy with the translation.

There are numerous lines I fell in love with, this a book that certainly got to me, and Matar has a beautiful turn of phrase. Some of my favorite lines are from events in Matar’s youth, for example, where he writes about his father’s attitude towards beggars: “It’s not your job to read their hearts. Your duty is not to doubt but to give,” or about the feasts his mother used to organize: “My mother managed the complicated operation with the authority of an artist in the service of a higher cause.” I also loved the warmth of the scene with his grandfather: “To distract me, he took me on a walk. People stopped and greeted him. He introduced me. ‘I would like you to meet my grandson Hisham. He has come all the way from Tripoli especially to see me.”

On the other hand, some of Matar’s contemplations on his own attitude towards his lost father and about the death of those we love deeply, stirred me personally, for instance:

“The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by some­thing that cannot just be called memory. It is alive and current. How could the complexities of being, the mechanics of our anatomy, the intelligence of our biol­ogy, and the endless firmament of our interiority – the thoughts and questions and yearnings and hopes and hunger and desire and the thousand and one contradic­tions that inhabit us at any given moment – ever have an ending that could be marked by a date on a calendar?”

And I could go on …

YM: This is a gut-wrenching text, what was it like working so closely with it and make decisions about how to translate it? What do the emotions and events mean to Slovenian readers?

NB: Some days were demanding, because I was going through a whole range of intense, often difficult, emotions. After all, many of the author’s intimate reflections are universal ones, and it is impossible to remain uninvolved. This is undoubtedly the most intense literary work I have done in my ten year career as a translator. Furthermore, it reveals and touches on so many aspects of life, and so it raised many questions about Arab culture that I hope I can get answers to one day.

I have received a lot of early reader feedback, and the reception has been very positive. Some readers mentioned that they could only read the book rather slowly, since quite a few passages demanded reflective pauses.

YM: What are you working on now?

NB: I translate more from German than from English, so currently I am working on The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells, who was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature.

Yasmine Motawy is a children’s literature scholar, translator, editor, consultant, and an instructor at the American University in Cairo.