Translating from the Arabic: Marilyn Hacker and Lina Mounzer in Conversation

This conversation originally appeared in Issue 4 of the Beirut-based journal Rusted Radishesand they note they are accepting submissions — from people with connections to the MENA region — through April 1:

Special from Rusted Radishes

When considering who to interview for a discussion on translation, two people came to mind. It seemed a better idea not to choose between them, but instead have them be in conversation with one another. Marilyn Hacker, who lives in France, and Lina Mounzer, who lives in Beirut, are both writers who recently started translating from the Arabic. How could their disparate backgrounds and experiences come together to illuminate the backstage workings of translation from different cultural and geographic perspectives? In the absence of a face-to-face meeting, Marilyn and Lina met through an e-mail conversation over the month of October, 2015, in which they essentially interviewed each other. While we asked a concluding question in regards to the ultimate effect of their translation work on their own writing, our only other direction was to “have an epic conversation about the art of translation.” Here at Rusted Radishes, we don’t like to put pressure on anyone.

Lina

صباح الفل و الياسمين يا ماريلن 

I hope you are well! I thought we could just begin and see where the conversation leads us. As someone who has gotten into translation fairly recently (I began translating from French and then moved more into Arabic in the last three years), I’m curious as to what drew you to translation in the first place and why Arabic in specific. Did you learn Arabic as an adult or did you always have some contact/familiarity with the language?

Looking forward to getting this started!

Marilyn

أنا بخير الحمدلله

And I hope you are too, and that it’s a lovely day in Beirut.

Most of my translation experience has been in French, a language I began studying in middle school… and I have lived at least part of the time in France for over twenty years, full-time since 2009.

I only began studying Arabic five or six years ago, here in Paris, where the language and multiple cultures of Arabic are very present. Several of the French or Francophone poets I translated are bilingual in Arabic, being themselves Lebanese or from the Maghreb, and that, as well as numerous friendships, and a growing interest in Arabic literature, kept increasing my interest in the language.   This also means I have been studying Arabic IN French…  which I think of as a sort of Lebanese experience…working toward trilingualism…

By the way, I don’t translate TO Arabic except as part of homework assignments!  I have done some translation from Arabic into English, and also into French: some poems – Darwish, Noury al-Jarrah, Fadwa Sulieman and Golan Haji – another young Syrian poet, and some very short stories and fables by Zakaria Tamer.

Lina

I have only translated a single poem so far, and have translated a novella by Hassan Daoud and a short story by Chaza Charafeddine, so I am still learning on the job, so to speak.

I’m a big fan of Zakaria Tamer’s work and am so interested to hear that you’ve worked on his pieces. His stories are often so dark and speak to such a particular context. There is so much violence and mystery there. Are there any particular challenges you associate with translating his work into English or French, whose readers don’t come to the work with the same understanding of the context from which he’s writing? And how do you approach the translation of a piece of fiction versus poetry, for example?

Marilyn

Before responding to you, I wonder: did you grow up bilingual/ trilingual?  Were your studies in English, or in English + Arabic and maybe French?  When you read for pleasure, is it in either language/all three languages?  Does your other language(s) enrich – or encroach on – your writing fiction in English?

I first encountered Zakaria Tamer in one of my Arabic textbooks, and then I was lucky enough to find a copy of  القنفذ (The Hedgehog/Le Hérisson) in a bookshop – which enchanted me…  and was “possible” and interesting at once, because, though it isn’t a children’s book, it is a book with a child narrator, and very short, often fable-like chapters…  Nonetheless, it is imbued with Tamer’s wise and somewhat cynical world-view, especially in the changes in the consciousness of the unnamed boy narrator, and this only between the ages of five and seven! It also gives a picture of everyday life in Damascus, though the city isn’t named, sometime between Tamer’s own childhood in the 1930s and, I suppose, his son’s, before the family went into exile in the 1980s  (the little boy wants a television, which wouldn’t have been in the five-year-old ZT’s mind in 1937!) … and the shadow of dictatorship is perceptible.   Also, each chapter is a short-short story on its own, albeit with a constant cast of characters, and could be read independently.  I translated the first story, where the narrator, left alone by his mother for perhaps an hour, has a conversation with an invisible little girl djinn his own age… just to see if I could. In fact, I translated it first into French, because then I could show it to / discuss it with a bilingual Syrian friend.   Plus, there is hardly any of Tamer’s work available in French… (only the Tigers). And in the following months, I translated the rest of the (very short) book.

I do want to emphasize that I’m still a beginner in Arabic… unlike French, which is my second language, and for the past six years the language of my daily life! And that it was in part the influence of Arabic on contemporary French/ Francophone writing that led to my wanting to learn Arabic. My first “connection” with Lebanon, before ever coming to Beirut, was with Lebanese writers writing in French or in English: the poet and novelist Vénus Khoury-Ghata, the Lebanese American poet Lawrence Joseph, the wonderfully international and polyglot Etel Adan.

Lina

Lina Mounzer.

Thank you for your interesting questions and thoughts on Zakaria Tamer.

First, to the questions. I grew up bilingual: Arabic is my mother tongue, but when I began reading, I read mostly in English, despite the fact that my parents were quite careful to provide me with a steady supply of books in both Arabic and English. The problem was that the English books were so much more interesting and varied, and when we went to bookstores I would invariably make a beeline for the English section again and again. I think this also had a lot to do with the fact that I went to an American school and our library offered a wide variety of books in English, and also that I felt somehow more encouraged by my surrounding environment to master English. It seemed like more of an achievement to be proficient at a second language, and for a long time I took my Arabic for granted. We immigrated to Canada – Montreal – in 1989, and because of Quebec’s language law at the time, being a new immigrant I had to switch my schooling from English to French. This gave me proficiency in French, and though I understand it completely and can read in it and translate from it easily, I am quite uncomfortable speaking it, perhaps because it is so wrapped up in the trauma of immigration.

We have something in common in that we both began translating from Arabic fairly recently: for me it was a way to strengthen my fus’ha Arabic, which was woefully behind, and so I began reading more consciously in Arabic. I also felt it was important for me as a writer to engage more with this literary culture, which informed the world in which I lived but which I didn’t have much contact with. This duality always comes up in my writing, as a sort of tension between the city I write about (Beirut) and the language in which I express it, which always feels like a sort of translation, particularly when it comes to capturing nuances of dialogue or relationships between people, which are informed not only by language, but by the interactions (spoken and unspoken) that are possible. The concept of “terbeeh jmeeleh,” for example, or how “walaw” is a word that imparts both positive and negative shame. I am always looking for ways to translate these sorts of interactions in a way that feels natural and non-expository.

Which I guess brings me to the question: Do you ever feel that there are certain cultural elements that you come across in Arabic writing that feel difficult to translate? I am talking I guess about the non-verbal frameworks beneath the text, those that inform it through the sum total of the words or story, but that aren’t necessarily articulated outright. What has been the most difficult text you’ve translated and why? For me, I had particular challenges working on Hassan Daoud’s novella, Naqqil Fouadak (literally translated: Keep Moving Your Heart), whose title felt so weighty in English, and so I translated it to As She Once Was, working from my knowledge of the text. The novella, through the character, grappled with this shiny new Beirut of gleaming shops and brightly restored buildings (downtown Beirut, though he never mentioned it explicitly because it was clear to any local reader) whose emptiness was entirely grounded in the memory of the war, or rather, the memory that these shiny new structures had explicitly rejected. Knowing that gave me some trouble with how much I should or could contextualize, without touching the essence of the text. Have you ever had an experience like that? I would imagine that being unburdened by the “responsibility” of culture must be more freeing, allowing you to concentrate on the joy of language itself, but this is entirely my own projection.

Marilyn

…Whereas I chatter away in French, and am tongue-tied in Arabic: a teacher once joked that I must have suffered from unrequited love for an Arab that caused me to stutter, a wordless Qayss, and Arabic my Layla…

Tangentially, I was discussing with someone just two days ago the fact that French or Francophone writers of Arab origin(s) have become an intrinsic and inseparable part of contemporary French literature, whereas this is not the case for the Anglophone world, despite the presence of Arab-American, Arab-Canadian or Arab-British writers.  This may have something to do with not feeling “displaced” in the work of Arab writers in Arabic, after reading Mohammed Dib, Kateb Yacine, Amine Maalouf, Assia Djebbar,  Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Salah Stétié, Amina Saïd, Habib Tengour, Rachida Madani, Abdellatif La’abi and others, culturally/ by birth from the Mashreq or the Maghreb but writing in French ( some of whom I have translated from French)…

Even the remarkable (Moroccan) critic Abdelfattah Kilito writes the majority of his books , about classical and renaissance Arabic literature and its singularities, in French, including the one entitled “Je parle toutes les langues, mais en Arabe…”

Not to mention the plethora of writers translated from Arabic into French, whose work wouldn’t be available to me reading only English, like Hoda Barakat, Hussein Barghouti, Sa’adallah Wannous… or Fadwa Touqan and Nazik al-Malaika.  There is much more of Adonis’ work available in French than in English: Adonis, agree with him on politics or no, is a public intellectual in France, known in a way he is not in the Anglophone world.  Khaled Mattawa’s English translations of Adonis are excellent – Khaled himself is an extraordinary poet and critic – but it’s one book, a kind of sampler, while multiple individual collections, including two volumes of الكتاب , are available in French. On the other hand, the English translations of Darwish are far superior to the French (in my opinion).

It may be true that I don’t have the same kind of cultural “responsibility” translating Arab writers – and for that matter translating French writers, of any ethnic origin – as I would if I were Lebanese or Tunisian, or if I were French or half-French or had been educated in France. No excuse for not knowing/understanding the inferred and understated.  But there is the other, heavier responsibility, of the writer/translator who is part of the dominant, the “colonialist” culture, which I cannot help being as a United States citizen, raised in that country, translating the work of “the subaltern,” to use Gayatri Spivak’s term.  A responsibility not to embroider or exoticize, not to pretend I know or understand more than I do, not to think that it is my role to determine or rank the canon of literature in Arabic.

I feel freer to run off at the mouth (and on the page) about contemporary French literature, including what I perceive it to lack, and that too may be hubris on my part.

The most difficult text I’ve worked on in Arabic is a series of prose poems by the Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji, whom I’m not alone in thinking is one of the most extraordinary younger poets, maybe in any language – because of the sentence and grammatical structure, but also because each text had an underlying narrative – about a comrade, man or woman, of the poet’s in the Syrian struggle. Each backstory was not necessarily clear, was hardly ever clear, in the poems. I didn’t want to “tell” more than the poet did: that this man had been killed by a regime bullet, that this woman’s father was a political prisoner… but I didn’t want to imply the wrong thing either…  I was lucky: Golan is a friend, too, and I could ask him, and be told the backstories, that I did not reveal in English any more than he did in Arabic, but that informed my choices in translation.

In French, I think the most difficult work I’ve translated was a couple of sequences of poems by Habib Tengour, a French-Algerian poet, who delights in wordplay, who can ricochet from the shadow of the sonnet to exploded experimental forms, and whose poetry is deeply imbued with the history of Algeria, Algerians in France, customs and slippages (he is also a sociologist). And there is a lot of satire.  I don’t risk being linguistically out of my depth in French, and could have a great time with rhythm and colloquial language, but there is always an underlying level of experience and of history about which I must inquire/inform myself.
(These are now in a book called Crossings, published by Simone Fattal’s & Etel Adnan’s Post-Apollo Press.)

Do you also translate from French? And did your years in Canada give you a particular attachment to or interest in Québecois writing? And what do you feel to be the strongest influences on your own writing, in English? Do your other languages inform it?

Lina

Perhaps responsibility wasn’t precise enough. I mean, I don’t think anyone comes to the page without some sense of responsibility, either toward the self or toward an imaginary or eventual reader or toward language or writing itself. And add to that all the politics of language that come up in translation and yes, I can absolutely see the sense of responsibility you feel in translating the words of “the subaltern.” I think when I talked about responsibility in reference to myself, I meant something that begins even before I am facing the words on the page: a sense of duty, actually. That if I am to translate or engage in translation, it is my duty to work on Arabic writing and literature first and foremost. That if I have this skill or inclination toward translation that it is my duty to use it to add Arabic writing to the English canon. So in that sense, I am motivated not simply by a love of language and the rhythms and meanings and usages of words, but by a responsibility toward my culture. It’s very unromantic and not at all spontaneous, but I feel that writing is often a tension/reconciliation between the domestic and unromantic duty and the wild and formless impetus of creation.

That having been said, I do translate from French. The most challenging, rewarding – in terms of feeling satisfied with a translation –  and troubling piece I worked on was a lyrical essay by a French writer named Annie Zadek, called “Right of Return.” My qualms with it, however, were all political. It addressed, among other things, her family’s history and the Holocaust, and the ways in which silence around it had affected her in the present.  All very vividly and gracefully rendered, for part of it was about the right to return to the past and speak about it as a writer. But it also implicitly equated this with the Jewish right to return to Israel. And somewhere among the rich lyricism of her story, weaving between times and places, an image of Palestinians who had lynched some Israeli reservists, their hands “red with blood,” plastered on the cover of a French newspaper. Described just like that, without comment, but in the context of the whole piece, as the only image of Palestinians, it made me resentful somehow of the whole essay. I wrote “right of return” in English, but all I could think of was “haqq el ‘awda,” and how despite the equation in meaning, the significance in all three languages was so different. And that’s the thing with translation, for me it always has a political element, though it need not always be explicit, because language itself is political. But there is also always such immense reward in swimming beneath the water-skin of a piece, in finding the right words, in capturing the requisite lyricism or rhythm in the target language and breaking through the gloom and murk into the light for moments at a time.

If the different languages I speak have informed my writing in English, it is more so through that struggle, the tension between feeling like a stranger in English, of not knowing which canon I belong to, and then feeling totally at home for the sheer joy of writing and the ability to use language, any language to express my ideas. As I said before, writing always feels like translation for me, both in the abstract sense, and in the concrete, when trying to capture the rhythms of dialogue, say, or when grappling with the strange artificiality of whether or not to include Arabic words in my writing, like, say, Salman Rushdie does in Midnight’s Children.

How have your different languages informed your own writing? Where do the rhythms of your poetry come from? Living in France, which literary culture do you feel you belong to, if any?

Marilyn

I didn’t know Annie Zadek’s work till you mentioned it here, and just looked it up…  And how odd, even provocative, the writer’s choice of title, because “haqq al-awda” of the Palestinians IS “Droit au retour” in French. It’s not as if the Palestinians’ right of return is never discussed in the French media: I’d say more than it is ever discussed in American, or even British media… the expression is used almost exclusively in reference to Palestinians. I cannot recall reading it in relation to Jews emigrating to Israel… “Droit au retour” to the past is a rich idea, though.  Now curious to read her essay.

I often feel myself between cultures, and more than two of them.  I know that the work of some of the writers I’ve translated has found echoes in my own writing: especially Vénus Khoury-Ghata and Guy Goffette…

In France I’m part of the editorial committee of a literary magazine, Siècle 21, whose defining feature is that each issue contains a 100+ page section on a foreign, that is, not French-from-France, contemporary literature: fiction and poetry, translated into French. I’ve edited or co-edited such sections for the journal on: Canada (Anglophone and Francophone); Lebanon – which included some Lebanese-American writers, but was mostly writers working in Arabic or in French; England; Tunisia; Syria; and most recently on African-American writers.  For most of these texts, it was also a question of finding translators – I worked closely with the Lebanese translator Antoine Jockey on the Lebanese issue, and with Nathalie Bontemps, an excellent Arabic to French translator, and Golan Haji on the Syrian issue (but in no issue are all the translations done by one translator!); with the Franco-Tunsian writer Cécile Oumhani on the Tunisian issue, and even did some of the translation into French myself.  I feel more part of French literary life as a “passeur” of other literatures, including those that are not “mine” (American) than as an emigrée.

Sometimes I miss living in an Anglophone country, the US or England, where poetry is not separated off from the rest of literary culture – where there might be a substantial article on a poet in the book supplement of a daily newspaper. I remember opening a copy of L’Orient le jour on the plane to Beirut: it was the issue with the monthly literary supplement, and there was an entire page with articles about three poets: Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Amina Saïd (a French Tunisian poet whom I’ve also translated) and Fady Noun, who’s also a journalist on the paper. It would be unthinkable for Le Monde‘s weekly book supplement to give a full page to three living French (or other) poets.

There’s much more literary translation done and published in France than in the US or UK, but poetry shares less in the benefit.   As far as poetry in English is concerned, there is an interest in one current of American poetry (not British, not Irish or Canadian…): the Objectivists, the New York School, and contemporary avant-gardists who follow in their wake.  Poets like Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Hayden, John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Kumunyakaa, Agha Shahid Ali, are completely unknown (even by people who are specialists in Anglophone literature).  These are some of the poets to whom I myself feel the most affinity…  as well as to British poets like Mimi Khalvati, George Szirtes, Patience Agbabe: all “hyphenated,” of Iranian, Hungarian, Nigerian origin, and all synthesizing contemporary, politically charged narrative with a renewal of diverse metrical forms.

I am attaching a poem from Desesperanto (2003) that uses images, and indeed a thread of narrative suggested by a work of Guy Goffette’s – the boy/young man spending a month or more living in an abandoned van in the yard of a house in a rural town or village, though the village I describe is in southwestern France, and his was in the north, near the Belgian border.

I am drawn to the work of many (though not only) “hyphenated” poets in part, and ONLY in part because of their re-discovery of the possibilities of the various forms, meters, modalities of poetry in English, which for them are not tired or constricting but vehicles to bring new narratives into English, whether contemporary history or revisiting tradition – Agha Shahid Ali writes in sapphics about the lament of Zainab in captivity in an elegy for his own mother; George Szirtes in 22 line terza rima poems about a family – his own –  escaping from Hungary into exile in the 1950s.  The poetry I most admire usually has a strong narrative thrust, in which the individual story, whatever it may be, and about whom, is implicitly or explicitly connected to a wider historical and/or cultural narration, is informed by it.

…which is also the strength of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish… whose poems, if they are never “merely” lyrical, are also not only  historical  or polemical: there is always an immediate narrative and a complex speaker in the foreground…

With some “hyphenated” poets there is also the shadow of the second language that was their first language present in their poems: Hungarian for Szirtes, Farsi for Mimi Khalvati , Urdu for Agha Shahid Ali, Arabic for Fady Joudah and for Khaled Mattawa, a Palestinian and a Libyan poet writing in English – and also of course for Vénus Khoury-Ghata writing in French.  Such poetry speaks to me particularly given the circumstances of my own bilingual, reaching-for-trilingual life, and my interest in the way one language lives on in another…

JEAN-MICHEL GALIBERT, ÉPICIER À SAINT-JEAN-DE-FOS

From the book A Stranger’s Mirror (WW Norton, 2015)

for Guy Goffette

Reconstitute a sense to make of absence

in the still heat of noon, south, summer

where spindled years unravel and unwind.

A hound bays behind a fence. An old white van

beached beneath oleander in a yard

rusts where it ran down, where something came to grief.

 

Some summers, joy illuminated grief

and solitude was savory. Then, absence

was a prelude, then stiff, starched, flag-striped yards

of sheet on a clothesline flapped in a sudden summer

gust, like the curtains on a caravan

parked in the town square, billowing with wind,

 

while children anticipated drumrolls, wind

instruments, brasses, florid joy and grief

mimed close to home. From the striped awning of a van

whiffs of merguez fried with onions, smell whose absence

would be a small, real rift in the stuff of summer.

Would have been. The dog paces in his three square yards

 

of territory, the paved part of a yard

where jasmine and oleander wind

their ribboned leaves like schoolgirls starting summer

vacation. Decline “departure,” decline “grief,”

compose an essay illustrating absence

using, for instance, the abandoned van

that used to be, let’s say, the grocer’s van

which parked in Wednesdays opposite the schoolyard

and the children who were present, who were absent.

Women came up in print dresses, cardigans, wind-

breakers, seasons changing, even grief

fading like the painted sign in summer

 

sun, winter rain. After a few winters, springs, summers

the bright sign was illegible, the van

rusted, someone had grown into grief.

The van is parked in the grocer’s son’s back yard,

its windows shattered, spiderwebbed. The wind

blows through it, marks itself present in that absence.

 

The grocer’s sun sat in the van each summer

morning that first year. Even grief was absent

as the wind unwound the streamers in his yard.

Lina

As I said before, writing, for me, has always felt like a sort of translation regardless. The fact that I write in English about a place that lives and breathes in Arabic, has always made me feel like I am approaching my writing from a sideways or oblique place; that is, not head-on.

Dialogue always has to be considered carefully in terms of how to impart the same cultural subtext in English, and even the rhythms of certain words, place names, surnames, of how they come to color the way you think about things, is something that I always have to think about. As such, perhaps I go a step further when I think about writing as translation: in the end, you are attempting to capture wild and formless feelings in words, translating emotion into signification. I think I feel the same pain-pleasure in the act of writing as I do in translation. I am aware of the shortcomings of the process, that what I put down on the page will rarely compare to the original (feeling, language), but sometimes you end up with something so unexpected and surprising that the delight of having captured it, despite all odds is such a reward that the agony of the process is altogether forgiven and forgotten. If translation has had any effect on my writing it’s in both thinking of its tensions much more consciously but also being far more accepting of those tensions.

There is also the practical benefit that translating from Arabic has really improved my Arabic and exposed me to far more fiction and poetry in Arabic than I had been exposed to before. And it has also alleviated my guilt, somewhat, about the fact that I don’t write in Arabic. I’ve always felt confused about which “canon” I belong to, which canon that feeds me and which canon I feed when I write, and these questions have become moot for me now. Both because I am older and less fixated on such abstract questions (I have come to accept that I write because I can’t not, and I write in English because it is simply the language that best allows me to express myself with the fluidity and speed I desire), but also because translating from Arabic makes me feel like I am able to do my part to feed the English-language canon with Arab writing. It allows me to explore other perspectives and “write” in ways and styles that are not my own, and no doubt this feeds into my writing in ways I am unable to quite identify yet. Translation feels like an extension of my writing self, like a virtual reality program that allows you to briefly inhabit someone else’s experience through their own eyes. This is actually how I see reading, and translation is basically the closest possible reading of a text.

Words are not film: you will never capture an original reality with its same breadth and color and crispness. But approaching things sideways, coming at them from another angle sometimes gives you something that is somehow better. Keeping that in mind allows me to be much more accepting of my writing, much less focused on the failings of my tools and more focused on their unexpected, latent virtues.

Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator based in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Bidoun, Warscapes, The Berlin Quarterly and Literary Hub, as well as part of the anthology Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, published by Telegram Books. She has taught Creative Writing at both the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, and has been awarded several international literary fellowships, including the 2010-2011 Akademie Schloss Solitude literature fellowship in Germany and the 2014 UNESCO-Aschberg writing fellowship to the Instituto Sacatar in Brazil.

Marilyn Hacker is the author of thirteen books of poems, including A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2014 (2015) and sixteen books of poetry translations from the French, most recently A Handful of Blue Earth, by Vénus Khoury-Ghata (2017).

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