Language, Teaching, and Translations that ‘Carry That Feeling of Arabic’

Shahla Ujayli’s popular and acclaimed novel A Sky So Close to Us recently appeared in Michelle Hartman’s English translation. Hartman, who has translated nine books, also has one of her own forthcoming next month: Breaking Broken English: Black-Arab Literary Solidarities and the Politics of Language. She talked with ArabLit about how she came to translate Ujayli’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel and the choices she made while bringing it into English:

How did you come to this translation of Shahla Ujayli’s novel? What about it chose or spoke to you? 

Translator Michelle Hartman, author Alexandra Chrieteh (Always Coca-Cola), author Jana Elhassan (The 99th Floor), and publisher Michel Moushabek.

Michelle Hartman: I was asked to do this translation by Michel Moushabeck at Interlink Books, along with several other novels. I was very skeptical because I had previously asked only to be sent relatively short works, so that I would be able to work in shorter bursts of time. But I read this novel and was compelled by it right away. I was drawn to the intensity of the writing and the weaving together of the strands of the plot. The strong and compelling voice of the narrative I think is what spoke to me. When I am that compelled by a book, I am much more likely to want to actually translate it (even when I don’t have time in my schedule!)

Is there a thread that draws together your different translation projects (A Sky So Close The Journey & Always Coca-Cola & 99th Floor & Wild Mulberries & Other Lives)? Besides the obvious, that they’re all women writers? (There is a trans-nationalism, I think, in all the novels I’ve read in your translation.)

MH: Yes, these are all women writers and all except Radwa Ashour’s The Journey by Syrian or Lebanese women writers and so draw upon places where I have lived and worked and spoken Arabic. They all also are transnational in some sense, though on the surface this is not what drew me to them (though maybe on a deeper level it is!?).

Honestly the thread is this passion and intensity in the narration that I relate to as a reader. It is what I try to reproduce a translator/composer/writer. Though the books are so different, and the authors are so different, I do believe this is the common thread. There is something I find almost inexplicably compelling and it draws me to want to think of how to convey it in English. As I read each of these texts for the first time (and subsequent times!) I remember being drawn into each of them, relating to them on that really deep level. Always Coca-Cola I read in one sitting, straight through cracking up on my sofa. The 99thFloor I could not stop thinking about from the first time I picked it up. And so on. A Sky So Close to Us I kept talking about to everyone I know… the complexities and how the different pieces fit together. Ask my friends!

You’ve worked almost entirely with Interlink. Is there a benefit to sticking close to one publisher? 

MH: I think so. I have a lot of respect for this publisher and the work they do. I have developed a relationship with the press and people who work there, I know the editors and it has allowed me to develop a translation practice and style. It has also allowed me to translate many books by the same author/s and build relationships, including with fabulous women like Iman Humaydan, Alexandra Chreiteh, Jana Elhassan, and now Shahla Ujayli.

I like your solution with the title. Were there others you tried out? What did you want to make sure it communicated (other than, not to spoil anything, having an echo & resonance with the novel’s end)? What does it evoke for you — the sky being so close?

MH: The title was—as always—a story. I tried a number of titles. I tried the more literal “A Sky Close to Our House” and “Close to Our House, A Sky” and rejected them as not compelling or “pretty sounding” in English. I crowd sourced, asking everyone I know and came up short. I worked a lot with a friend who is a brilliant translator with a lot of literary sensibility, and we got to “A Sky So Close.” This was a working title until we realized that there was another translation of Arabic fiction that used that title (by Iraqi novelist Betool Khedairi). I went back and forth in discussions with Shahla, and I think it was between us that A Sky So Close to Us stuck. The title obviously resonates with the original and the way that this concept weaves through the book. The idea of the sky being close is important to Joumane: When she is alone in Amman, suffering from her cancer treatments, she remembers that she and her sisters are suffering differently under the same sky in Amman and Raqqa. This is connected to their childhood sleeping on the roof, when they felt the sky was literally so close they could touch it. Thus, the us becomes important rather than being an individual concept. The sky is close to “us” the sisters, but also all of us—humanity—alive on earth. Of course the sky is also the heavens, and the notion that we are close to those who have passed on—like Joumane’s mother and others in the war—is crucial to the narrative as well.

At the beginning, were you have: “Nasser told me that his mother was from al-Sham, in the way that Palestinians and Jordanians refer to all of Syria as ‘al-Sham,’ even though she was from Aleppo.” Can you talk about why you don’t fudge it to something like: “Nasser told me his mother was from Damascus in the way Palestinians and Jordanians refer to all of Syria as Damascus, even though she was from Aleppo.” – ?

MH: Well that’s one of those language-learning moments—a classic for someone who is learning Arabic—that is relatively easy to weave into a translation. I believe in this by the way: teaching Arabic through translating even if it is only in small doses as you go. Al-Sham, and the associated adjectives “shami,” “shamiyya” etc., means Damascus, locally, but it also means Syria, and it also means “Greater Syria,” the larger geographical area of Syria depending on context. This is one of the first things I learned about language and context in my 20s studying Arabic in Damascus myself. It would seem ridiculous to an Aleppan to refer to them as “Shami” in their context, because of course they are “Halabi” as opposed to Shami. But when you get to Amman that perspective shifts—this is how all people from Syria become “Shami.” Palestinians and Jordanians aren’t really referring to all of Syria as “Damascus” (Dimashq) right? It is that they are using this other term.

It takes the reader with no Arabic an extra minute perhaps to think about with a word they might not be familiar with, but it is a pretty low-cost way to make a more accurate point and incorporate a bit of local context and language as well.

The musical terminology seems to be the most linguistically specific and forbidding for the uninitiated (and, what’s more, it comes right at the beginning of the book). Also, moving a text meant to be hilarious into one the reader has to sort of climb through carefully, putting handholds where they may, turns it into a quite different thing? Is there any good solution where culturally specific humor is involved?

MH: So difficult. This in fact was the part that gave me pause when I agreed to do the translation. In fact, if one part would have stopped me it would have been this one. In fact, really, I was thinking of it when I composed the agreement-to-translate email. It’s good it came at the beginning and, if I remember correctly, I actually sort of skipped it and came back to it (and more than once).  These humorous passages (and I have talked about them in relation to Chreiteh’s work as well) are the ones where I am least satisfied with the outcome. I feel like they work OK, but I am not convinced they do the work they need to do. The reader can of course learn something from them, even if it’s that a passage that is supposed to be funny isn’t that funny, but this is not my ideal as a translator…! I would rather that, somehow, I managed to capture the humor. It goes more and less well in different cases, obviously.

You write, in the “translator’s note” at the end, about keeping the Arabic language present in the English. What does this mean in practice? Could you give us an example (beyond, of course, leaving words in Arabic, transliterated)? What does it mean for rhythm, diction? Would you feel differently, do you think, if you were translating Arabic-Urdu? 

MH: Well yes, the example you give above is one, the use of al-Sham instead of Damascus. Another is the passage about the music, where I leave the names of meters and other musical terms rather than explain them or give a paraphrased meaning. I guess part of it is to make sure the reader remembers that this is an Arabic text being written by an Arab author, whether or not the chapters are taking place in Aleppo, Raqqa, Amman, Portofino, or Malaysia (just some of the locations in A Sky So Close to Us). What this means is that the sentences will find a rhythm, diction, and importantly a voice that is not “standard” English. This is the challenge for the translator. To come up with an original voice here for Shahla Ujayli in English, that is unique and hers alone, and that sounds like English but retains something in it that is Arabic. My translations all carry that feeling of Arabic—I retain some literalisms and some language that people may find “heavy,” but that reminds them of Arabic. This is done consciously, in order to create and preserve a voice.

I do not know enough about translation practices into Urdu. But I have talked to translators of Arabic into other languages. One of my colleagues translates Arabic literature into Georgian.  And while we shared many concerns of flow, voice, word choice and so on, in our conversations we also realized that there were many concerns we did not share. She had an entirely different political, cultural, and social context into which Arabic literary works were received in Georgian than I did in English. One of her biggest challenges was to decide between words coming from Persian roots and those from Russian and other roots, within Georgian, to convey different kinds of expressions.

I bring up this example to underline the importance of the political, social, and historical contexts of the target as well as the source languages and literatures. But I also bring it up to really underline that the literary traditions and possibilities in different languages are also entirely different. As translators we must draw upon the full resources we have in our target languages (including literary traditions and cultures).

I believe we should open up more cross-language translation conversations. Perhaps Urdu translators of Arabic would be able to offer me ways of thinking that I had not previously explored and vice versa.

Does the translator have any role in shaping the text? A number of Arabic novels, in the last five years, have been edited significantly in translation — some with the author’s permission and participation, and at least one without. Obviously the latter is a breach of trust. But if the publisher came back to you and said, “I’d like the story to begin on page 101, at the Zaatari refugee camp, and we weave in the background after,” how would you approach that? 

MH: If the publisher asked—and I doubt mine would, advantage of that relationship built up over time!—I would say no. Because I do not want to work on texts that are undergoing that dramatic of a change on the editorial level as “translation.” Having said that, if an author I had worked with extensively said, “Michelle, I am trying to do something new with my book published in Arabic, and in English I’d like to do this thing…,” then I would have to think about it.

I have written quite a bit and am continuing at least for a bit longer to write critically on the changes that Arab women’s writing undergoes in translation, and how the changes I have observed and analyzed reveal a pattern that upholds problematic stereotypes of Arab women. These are that active Arab women are exceptions to their culture rather than deeply engaged in them, that Arab women are typically in opposition to and challenging Arab men rather than working with them, and so on. So I am extremely cautious about editorial changes that are done “for the English language reader” or to make things more “readable.” I also am a firm believer in challenging the readership in English, and in the United States. I hear a lot of “US readers won’t read xyz.” Let’s give them a chance. Let’s heavily market some more challenging works that are not in line with stereotypes or that reconfirm certain ideas and see…?!

What are some nettling instances — beyond, I guess, Nawal El Saadawi — where Arab women’s writing has been changed or re-framed in translation?

MH: Well one example I have worked on is Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh. She has freely consented to the works’ changes, raising interesting questions about the role of the author, translator, and publisher in translation. I have talked about the very distinct changes (including to title, characters’ names, chapter order, cutting, editing, and so on) in relation to several of her works: The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, and The Locust and the Bird. Other scholars and translators have also studied these dynamics and written about them. For example, Marilyn Booth has described the process by which Banat al-Riyadh became The Girls of Riyadh, and some of the dynamics at play there. Mohja Kahf has traced the evolution of Huda Shaarawi’s memoir that in English became Harem Years; Diya Abdo has written about Leila Abou Zeid and Fatima Mernissi’s work in similar ways—how translation shapes them differently. Even if we do not engage in such translation practices today, including extreme editing, I think it is important to for us as translators and readers of translated literature to think about why we don’t (or do!) and how we relate to that history and legacy.

Those who need access to articles behind a paywall can send me a note.

There are so many different sorts of trauma in the book: personal, communal, family, national, international — and they all have to compete for oxygen. Clearly it is the personal trauma that command the narrator’s and narrative’s attention, even as Syria, and specifically Raqqa, also demand/command her attention. In contemporary literature, cancer has a very particular narrative menace, unequaled by other potentially fatal diseases. We know not only to fear the disease, but to fear what comes along with it. What was original — different — interesting about how this book works cancer into a fictional narrative?

MH: I find Shahla Ujayli’s writing about cancer direct, honest, and very, very real. I admit that I really appreciate this part of her book and that this is perhaps because I myself have lived through having cancer and undergoing a very intense and difficult period of chemotherapy, living far from family. I know that not all critics appreciated it or appreciated its parallel/s with the war and how they compete. But to me some of what Joumane goes through—the feeling that she doesn’t care about anyone but herself when she is clinging to her life by a thread during her chemo, when she cannot stand or hardly breathe—is absolutely real. There are moments when she does not care about her sisters and father in Raqqa, the people suffering under the bombs, only that she cannot breathe. The honesty of that moment of selfishness we feel when we are extremely ill and perhaps about to die, especially as it is connected to cancer, is so intense and so accurate. It is devastating in its accuracy. Joumane also later feels so badly for having even thought this, let alone expressed it to her sister.

Joumane does not die, as so many fictional cancer patients do, but it is not always clear that she will survive, either. The fact that Ujayli lets her live—not as the model of the “strong hero” cancer survivor, but as one who cautiously ventures out with her short hair, who only slowly integrates back into life, who misses her friend who she lived through so much of her treatment with—is meaningful and moving, as well as very real.

To me, the narrative is anything but emotionally manipulative. I find it instead challenging to the reader, in pushing us to think about the edges between life and death and how disease and war are both similar and different as ways to die, but also as ways to live.

Also read:
[1]“Gender, Genre and the (Missing) Gazelle: Arab Women Writers and the Politics of Translation,” Feminist Studies, 38:1 (Spring 2012): 17-49.

[2]“An Arab Woman Writer as a Cross-Over Artist: Reconsidering the Ambivalent Legacy of Al-Khansa’,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 30:1 (Spring 2011): 15-36. (appeared fall 2012)

[3]“Gender, Genre and the (Missing) Gazelle: Arab Women Writers and the Politics of Translation” Feminist Studies, 38:1 (Spring 2012): 17-49.

[4]”‘My Tale’s Too Long to Tell’: The Locust and the Bird between South Lebanon and New York City” Journal of Arabic Literature, 46: 2-3 (2015): 168-192.

More on ArabLit:

5 Questions: The Literary Loves of 2019 IPAF Shortlistee Shahla Ujayli

15 More Rules for Translation: Chip Rossetti and Michelle Hartman

America Through Radwa’s Eyes: ‘The Journey’