Stéphanie Dujols: ‘The More I Translate the More Nervous I Get’

On making it as an Arabic-French literary translator:

By Olivia Snaije

In 2017, an article in Le Monde newspaper entitled “Translators, the poor relation of literature” quotes the writer Pierre Assouline from a 2011 study on the status of translators. Assouline writes: “Happy like a translator in France? The least unhappy in Europe, certainly. Like Mme de Staël, one might say that upon self-reflection they wring their hands, then console themselves when they compare [to other countries].”

Roughly one book in six published in France is translated, and, according to a 2016 study by academic and Arabic to French translator, Richard Jacquemond, between 0.6% to 0.9% of these books are translated from Arabic. Farouk Mardam-Bey, who essentially put contemporary Arabic literature in translation on the map in France in his role as the editor of the Sindbad imprint at Actes Sud, publishes approximately 80% of the translations from Arabic, or about nine novels a year. He often wonders if there is enough interest on the part of readers in France, and whether the books get enough visibility in bookshops. Educating booksellers and boosting the demand for Arabic books in translation is a primary concern for him.

Making a living as a literary translator is difficult enough, and when it’s from Arabic the problem is compounded, given the fragile market in France (and elsewhere). French-language literary translators haven’t yet become visible the way they have in the UK, for instance, where a generation of “activist” translators now appear at major literary festivals and are often an integral part of the marketing process of the book they have translated.

On the back of this difficult situation, and with a majority of French publishers planning cutbacks, cancellations or postponements of new releases due to the coronavirus pandemic, Arablit held the following interview via Facebook Messenger with Stéphanie Dujols, a literary translator from Arabic to French, from her apartment in Cairo.

Dujols studied Arabic at INALCO and then at the Sorbonne, and in 1994 was accepted to a literary translation program that Richard Jacquemond was running in Cairo.

Since then she has lived in Jordan, Palestine, and briefly in Iraq where she worked as an interpreter for the Red Cross and Médecins du Monde before settling in Egypt permanently. Dujols has translated approximately 25 books of which three won the Arab World Institute’s Prix de la littérature arabe. She was to start translating Jabbour Douaihy’s new novel, Malek el-Hind (The King of India) but the project was put on hold during the pandemic.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

What are you working on these days?

Stéphanie Dujols: In March I handed in two books I had been working on for six months. I was happy, I was working for two different publishers at the same time and the books were going to come out in October and of course now they have been postponed. One is for [the publisher] Grasset, the French translation of Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper, which will be called Les Captives (The Captives). It’s an intertwined hybrid text, a work of non-fiction written by a poet which comes together very well and is absolutely genuine. It’s the story of Yezidi women who were captured and enslaved (primarily sexually) by ISIS, and more widely it’s about the genocide committed by ISIS against the Yezidi population—it’s a very grim text, possibly as devastating as [Moustafa Khalifé’s] The Shell.

The other book is Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, or Un détail mineur for [the publisher]Actes Sud. [Dujols translated Shibli’s Touch] It’s an important book on a literary level and important for anyone interested in Palestine. The book was inspired by a real event, a massacre of a Bedouin tribe that took place in the Negev in 1949 and the sole survivor was a young girl who was gang raped. Shibli’s novel is 120 pages long but it’s put together in a very particular way. For a translator it was a challenge and gratifying at the same time because of the different tones in the narrations. For the first 60 pages the narration is in the third person, and it’s very objective, almost surgical in its precision, but underneath there’s a layer that’s very poetic because the story takes place in the desert.  The descriptions, sounds, and smells, which are emphasized, make it very complicated and it called for a subtle translation, like lacework; it’s like a summary of the senses. Part two is narrated by a character with a strong, sarcastic voice. It’s like a monologue, another point of view, and at the end the two voices seem to merge.

What is the biggest challenge for you when you translate?

Stéphanie Dujols: The most ordinary sentence is the most difficult to translate. But the challenges vary from text to text. In Adania’s [Shibli] book there are 15,000 levels of difficulty. Even books that appear to be straightforward can be difficult. The more I translate the more nervous I get, like an actor whose stage fright gets worse and worse. I am increasingly conscious of my responsibility as a translator. A writer writes and isn’t held accountable; some of their books are better than others. But we need to be perfect without exception because the reader has to be happy every time.

Generally, the first page is the most difficult for me and one I change many times, it’s there that you grasp that particular tone which is different in each book.

I recently had three small experiences translating poetry, two were in Egyptian dialect, and at first, I was frightened but actually I found it liberating and surprisingly easy. You realize that you need to be free, otherwise it doesn’t work.

How can one get a Western audience to read more Arabic literature?

SD: I don’t know what the solution is. I think it’s a problem that concerns not just Arabic literature but all literatures from the south. I’ve talked to readers, and I realize that they are expecting something specific, in order to understand a culture. I’m quite astonished by this expectation that literature must deliver something rational and useful. It makes me think of Flaubert—would we read Flaubert to understand the specificity of the culture in Normandy? One doesn’t read like an ethnographer. But of course, publishers publish what they think they can sell.

After years of struggling to pitch literature that I love but am told won’t sell, I don’t dare propose these kinds of books anymore, I end up self-censoring. All of us literary translators have books in our drawers that we adore but that we don’t pitch. I’ve thought of founding a small publishing company that would be called “Les Invendables” (The unsellables). We’d start with Arabic literature and then move on to other languages. It would be literature that readers don’t expect when they look at this genre of literature. I’d like for people who aren’t particularly interested in the Arab world to find their way to these books.

What is the situation in the field of translation from Arabic to French, are you in touch with each other or organized?

SD: In France translators are far from being stars. I don’t think we come together much and we don’t have a union. [There’s an association of French literary translators, the ATLF.] Plus, I’m physically far away so I’m not in touch with what’s going on and am not invited to many events, even if they concern books I’ve translated. Although there are fewer works translated from Arabic into English than to French, I think there are famous authors like Hanan Al Shaykh or Samuel Shimon who also runs Banipal, who live in the UK and are visible. We don’t have anyone to promote translations either. Of course we have Farouk [Mardam-Bey] whose work has been tremendous, and Richard Jacquemond or Yves Gonzalez-Quijano who are both academics and very busy. North African authors get more visibility, they’re closer geographically or live in France and can speak French at events but very few from the Middle East are present.

Have you participated in many literary events?

Stéphanie Dujols: I have to say that the few times I have been invited to promote books, the events were very formal, fitting into a certain framework.  I’d like to think of literary events as an open way for exchanging in a meaningful way with the public, in a setting that is friendly, where you’re not up on a stage. Ideally everything would be centered around performative readings of the text, and you could even have the public read if they want to. It might also be interesting to have discussions among translators on texts that we’re working on, for the public to see how we work.

One of the events I participated in that spoke the most to me was organized in 2017 for World Refugee Day in Marseille by Osiris, which works with victims of political trauma and violence. I was invited with [author] Moustafa [Khalifé], [author and translator] Nathalie Bontemps and [author] Joumana Maarouf.

You translated Khalifé’s devastating semi-autobiographical prison novel, The Shell, and yet you had never met him in person. What was that like?

SD: When we met at the train station in Marseille, I thought I might cry but actually the meeting was very easy and natural. At the event there were refugees in the public, and there was a real exchange that was warm, respectful, with many provocative questions from the audience; it was very moving. There was lots of translation and interpretation from languages like Arabic and Albanian. I remember there was a Palestinian man from Syria who had also spent time in prison, and he had read The Shell. He told Moustafa that meeting him was the best thing that had happened all year. Moustafa really means something for Syrians, he’s a true icon.

How are you surviving these days with publishing projects on hold?

SD: It’s a real nightmare for people who are waiting for contracts and don’t have unemployment. The cost of living keeps increasing and our rates haven’t changed in ten years. We compare ourselves to others who are worse off, but for me the minimum wage would be a dream. At Angoulême [comics festival] comics artists talked a lot about how they lived under the poverty line. One of them said you have to be well born or well married, and that’s what it’s like for a literary translator. I just joined the ligue des auteurs professionnels which is very active. They have been in meetings with the Ministry of Culture and they publish summaries of their meetings. Being a literary translator or an author isn’t considered a profession. During the coronavirus period the state made funds available to some, but we don’t fit into that box.

Olivia Snaije is a Paris-based journalist and editor. She has written several books on Paris, co-edited the photography book Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes, and translated Lamia Ziadé’s Bye Bye Babylon.