Arabic Literature, Norwegian Readers: Oda Winsnes on Translating Into a Small Language

Arabic-Norwegian translator Oda Myran Winsnes — winner of the 2016 Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for her translation of Samar Yazbek’s بوابات أرض العدم (Englished as The Crossing) — has brought a number of contemporary Arabic works into Norwegian translation:

Winsnes earned a Master’s in Arabic from the University of Oslo, but now lives — and literarily translates — in Austin, Texas. She has translated a diverse range of Arabic literary works, including books by Khaled Khalifa, Mazen Maarouf, Dima Wannous, Ahmed Saadawi, Samar Yazbek, and Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin. She answered a few questions for the readers of ArabLit.

You have a view on several languages. How do you think Norwegian publishers differ — in their interest in Arabic literature, in how they select books for translation, and how they promote Arabic literature on their lists — from English-language publishers?

Oda M. Winsnes: The Norwegian market is small — only five million speak the language after all — so it has been largely derivative of other markets, in the sense that Norwegian publishers would wait for books to be picked up by British/American, French, or German publishers. In the past, translations from Arabic were sometimes made from these intermediary languages instead of from the original, which is very unfortunate, but these days most publishers seem to appreciate the close engagement with the original text and author that a direct translation affords and not settle for diluted translations that have already been filtered through another European language. I started out translating books that had not yet been published in other languages, which was a challenge because editors would have to rely on summaries, promotional material, and my assessments when choosing what to go for.

I have noticed a pronounced increase in the interest surrounding Syrian literature as war and devastation has ravaged that country. I always feel ambiguous about it. While the increased interest is cast in reviews and literary circles at large as an intellectual desire to go beyond the news stories and seek out voices that represent the Syrian people, I of course worry that this means that Arabic literature is undervalued on its own terms. If we need conflict to spark an interest, we are not fully appreciating the contributions Arabic authors make to world literature, but I guess some interest is better than none.

Are there Arabic translations that circulate widely in Norway? If you were to ask an ordinary Norwegian bibliophile what Arabic literary works they knew, how would they answer? (Outside of the 1001 Nights, naturally.)

OW: Not that I know of. Nobel Laureates are closely watched, so Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy would be the work that has perhaps garnered the broadest fame, although the translation skews towards the French rather than the original. And then there are certain books that are written “for translation” or at least somewhat adapted for a Western audience by the author themselves like The Yacoubian Building. But broad appeal and wide circulation are rarely afforded books that do not fall into a few restricted categories such as crime novels from other Nordic countries or best-sellers in English-speaking countries.

When my translations get any attention, however limited, it of course absolutely puts me over the moon. Seeing a new cover or holding an actual copy or reading reviews are thrills that do not go away. I especially enjoy hearing from someone who has actually read the book and appreciate the odd fact that they can fully engage with an author’s story even though I technically wrote all the words they actually read.

Are there ways in which you would like to change the reception of Arabic literature in Norwegian? Among critics, among librarians, among publishers, among readers?

OW: I don’t want to criticize my book-loving compatriots, but if I could offer some “positive reinforcement,” it would be to keep exploring literatures that are not immediately digestible and easily consumed, and to not let the old (somewhat racist) stereotype of a Middle East in constant conflict define and restrict what works you engage with. I have translated two of Khaled Khalifa’s novels, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City and Death is Hard Work. The former deals with Aleppo from around 1960 up until the Iraq war, with obvious but veiled reference to the tyranny that Syria experienced for most of that period. Promotional material and reviews did however frame it as a peek behind the curtain of the pre-civil war Syria and drew attention to the Assad-family dictatorship, which the book itself is circumspect in invoking. These are by no means egregious distortions, but it shows how books like these are forced into a certain pigeonhole when they enter our literary ecosystem. Death is Hard Work is set during the civil war, and was therefore an easier sell, but now I am about to translate Khalifa’s latest novel, No One Prayed over Their Graves, set during Ottoman times in the early 20th century, and I will be really interested to see what kind of reception that book gets, when there is no obvious connection between the literature and the current state of news coming out of Syria. But the success of the previous books hopefully draws in the readers so they can appreciate a wider array of topics dealt with by a master story-teller.

How does it usually work, for an Arabic translator to bring a project to a Norwegian publisher? I understand (I think) that Cappelen Damm asked you for a reader’s report of Samar’s The Crossing, which you went on to translate. What about your other works?

Winsnes receiving the Norwegian Booksellers’ Award.

OW: I have sometimes been asked for a reader’s report. And while I am eager to get translation work, I have tried to play the role of “expert” and “facilitator.” When a book is interesting but will require a lot of effort and particular interest to find its Norwegian audience, or will inevitably incur only marginal interest, I say so. Publishers will only pick up a tiny amount of chatter about Arabic novels, though. Most of them are fairly tiny publishing houses, often with only one or two editors responsible for all translated fiction, so it goes without saying that they cannot be acutely attuned to the developments, novelties, and breakout stars in every region of the world. I therefore suggest novels sometimes, not least based on what is discussed on ArabLit. And sometimes I get lucky and have a publisher pick up something I have suggested. It can be frustrating though. When Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi won the IPAF in 2014, I enthusiastically suggested it for translation, but got nowhere. Then Jonathan Wright’s brilliant English translation came out in 2018, and suddenly two different Norwegian publishers were interested, and both ended up bidding for it and asking me if I wanted to translate it. I am happy we got around to doing it, but I also looked back at my old emails thinking “I told you so…”

Last I asked you, there were an average of 3-4 Arabic translations published in Norwegian each year. This must also mean you are a relatively small translation community. Or . . . who is your translation community?

OW: Yes, very few people translate Arabic novels into Norwegian, but then again there is not that much work to be had. Those who have done so over the past several years have mostly been women! It seems to me that in general, they will not be full-time translators, but combine it with other work. While I know my fellow Arabic-to-Norwegian translators, my translation community is necessarily a bit broader. Just being interested in pursuing this line of work is fairly rare in Norway, but there are good organizations in place with supportive people, so I consider all translators sisters-in-arms, but I find it particularly useful to talk to others that work on smaller languages (in terms of translated volume) beyond English, German, French, and Swedish. Their experiences often resemble mine, and our efforts to promote less accessible literatures with our publishers are similar.

Your most recent two book projects — judging from Twitter — are Khaled Khalifah’s No One Prayed over Their Graves and Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin’s Messiah of Darfur. The latter, I think, is your first Sudanese novel? How did it come about? What were the particular challenges of each, and how did you come to translate them?

OW: I am just about to start No One Prayed over Their Graves right now, and Messiah of Darfur is almost finished. The former is Khalifa’s latest novel, and his success with the Norwegian audience so far means we had to go for his new novel. The main review of Death is Hard Work ended by calling for “more Khalifa in translation,” so what better encouragement could we get? As for Sakin’s Messiah, the publisher approached me about it. It is a fascinating text, but I have struggled through it in fits and starts for a long time now, so my long-suffering editor will be happy to know that the final manuscript is right about the corner. It is my first Sudanese novel, and that has proved a challenge. Dialectal expressions, local cultural practices with their own vocabulary, and a complicated historical/political backdrop to the story have made the work difficult. I want to make sure I don’t miss or mess up anything.

What do you consider when you are deciding whether it is worth the effort to pitch a novel to a publisher? Do you have favorite Arabophone authors who you think are “unsellable,” as Stephanie Dujols suggested?

OW: This is such an interesting question, and something that I struggle with a lot. Since I end up pitching novels, I participate in the filtering of what is considered “sellable” Arabic literature in the West, and that sometimes feels a bit crushing. I of course want to pitch books that the publishers in the end will be happy they invested in, but at the same time I feel an impulse to at least try to promote some of the literature that is perhaps a little bit less available or easily imported, but that represents wonderful art on its own terms. I have not made much inroads with the literature that has come out of the disillusion that followed Tahrir Square in 2011, or the Syrian and other authors that have found refuge in Norway, which I think should qualify for some interest just because of the interesting interfaces they navigate and can write about.

What do you think are the biggest differences between how Norwegian editors work with translations and how English-language editors work with translations from Arabic?

OW: As I have mentioned, Norwegian publishers will be hesitant to go for something that bigger language communities have not already picked up. This is perhaps a consequence of being a very junior member in the society of cultured European nations. But it is also a consequence of size and resources. An editor might have to juggle everything from the latest Icelandic crime novels to big hits from Japan, staples of American literature, and then the very varied world of Arabic literature.

That being said, I have also noticed a willingness to edit on the part of the English-language editors. In the novels I have translated, for which there is an English translation available, I have consulted them, but I have almost invariably found that they are “smoothed out” somehow. Somewhat unpolished passages will be rewritten, oddly near-incomprehensible sentences will be omitted, and repetitive sections will be rearranged. My editors do not alter the text this severely. And I am hesitant to do so because I think I should do my utmost to transplant a text into its new language and make it thrive there, not rearrange it to be a (bland) version of itself that will only pander to and not challenge its audience.

If someone asked you, How could I become an Arabic-Norwegian literary translator, what sort of advice would you give them?

OW: I am not one to give advice, because it is hard enough to figure out how I ended up doing what I do. But I would say that a solid love for the language and curiosity about expressing ideas and feelings slightly different than what is customary in your own language will not go amiss. There are quite enough experts, prophets, and talking heads analyzing the Middle East, but I think our job as translators is to not get in the way of authors expressing themselves by editing, interpreting, and adapting their work.

And I think we all have to find our own weird way into this line of work. I started learning Arabic in Italian when I moved to Siena after high school. And after stints in various places in Europe and the Middle East somehow ended up in Texas. It was never a clearly chartered course, but the journey is all the fun, and that is how I ended up as a vagrant translator, oddly enough not living among either the source or target audience for the novels I work on.

Previously in this series:

Arabic-French Translator Stéphanie Dujols: ‘The More I Translate the More Nervous I Get’