Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, in Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation from Arabic, and Tunisian-Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s The Family Clause, translated from the Swedish by Alice Menziet, both made the 2020 shortlist of the National Book Awards in the “translated literature” category:
The five fictional works that made the 2020 shortlist are translated from five different languages. In addition to the titles translated from Arabic and Swedish, there was one from Spanish (Pilar Quintana’s The Bitch, translated by Lisa Dillman); one from German (Anja Kampmann’s High as the Waters Rise, translated by Anne Posten); and one from Japanese (Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles).
Khemiri is the author of five novels, six plays, and a multi-genre collection. His second novel, Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger, was translated to English by Rachel Willson-Broyles. The Family Clause, his most recent novel, is a “portrait of a chaotic and perfectly normal family, deeply wounded by the death of a child and the disappearance of a father.”
Shibli’s Minor Detail — in a tightly woven translation by Jaquette — is Shibli’s third book-length work, following Touch, which was translated by Paula Haydar, and We Are All Equally Far from Love, translated to English by Paul Starkey.
Jaquette said of Minor Detail, over email: “I was immediately taken by the novel upon reading it. Adania is an impressive prose stylist, and her precision is astounding, though this of course brings another level of difficulty to the translation process. As a translator, I was very keen to work on a book that was so tightly crafted, because it required me to dedicate the same effort as a translator, and pay even closer attention to what Adania was doing and how. The subject matter certainly does have its difficult aspects, but there’s a sense of compulsion from each narrator (albeit different for each one) that I think also brings great momentum to the storytelling.”
This book unfolds in two parts. The first the story of an Israeli officer and group of soldiers in the Negev Desert in 1949, who come across a group of Bedouin, shoot most of them, and take the surviving young woman back to their camp. The officer has been stung by a scorpion, but somehow, even as his body is riven with pain, refuses to acknowledge it. The second is the story of a Palestinian “amateur sleuth,” as J.M. Coetzee calls her; a young woman in our times, with no apparent skill for detective work, who insists on bumbling around, trying to find out what happened to the Bedouin woman who was held against her will, raped, and eventually killed by the officer and his men in the first section.
As in Shibli’s other works, there are many sounds — particularly, in Minor Detail, the howling of dogs — but very little communicative dialogue. There is one moderately long exchange, in the museum, but it feels more like a written speech than any form of communication; the two characters largely talk past each other. Indeed, everyone in the book seems suffocatingly locked into themselves, in one way or another.
In an interview with ArabLit Quarterly last year, Shibli said, slightly tongue in cheek: “Dialogue is always a fight. I don’t want dialogue in a story, ever, I want people to be silent. And if they speak, they’re really going to be horrible to each other.”
Later, she added: “Silence is what protects them. So they have to be silent.”
Jaquette noted that, on the surface, “the two parts of the book operate completely independently of each other: they’re set decades apart, and they each follow a different central character, neither of whom is aware of the other in any personal way.” Yet she found them linked through all sorts of different echoes:
Tone is so essential to the effect that Adania creates in this novel, and there was certainly a challenge in recreating two very different tones for two different characters in English. But perhaps my greatest challenge as a translator was recreating what links those two separate parts of the novel: the echos between them. These appear in subtle ways: a spider, a dog barking, a shiver. But, as each echo amplifies the next, the overall effect is incredible. The way Adania lays these two narratives over one another is so powerful; history is right there, yet inaccessible. As a translator, it was sometimes challenging to keep track of all these echoes, and to find one single word that would work in multiple instances. For example, I might have translated ‘lather’ in one instance, and ‘soap suds’ in another, but to play by the rules of the novel, I had to pick one word that would work equally well in both instances. In the end, I think these echoes create a nearly-invisible architecture beneath the book, more felt that seen.
There are two excerpts from the novella online.
Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched the intense August heat.
He walked over to the trunk, removed the bottle of ointment and a new bandage, and carried these with him to the bed, where he sat down on the edge and began removing the bandage from his thigh. But before he could clean the bite and apply some ointment to it, the cramps in his body grew so intense that he could no longer move. He dropped the ointment and bandage next to him on the bed and walked over to the lantern, with an effort that was reflected on his face, and extinguished it.
The 2020 judges for this category are translator Heather Cleary, executive director of Asian Arts Initiative Anne Ishii, novelist John Darnielle, bookstore owner Brad Johnson, and writer Dinaw Mengestu.
The winners will be announced on Wednesday, November 18 at the National Book Awards Ceremony, which will be held online.