Working on ‘Warda’: ‘Challenging in all the Ways a Translation Project Could Be’

In October, veteran translator Hosam Aboul-Ela — who brought Sonallah Ibrahim’s brilliant and charming Stealth into English, as well as Soleiman Fayyad’s vivid and compelling Voices — wrote on Twitter that he had found his most challenging project yet:

The English translation of Warda is set for a June 2021 publication from Yale University Press. ArabLit contributor Tugrul Mende and Hosam Aboul-Ela talked about the process.

Tugrul Mende: When did you first come across Sonallah Ibrahim‘s novel Ward-a and what were your first impressions?

Hosam Aboul-Ela: The novel came out in Arabic in 2000. I had been following everything Sonallah Ibrahim wrote, but at that time, I was settling into a new job in Texas and felt pretty cut off from Egypt. In 2004, I suddenly had the chance to spend the summer in Egypt on a research trip. That’s when I picked up Warda. My memory is that I enjoyed it at the level of plot and characters, but felt put back on my heels by the complexities of history and formal innovation.

After I translated Ibrahim’s Stealth several years later, I wanted to keep working with him and began talking to friends about translating another of his novels. It was his French translator, Richard Jacquemond who encouraged me to reread Warda, arguing that it was the richest of his novels that had not appeared in English.

TM: What did you mean, on Twitter, when you said this project was the “most challenging” you have faced?

HA: It was challenging in all the ways that a translation project could be challenging. It was rejected by publishers before I was fortunate enough to land at Yale. The translation itself was challenging for several reasons. For example, it is full of references to historical figures from all over the world and, for many of these, I either had to hunt for the correct Latinized translation, choose a correct one, or invent one. It’s much longer than other translations I have done, and the register changes as it moves between eras and narrators, so I had to create an English that made those transitions work. There are two different narrators in the novel, and once you get about a quarter of the way in, they start to alternate chapters. They are very different from each other, and I wanted to give some sense of that in the English while remaining completely faithful to the Arabic.

Another issue was that I often found myself googling the names of British military equipment and Soviet weaponry and became frightened that my literary translation was going to win me a knock on the door from homeland security. At its core, the issue here is that the novel can be read as an attempt to use language and formal innovation in order to represent the psychology of an upper-class Omani woman of the 1960s, who becomes radicalized and makes the decision to give up her comfortable life and fight with peasants, dedicating herself to revolutionary justice. That is not a character that is easy for any of us to comprehend. I felt that challenge at every stage of this process, including while dealing with people trying to “help,” and I will leave it at that.

TM: This novel is coming out 20 years after it appeared in Arabic. In what way did your reading of the novel change between 2020 and 2000? Does it echo differently across this twenty year gap?

HA: One reading of the novel is that it explores the ways that resistance can be so easily aerosolized by the contemporary version of globalization. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, there were actual wars of resistance against imperialism, like the conflict in Vietnam that is referenced repeatedly in the novel. Today, there is a way in which our master narratives are almost impossible to challenge. No matter how marginalized we are, we identify as bourgeois.  I think that is something that we are thinking about more and more. In my previous answer, I mentioned the two narrators in the novel. The two narrators represent these two historical registers: the era of decolonization followed by the era of universalization of bourgeois thinking—what we’ve come to call neoliberalism. Another big thing is that the novel came out in Arabic before the war on terror and we are now living the aftermath of the war on terror. How to historicize the war on terror? 

Warda has a lot to say about that. Osama Bin Laden, for example, was a relatively obscure figure when the novel came out in Arabic. There’s a fleeting reference to his antagonism toward socialist politics in his ancestral land of Yemen. Because the reference is so fleeting and problematic in the original, the other translators of the novel simply left it out! I can’t say much more about it because it only makes sense after you’ve read the novel, but I can try to put it this way: I felt a reference to Bin Laden was meant to suggest the way jihadism had grown out of a maniacal campaign to stamp out movements for what we would today call “social justice.” For that reason, I fought to keep the reference in the English. Like I say, it’s fleeting, but I could write a whole memoir, I think, just about getting that sentence translated. 

TM: What difficulties did you have in translating the novel? Did your tactics differ from those you used when doing previous translations?

HA: As I mentioned, the novel has two narrators, and they are very distinct. One is an aging, over-educated, cynical Egyptian man; the other is the title character keeping her diaries in her youth. As a translator, you have to keep thinking about that, and you are really on your own. The Arabic doesn’t help that much, because the distinction has to be apparent in the English, and that comes down to your choices. It’s up to me in the end, but I did feel at times that I was actually fighting against the whole world to have the style I wanted.

TM: When you were translating the novel, were you in dialogue with the author and other translators?

HA: One has to open channels of communication. I felt in communication with Richard Jacquemond because I always had his French translation close by, and it would occasionally help me solve problems. The author was very engaged with my translation of Stealth, but by the time we got to this project, for whatever reason, he didn’t feel like looking over my shoulder. Still, I queried him about things I thought only he could answer, and I kept him pretty informed of all the ups and downs of the work on the manuscript. Near the very end, the press asked for a very short introduction. I wrote about 1,000 words that I was very proud of. It was the first work I had been able to do since my father had died about a month before, so, as it turned out, I let Sonallah know about that at the same time I forwarded him the introduction. The e-mail I got back from him wasn’t terribly long, but it combined warm support of me with enthusiastic approval of what I had written in a way that made me feel the profound compensation that can come from working on things you care about.

TM: In what way is it different for you to publish a novel with an academic press vs. one with a focus on fiction?

HA: Increasingly, there’s little difference. This translation appears in a series called “The Margellos World Republic of Letters” at Yale UP. That branch of the press has many of the same good qualities you can find in a strong trade press that emphasizes literature. I have had the experience of an academic press sending a translation out for a peer review that compared my translation to the original, but I don’t know if that still happens very often. Traditionally, the distinction would be that the UP will include more paratext and will market to educators and academics. I think I am getting to a point now though where I presume with a novel that there won’t be footnotes, a glossary, or lengthy introduction.

TM: Are there other novels by Sonallah Ibrahim which you would like to translate or see published?

HA: He has been very prolific, and translators in the English-speaking world have not kept up, but it seems like there’s an uptick in interest now. Robyn Creswell [That Smell and Notes from Prison] and Margaret Litvin [Ice] have recently published translations of his work and I believe a few people are working on other novels now, including the scholar Bruce Fudge who is finishing up one of the late novels, if I am right. As for me, I tend to feel that my career as a translator is over every time I finish a project, and I feel that way a little bit now. On the other hand, it hasn’t ever turned out that way, so it probably won’t this time either.

TM: Do Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel have a special place for you as a translator?

HA: Yes. I seem to be attracted to writers and thinkers that create an absorptive world that one can keep returning to and finding new things, whether I am translating, writing, or teaching. Sonallah has become a dear friend, but it is also true that there’s an iconoclasm in his body of work that has drawn me in and kept me translating when I could have stopped. With these works, you feel like you’re exploring ideas or doing research as much as you are rendering the one language into the other.

More on Warda from Yale University Press.