Aida Bamia on Why ‘My First and Only Love’ Was Such An Emotional Translation Experience

One of the first Arabic novels released in English translation in 2021 will be Sahar Khalifeh’s My First and Only Love, forthcoming from Hoopoe Fiction in Aida Bamia’s translation on January 5:

Like Khalifeh’s Asl w Fasl (translated as Of Noble Origins, also by Aida Bamia), this novel is set in the final days of the British Mandate.

Originally published as حبي الأول in 2010, this historical novel is not a romance, as novelist Selim Batti writes: “Do not be deceived by the title … for this is not a romantic novel unless Palestine is its first love … and the love of everyone who has ever walked in Nablus, Jerusalem and Gaza.”

This is the fourth novel by Khalifeh that Bamia has translated; it follows The Inheritance (2005) The Image, the Icon, and the Covenant (2007), and Of Noble Origins (2012). Born in Jerusalem, Bamia fled the city with her family in 1948, moving first to Egypt, later to the UK for a PhD, teaching at universities in Algeria, and beginning a career at the University of Florida in the mid-1980s.

Sahar Khalifeh is a widely acclaimed novelist, but her classic 1990 novel باب الساحة was only published in English translation this year, in a sharp and enjoyable translation by Sawad Hussain, as Passage to the Plaza. Khalifeh’s End of Spring (tr. Paula Haydar) and Wild Thorns (tr. Elizabeth Fernea and Trevor Le Gassick) are also available in English translation.

Tugrul Mende talked with Dr. Bamia ahead of the release of My First and Only Love.

Tugrul Mende: Why did you want to translate Sahar Khalifeh’s My First and Only Love? Did you approach Hoopoe Fiction, or did they ask you to translate the novel into English? 

Aida Bamia: The reason I offered to translate My First and Only Love was based on the need to inform the readers on a very important time in the history of Palestine, to a generation that has not experienced this very important period of Palestinian history. It is often easier to inform through literature than political history. I approached AUC Press with my suggestion for a translation of the novel and they accepted it.

TM: This is not the first time that you translated Sahar Khalifeh into English. How do you start working on Khalifeh’s novels and what does your translation process look like? 

AB: The first novel I translated for Sahar Khalifeh was al-Mirath (The Inheritance).

I was teaching Modern Arabic Literature at the University of Florida and wanted to provide the students with a reading list for the semester, but there were very few novels translated into English. The Inheritance touched on an aspect of the American society, i.e. mixed marriages that often resulted in serious conflicts for the children. I discovered later on, when Khalifeh published Hikayati li Hikayati (The Story Behind My Story) that she personally knew an American-Palestinian family who faced this dilemma. I must add that Khalifeh’s style is smooth and makes reading her novels an enjoyable activity. The major difficulty I encountered in my translations were the Arabic insults, for which I could not find an English equivalent.

When Khalifeh received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for her novel, The Image, the Icon and the Covenant, I was asked to translate the novel; it was a dual publication by AUCPress and Interlink Books.

TM: My First and Only Love is set during the final days of the British Mandate. In what way is the language a reflection of the time in which the book is set? And what challenges did it present to translate? 

AB: Regarding your question on the language of My First and Only Love, the difficulty was on an emotional level for me as a Palestinian who as a child living in Jerusalem and watching the concern and worry of my family for our safety and hearing stories of explosions and bloody encounters with Jewish and British troops — it was a traumatizing period. This novel was the most emotional for me to translate, as it also marked the end of a comfortable childhood for me and my siblings, and the beginning of a life in exile. As for the difficulties in the language, they occurred while trying to translate the names of herbs; many of them were wild and with no equivalent in English. The press decided to keep the Arabic names in transliteration.

TM: While translating the novel, are you in contact with the author? 

AB: Although I know Sahar and meet with her whenever I happen to visit Jordan, I rarely contact her regarding her books. The only time we both debated a linguistic matter was for the choice of the English translation of the title Asl wa Fasl.

TM: How different is My First and Only Love from the other novels that you’ve worked on? Why do you keep coming back to Sahar Khalifeh? 

AB: The choice of Sahar Khalifeh’s novels connected to Palestine is due to the fact that it gives me the opportunity to tell my story through her, only in relation to the Nakba. I never chose to translate her novels on women’s issues.

TM: Generally, how do you choose the books you want to translate? 

AB: My choice of books to translate is dictated both by my desire to inform the English reader about Arabic literature and Arab writers, to introduce my students to new horizons, and because I believe that knowing the other is the beginning of a dialogue for understanding and peaceful interaction. Reading a novel or a short story is less intimidating than reading a political or historical book, it informs without intimidating. 

TM: Sahar Khalifeh’s novels are quite well-represented in the world of translation. Earlier this year,  Passage to the Plaza was published in Sawad Hussain’s translation. Why do you think that is? 

AB: Sahar Khalifeh is a great storyteller and writes for a purpose. She has a gift, and she uses it to enrich the world of Arabic literature. It is up to the translators to connect her work to other languages for the readers to enjoy.