A Search for Beauty and Appreciation: Kay Heikkinen on Translating ‘Velvet’

In 2017, Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for what judges called “a new kind of Palestinian novel”:

Soon after, it was translated by Kay Heikkinen and published by Hoopoe Fiction in 2019. Velvet tells us the story of Hawwa (Eve), a woman who lives in a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman. Heikkinen, who has previously translated works by a number of authors, including Radwa Ashour and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, talks here to Tugrul Mende about how she went about bringing Velvet to English readers. 

Tugrul Mende: What brought you to Velvet in the first place? 

Kay Heikkinen: I didn’t actually read it until it won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. Part of that prize is having a translation, and the editor who was at the press at that time asked if I’d like to translate it. He sent me the beginning of the novel and, once I had read the first few pages about the rain, I thought “I must translate this, if I can!” I had not previously read any of Huzama Habayeb’s work; of course now I will seek it out.

TM: How do you usually start translating a novel? How long did it take you? 

KH: I’m often anxious to dive into translating immediately, and I always want to read the entire work before I begin. Partly that’s to be aware of what’s coming, so that I know if there will be later references to earlier passages, and partly it’s to become familiar with the characters and with style and tone of the author. Of course that adds to the total time needed, particularly with a more complex text, but the reading is a pleasure.

As to the translation itself, the first draft took about three months; given the expressive and often poetic quality of the language, I spent longer than usual on each page. The press would have liked to have it right then (I don’t remember the specifics of the contract), but I was very fortunate to have wonderful feedback from the author herself—she could not have been more supportive, even at a distance!—and from a friend who was willing to read it for the English style. Reviewing and incorporating all their comments took additional time. I can never thank Huzama Habayeb enough for taking great care to make sure that I understood things as she intended them! She also later sent me some of her poetry, which I very much enjoyed, and which I read for students in one of our program’s regular Arabic Circles.

TM: The main character of Velvet is Hawwa, a woman living in Palestinian refugee camp. She is not the narrator herself, but rather the novel is written from the perspective of a third-person narrator. What impact did this type of story telling have on you while translating the novel, and what was your relationship with the characters? 

KH: Hawwa made a huge impression. When I first read your question, I thought how interesting, because I did not focus on the third-person perspective, since the narration is so very close to the mind of the character, to her own thoughts. I don’t remember thinking that the third-person perspective was a problem. I had more trouble with two other things: First, with when we are in her memories; I sometimes got a bit lost while reading the original, so I would put tiny clues in the English translation to orient us in time, something like: Now, sitting in the bus…. The second thing is the author’s use of tenses. I feel sometimes the present is used to give more vividness, to place something right now, but my sense of English wants to be clear about when things happen. I struggled with mirroring the vivivdness of the present tense and also figuring out when we are. 

I have recently been reading another translation, one of The Old Woman and the River  (a novel by Ismail Fahd Ismail, translated by Sophia Vasalou), which I have really enjoyed. A few times I have thought I noticed the same phenomenon in that translation, i.e., a tense used which you don’t expect. I might be wrong about that; but possibly something similar is happening there.

What was most astounding about Hawwa for me was how throughout the novel, she maintains some optimism and openness to the world despite circumstances so crushing that you wonder how she can even survive this. She maintains a search for beauty and an appreciation for it that really struck me from the beginning. It is also a story of her mentor Sitt Qamar, who is a tragic figure; she was less been able to maintain her openness because of what she suffered. She was still able to give a lot to Hawwa, however, and in a way, the story is a contrast between the two characters. 

TM: Did you ever consider a different title? 

KH: I really didn’t think about it for very long. Mukhmal is “velvet” in Arabic, and it has such a central role in the story that I didn’t think giving it any other title. There have been times when titles are changed. My late husband, Farouk Abdel Wahab, translated a novel by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid entitled in Arabic The Other Town; he gave it the title The Other Place, to imply a Shakespearean reference in English, with no objection from the press. I made a small change in the title of another novel by the same author; the original was literally Alexandria in a Cloud, and so the working title was Alexandria under a Cloud. At some point I looked up and I didn’t like the sound. I wanted to change it to Clouds over Alexandria, to put the emphasis more on the clouds moving in. The press didn’t mind the change, even though it was late in the process.

TM: How would you describe the language of Velvet? And did you need to do research before starting the translation?

KH: In the process of translating, yes, I did need to do some research. There were two kinds. First, there is some Shamy dialogue; not much, but I did use a Levantine colloquial dictionary to be sure of some terms. The other research concerned sewing terminology; you might have noticed, there is a fair amount of it in the novel. I would look up the terms, but often there weren’t really any adequate definitions available. Then I would look things up online in Arabic and sometimes I would get videos; when I could see the technique, I would usually know what to call it in English.

I find the language very poetic — it’s very precise and uses a very large vocabulary of synonyms and nuances in describing many things. The perfect example is the beginning about the rain. I will never look at rain the same way I used to; the author talks about it as if it were a living being with a will, attacking the earth, and how it has an effect on the streets. There are other examples, too. I think this is what drew me to the novel at the beginning when I started to read it. As I went on, of course, I started to love the characters, and I had to care about Hawwa too. The challenge is to render the language in a way that means the same as the original and ideally gives some of the same impressions. 

The Rain was not in a docile mood. It certainly wasn’t flowing, soft, or gentle, nor was it graceful, treading lightly on the earth. The rain beat down viciously on naked life, its hard drops splitting the rough crust of the earth. Daggers of water pierced the dusty flanks of the ground, thrusting rapidly and in quick succession, as if laden with emotion, or haunted by ancient sorrow, or filled with deeply buried rancor.

From the opening of Velvet, by Huzama Habayeb, tr. Kay Heikkinen

TM: Would you describe your translation as more of a direct translation or more like a feeling or an impression of what is happening in Arabic? 

KH: I’m still more literal than I probably should be at times. I cling to the text and I feel as if it’s a trust from the author. I do change things; I’ve gotten smarter, I think, and I know that I have to change things at times to convey the meaning fully. I have been more aware of this since the time of a project which did not come to fruition, to translate the second and third parts of Radwa Ahsour’s trilogy Granada (it has been hung up in publishers rights). I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with the author about that. She gave me a copy of translation done into Spanish, and it was very helpful, as she had said it would be. It was also a good lesson, as I found myself thinking that this translation was much freer than the translations I have done. Still, with Velvet in particular, given how much care Huzama put in her language, how very carefully she chose every word, I thought that I should stay close to the text. 

TM: You translated other novels, such as Radwa Ashour’s The Woman from Tantoura for AUC Press. What factors do you consider when choosing a novel? 

KH: It’s been different with each novel. Each has its own story. As for The Woman from Tantoura, I read it and I wanted to translate it. I think it was the combination of the fact that it’s a important story — in a sense, it’s the whole Palestinian story, or the story of the Diaspora, from 1947 through  the early 2000s — and the fact that I thought it was done very well as a fictional presentation. You might think it could be boring because we all know the story, or at least those who pay attention know the story, but I thought the author handled it very well in bringing the characters to life and making it their story. I was lucky that I was able to do it. She had read some translations I did of short stories of hers and had liked them. The press was very happy that they found someone she approved of, because she did not like all translations. My problem since then, at least while I am teaching, is that I haven’t kept up to date with Arabic literature as much as I would like.

The press sometimes suggested projects in the past, but that is much less the case now than it was, so I will be looking for new possibilities. I will probably start with female authors. Not because I am female, and I need to translate female authors! Rather because I think women are underrepresented in translation, and that their viewpoint is therefore underrepresented in what comes across to the English reading world. I care about the characters in a novel and I also care a great deal about the style of the writing. As Farouk used to say, a translator lives with a novel for a long time; it has to be one we love.

TM: In what way would you place Velvet within the literary landscape? And how much do you think this scene has changed since you started translating novels? Also, what do you think of the role of prizes in literature? There are more than there used to be; what effect has that had?

KH: In one of my classes, I taught Hoda Barakat’s The Night Post, which won the Arabic Booker. She says in one interview that she is particularly pleased by that prize because she writes for Arabs and an Arabic readership. She doesn’t mind being translated, but her first audience is the Arab reader. She appreciated that this prize gave her more access to readers. 

A book with a prize blazoned on the cover might be more likely to be picked up, and in fact that’s how I came across Barakat’s latest work. I went to my favorite bookstore in Cairo, and was looking for new things and new things to teach. Someone said: “This one just won the prize,” and it was Hoda Barakat. It is a very challenging read in Arabic, but I knew it would be worthwhile, for me and for the students.

My impression is that literary writing in Arabic has increased in recent years. It is hard to keep up, and it is becoming more and more difficult. I think the prizes are helpful because they do encourage young writers and give them a lift so people will know their names. As writing has increased, some talents will come to the surface, but others might not. 

In this particular instance, it is very satisfying to see recognition for a novel like Velvet for many reasons, among them the fact that it is a Palestinian novel that doesn’t deal directly with politics. Of course if you simply lift the surface all the politics are there, because if it weren’t for the political circumstances there would be no Palestinian camps, or life there would not be like that depicted in the novel, but this work doesn’t take that up directly. In the same way, I think it is a very feminist novel, but not emphatically, in a matter-of-fact way. There have been times when people didn’t want to recognize a Palestinian novel that wasn’t politically engaged. I was listening to a translators’ group recently and somebody was talking about indigenous people in Canada, saying that it’s hard for indigenous people to write about something other than their cause. I think it can be like that for Palestinians, too. 

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