On Translating the Linguistic Diversity of ‘Hot Maroc’

Next month, Yassin Adnan’s novel Hot Maroc is finally set to appear in Alexander E. Elinson’s English translation:

Yassin Adnan began writing his novel Hot Maroc at a writers’ residency on the Cote D’Azur in March 2011, soon after he’d run into trouble with online trolls. Adnan invented his protagonist, Rahhal Laâouina, imagining that he would take him through a short story that he would finish during the residency. Instead, he said in a 2017 interview, he found himself “caught up in its story lines, hidden corners and narrative mazes for a longer period than I had imagined.”

Adnan published Hot Maroc in 2016, and in 2017, it was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In 2020, it appeared in France Meyer’s French translation. Elinson, who had previously translated novels by Moroccan authors Youssef Fadel, decided to take on the translation to English, and it is finally about to appear.

Why the focus on Moroccan literature?

Alexander Elinson: Quite simply, for the past twenty years, Morocco is the place in the Arab world where I have been spending the most time. I started going there as a graduate student when my focus was medieval literature from the western Mediterranean – al-Andalus and the Maghreb – and I simply fell in love with the place. Although Morocco has been somewhat underrepresented on the contemporary Arabic literary scene, there is great writing happening there. As a result of French colonial history and the cultural ties between Morocco and France that stretch into the present, much more of this writing is available in French than in English. Arabic literature available in English translation skews toward the Mashreq – Egypt, the Levant, Palestine, Iraq, and the Gulf. I don’t claim to be motivated by some sort of noble mission or to overstate my own role in this, but I would love to see more Moroccan literature (and North African literature, more broadly) reaching readers of English. A much more mundane answer to the question is that, at least up until recently, I have chosen to work with authors I know, who write about places I am familiar with. I realize that this is not necessarily how one needs to work, but I enjoy working with those close connections. I’m not at all against translating Arabic from other parts of the Arab world. It’s just that Morocco is currently where I spend the most time.

Satire is a central aspect of this novel. How did you approach the book’s humor, to make sure that — as much as possible– it remains within the English translation?

AE:  If there is anything that might resist translation, it is humor and satire, and this was one of the more challenging aspects of this work. However, I think that what makes this novel so readable is the fact that the people and institutions that are being criticized and laughed at are pretty much universally deserving of criticism and scorn. The characters are entirely realistic and relatable, but they are at the same time, caricatures of themselves: pompous blowhards and know-it-alls, conceited know-nothings, self-aggrandizing bullies and losers, lying politicians who don’t stop talking and yet say nothing, braggarts, and frauds. In my translation, I aimed to make everybody and every situation sound as ridiculous and outrageous as they appear in the original Arabic, and as they actually exist in the characters and situations that we all recognize in our own lives. 

How did you discover this novel?

AE: I first heard of Yassin Adnan and Hot Maroc when it was longlisted for the IPAF. Everything I read about the novel interested me. Its sharp political and social critique. Its humor. Its deep dive into Moroccan history, folklore, literary culture. Its linguistic richness and diversity. As soon as I started reading, I was hooked and wanted to translate it. At the same time, and quite by coincidence, a longtime friend was visiting from Morocco and, knowing of my interest in translating Moroccan literature, told me that I just had to meet her friend Yassin. She put us in touch and work began!

Could you describe Yassin Adnan‘s language, for those who haven‘t read the original? How does the language reflect the characters – and especially the main character Rahhal Laâouina a.ka. The Squirrel?

AE: In a word – rich. One of the most important features of this novel is its rich diversity of language. Yassin has made every effort to have both the characters and the text itself speak in their own distinct style, accent, and linguistic register. Whether it’s the high school bully or the aspiring local politician or the relative who didn’t go to school or the soft-spoken young people just trying to find their way in the world, these folks all speak in different ways, in different accents, taking from different lexicons. Much of the dialogue is in spoken Moroccan – darija. I don’t think it could have been done any other way in this novel. And this diversity is not just limited to oral speech. The novel draws from a deep well of Arabic literary culture, Moroccan folk culture, Islamic culture, various types of journalistic writing, political and ideological discourse and more. Like oral speech, these written contexts have their own styles and lexicons.

Taking Rahhal Laâouina as an example: We hear from him in voices that spring from all sorts of different aspects of his self: the soft murmurs of a quiet and bullied teenager, then a cowed husband; violent, action-hero like thoughts and dreams; vulgar bathroom-stall graffiti; an online presence that includes multiple troll personas, each of which write in their own distinct style. Adnan gives this one character a multitude of voices, each with their own style, tone, lexicon, and register. Because of his central role in the novel, we hear much more of Rahhal’s voice, or voices, than we do of other characters, but this diversity of language is central to the novel. It is a reflection of the diversity (social, cultural, economic) that exists in Marrakech. The reader is jostled through the cacophony of urban life, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, home to home, person to person, website to website, listening to and contending with a vast array of people and their own lives and experiences.

Beyond capturing its satire, what other difficulties did you come across while translating the novel? Did it help to have worked previously on another Moroccan writer?

AE: As mentioned before, the language of the novel is complex and diverse, and this really required learning about and understanding the various contexts of the novel. Youssef Fadel, who I have worked with on two translations, and Yassin Adnan are very different in the language they utilize, their styles, and in their literary psychological focus. What is common between the two of them is a laser focus on social and historical context. For Hot Maroc, I did a tremendous amount of research into Marrakech urban design and history, education policy, political ideologies and discourse, religious practice, and more. Like Rahhal, I specialized in Arabic literature in university, so many of the literary references, jokes, and asides were familiar to me, but many more were not and I found myself diving deeply into biographical dictionaries and classical Arabic poetry collections just to keep up.

While we are on the subject, I might just add that it is so common for academic institutions to undervalue literary translation as a legitimate scholarly practice (if it is valued at all). I find this baffling and frustrating. For me, striving to understand all aspects of a novel’s context is essential to producing a quality translation. Without that understanding, there will be so much left behind that won’t make it into the translated work. It is the research and the work that the reader may not see in the final translation that will determine the quality of that translation. 

When did you leave Arabic terms untranslated? 

AE: There is a lot of Arabic left in there, things that I felt should be in Arabic. That is not to say that I think there are words and concepts that cannot be translated; I think anything can be translated. Rather, there are words and phrases that may hold a particular meaning in Arabic that is difficult to bring over into English in just a few words. Take the word mukhabarat. I can come up with any number of different ways to say that in English such as like “secret police” or “intelligence agents“ or something like that. However, none of those English phrases express the fear that the Arabic word does in Morocco and other Arab countries. In this case, it is an important word I will preserve in the English translation, perhaps providing a stealth gloss and then moving on from there. 

As I edit, I really evaluate if certain words help an English reader understand what is intended, or whether they serve as hurdles or impediments to understanding. There are terms that I like to include such as articles of clothing or food; things that are particularly Moroccan. The novel was published in Egypt for an international Arab readership. There are things in there that might be slightly unfamiliar for any non-Moroccan. If I were to translate those Moroccan-specific terms, the English translation would read differently than it does in Arabic. More smoothly, which is not necessarily a good thing. Arabic is a very diverse language and Arab readers deal with that all the time and have to negotiate that reality. It’s a part of reading in Arabic. I want to preserve this in English. Sometimes things are unfamiliar to a reader, and that’s okay. It’s not necessarily my job to make reading easy and effortless. I trust the reader.

How does this novel — and how does Youssef Fadel’s work — fit in the Moroccan literary scene?

AE: Youssef Fadel and Yassin Adnan are definitely two writers who are at the top of their game and have received recognition both in Morocco and across the Arab world. I’m not sure I can say too much in general about the Moroccan literary scene except for the fact that it is intimate and extremely diverse – linguistically and formally. I suppose it is this diversity that is so interesting, and that draws me to it. Although they are at different points in their careers, what is common between Fadel and Adnan is their creativity and incisive critiques of Moroccan society after the 1980s. While earlier Moroccan works might have sought to create and define (and sometimes critique) Moroccan national identity in the early years of the Moroccan state (for example Abdelkrim Ghallab, Driss Chraïbi, or Leila Abouzeid), Fadel’s and Adnan’s works are firmly situated in a Morocco defined by social, political, and economic struggles of the past thirty years. What they are both doing is engaging with a past that is entirely Moroccan (as opposed to French colonial) and interrogating it in order to better understand the present, and hopefully move toward a more just and fair society.

Did you form a relationship with the author while working on his book? And what other projects are you currently working on? 

AE: The short answer to your question is, yes. Each translation yields a unique relationship between translator and author, and I think it works best when that relationship develops naturally, with both parties being clear from the outset as to how and to what extent the author will be involved, and what everyone’s expectations are. 

With Youssef Fadel, I mainly worked on my own, but he was always very generous with his time to help answer questions having to do with language, certain images and metaphors I may not have been seeing clearly, and anything else I might ask about. This type of exchange was exactly what was needed for those translations. Yassin Adnan made it clear from the outset that he was happy to offer as much help as I asked for, and this was particularly useful when it came to complexities of language, specific cultural and historical references, idioms, and so forth. We developed a working relationship of mutual respect and collaboration that I think worked really well. 

I am currently translating Khadija Marouazi’s Biography of Ash, a fictional prison narrative that takes the reader into Morocco’s “Years of Lead” (1960s-1980s) when thousands of political dissidents were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared. Following the death of King Hassan II in 1999, there was a burst of activity that aimed to bring to light the abuses of the Years of Lead. In the early 2000s, as a result of human rights reforms that had begun in the early 1990s, Moroccans were expressing themselves as never before in the form of published written material (prison memoirs, poetry collections, and novels), cinema, and public forums that included television airings of testimonials. This novel is a part of that wave.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.