Katharine Halls‘ translation of Rasha Abbas’s “You Can Call Me Velvet” (تستطيع أن تدعوني مخمل) is on the shortlist for the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize.
Before the winner is announced at the end of this week — October 15 — we talk with each of the translators about their choices, technique, process, and (sometimes) teamwork:
Rasha has so many compelling short stories. What drew you to this one?
Katharine Halls: She does. I read Kayfa tamma ikhtiraʿ al-lughah al-Almaniyyah this summer and really enjoyed it; I’ve just moved to Germany myself and her witty, acerbic takes on flat-hunting in Berlin and navigating German bureaucracy were so relatable. This story comes from another collection of hers, Mulakhkhas ma jara, which Alice Guthrie is translating as The Gist Of It and which really deserves to be published. “You Can Call Me Velvet” strikes a very different tone to the stories in Kayfa tamma. Although in some general sense it’s also preoccupied with arriving somewhere new and being an outsider, the voice is much more vulnerable and the plot more expansive. I love the blue-haired protagonist; she’s candid and reflective but she’s fearless and she absolutely knows, or rather comes to know, what a magnificent creature she is.
What draws you to short stories — and the things they can accomplish — as different from novels, plays, poetry? What is the draw to short stories for you as a translator? (Is it different from what draws you as a reader?)
KH: I think they’re less predictable as a form. You never know what you’re going to get with a short story! I enjoy that as a reader and a translator. Shame publishers never want to publish them.
As you approached the story, or as you edited your translation, what were some of the primary challenges you saw? What did you want to make sure to carry across (or rebuild, or adapt) into the English — in terms of tone, style, diction, voice — and how did you work on doing it?
KH: The core of the story, for me, is the crescendo and climax of the 27-years-old section where Velvet discovers her credentials yet realizes she’s always going to be an outsider. What an impeccably crafted piece of language. Velvet has such a clear voice that an English equivalent proposed itself to me fairly swiftly, but I did have to work hard at the rhythm what with all those run-on sentences. I went over it again and again, tweaking words here and there, till it came out sounding right. And I really struggled with the rhythm at the end of the story. Something about the final sentence just wasn’t working when I read it out loud. I actually made a load more edits to the ending after I’d already submitted it.
Did you consult at all with Rasha? Do you generally talk with a (living) author about a project?
KH: This text is so short that not much came up by way of questions. I do almost always talk to authors when I can, though; it’s a very important part of the process and one of the means by which a translator’s individuality imprints itself upon a work. I often find myself asking questions about details which aren’t even in the text. Ok, the protagonist knocks at an acquaintance’s door: Where is that door? What kind of building is it in? Is it in a darkened stairwell or on a bright street? Does it lead to a large flat or a tiny studio? The reader will never know these things, but I like to know them so I can orient myself properly towards the text. I want to come at the text in the right direction. I want that strong sense of direction to animate my writing. A bit like how iron filings move on a piece of paper when you place a magnet underneath. Not to say that you can’t come at a text obliquely, in a different direction to the author, so to speak, or without really knowing or caring what the author intended or where they were headed (qasada in Arabic encompasses both meanings, incidentally). But when I pick texts I like, it’s often because I like that sense of direction, because that’s where I’m going, too.
What draws you (keeps drawing you) to translation, generally? What pleasures and joys does it bring, when everything is working right?
KH: Well, first of all I love Arabic. It’s sublime. I love Semitic languages in general, but Arabic is extra special. The system of the ten-plus derived verb forms of the triliteral root is a masterpiece of human creativity. And then I love translation because it’s difficult and technical and highly precise, like a puzzle to be solved. I notice that translators spend a lot of time claiming that they’re “artists in their own right” or “just as creative as original authors.” I understand; in the economy of prestige, the genius artist is valued more highly than the craftsperson or the technician or the artisan, because we’re still hung up on the Romantic notion of the artist, their individuality, their inspiration, etc. But it’s a shame that that’s what we have to say in order for our work to be better appreciated and better remunerated. I disagree with that mode of assigning value to different forms of creation. And in fact I do think of myself as a highly skilled technician. I have my tools and my techniques and I know how a piece of writing works; I’ve spent years and years studying so I can identify its constituent parts and understand how they all fit together, and now my job is to take texts apart and put them back together again. That’s what I love about translation: dismantling everything and identifying every last piece of the machinery then fitting it all together and tweaking and adjusting till it runs true, and polishing until it just shines.
The winner of the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize will be announced October 15, 2021 at 2 p.m. UTC+1 . That’s 9 a.m. EST, 2 p.m. UK, 3 p.m. Berlin and Cairo, 4 p.m. Amman, 5 p.m. UAE.
Tomorrow: A talk with Katherine Van de Vate.
Rasha Abbas is a Syrian journalist and writer of short stories. She is currently based in Berlin, Germany. In 2008, she published her first collection, Adam Hates the Television, and was awarded a prize for young writers during the Damascus Capital of Arab Culture festival. In 2013 she co-wrote the script for a short film, Happiness and Bliss, produced by Bedayat, and in 2014 she contributed, both as a writer and as a translator, to Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, published by Saqi Books. Her second short story collection, The Gist of It, was published in 2019.
Katharine Halls is an Arabic-to-English translator from Cardiff, Wales. She was awarded a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Haytham El-Wardany’s Things That Can’t Be Fixed and her translation, with Adam Talib, of Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace received the 2017 Sheikh Hamad Award and was shortlisted for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. Her translations for the stage have been performed at the Royal Court and the Edinburgh Festival, and short texts have appeared in World Literature Today, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Adda, Africa is A Country, Newfound, Critical Muslim, The Common, Arts of the Working Classes, and various anthologies.
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