2021 ArabLit Story Prize: Shortlisted Translator Katherine Van de Vate on Great Storytelling

Katherine Van De Vate’s translation of Karima Ahdad’s “The Baffling Case of the Man Called Ahmet Yilmaz” (الحالة المحيّرة للمدعوّ أحمت يلماز), 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:

I’m going to guess you first came across Karima’s oeuvre through her debut novel, Banat al-Sabbar (Cactus Girls), and from there discovered her stories. What struck you about her approach to narrative and told you, yes, yes, I want to work on rebuilding this in English? Do you find working on her short stories different from working on her novel? Is your approach to translating short stories different from translating a novel?

Katherine Van de Vate
Katherine Van de Vate

Katherine Van de Vate: I did indeed discover Karima Ahdad’s work through her debut novel Cactus Girls (published in 2018 by Dar Fennec in Rabat), of which I have translated a substantial excerpt. What attracted me above all to Karima’s work was her gift for evoking character, which is evident in the “The Baffling Case of the Man Called Ahmet Yilmaz.” Karima’s characters are sharply drawn, very real and immediate; you can see them, hear them, as if you’re in the room with them, whether it be a wedding or funeral in El Hoceima, a demonstration in Rabat, an apartment in Istanbul, or wherever the events are set. To convey these vivid personalities in English with the same immediacy is both fun and a challenge for the translator. I also like Karima’s direct writing style; it is forceful, yet light, and never flowery. And I adore her boldness — she doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult, sensitive subjects, whether it’s anti-Arab sentiment in Turkish society or the effects of religious fundamentalism on the lives of Moroccan women, which she writes about in Cactus Girls. She writes with passion, with verve, and in Arabic, which is less common than French among Moroccan women authors.

“The Baffling Case of the Man Called Ahmet Yilmaz” was actually written at my request. Karima is primarily a novelist, though she published an award-winning collection of short stories at the age of only 18. I asked Karima if she had any short stories I could translate, and she wrote this one in response to my question. It was based on an event she heard about while she was working as a journalist in Istanbul. 

Working on this short story wasn’t very different from working on her novel Cactus Girls. The latter consists of 56 short chapters, each told from the viewpoint of a particular character, and nearly all of which could stand as short stories on their own. You can see this in the chapter “Tattoos”, which was just published in translation by the Markaz Review in its issue “TMR 13 Origins.”  

What struck you about this particular story? What elements, to you, made it special?

KVV: This particular story explores topics we can all relate to – identity, belonging, the pursuit of dreams, discrimination, and how these all intersect. Ahmet, a Moroccan of Amazigh descent, yearns to become a citizen of Turkey, a country that is widely admired in the Arab world. Though he achieves his aim and even changes his name to a Turkish one, to his chagrin, he’s still regarded as an outsider – and an Arab to boot, though he’s actually Amazigh. Ahmet’s identity crisis comes to a head when his Turkish landlord decides he no longer wants to rent to “Arabs.”

This story touches simply but directly on the Pandora’s box of identity. Who belongs and on what basis? It’s a complex, fraught question, the responses to which often lead to discrimination, the inequitable distribution of resources, and even violence. This isn’t the right forum to address such a broad, complicated issue, but I do think Karima’s story neatly encapsulates key elements of it. Identity in Turkey, seat of the former Ottoman empire, is already a thorny question, but when you factor in the recent influx to the country of more than four million Syrians (not to mention Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and many others), you can see how tensions surrounding the issue may be heightened.

As you approached the story, or as you edited your translation, what were some of the primary challenges you faced? 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? 

KVV:  Because Karima’s style is quite straightforward, the linguistic challenges were not enormous. It was more the substance that I found hard to negotiate. I was concerned that the story could come across as anti-Turkish, though I don’t think it is. As I mentioned, identity in Turkey is a complex issue. Turkish citizens come from a wide range of backgrounds, Turkish and Kurdish, even Macedonian, Bulgarian, and others. One of the first questions one is asked in Turkey is “Nerelisiniz?”, meaning “where are you from?” but in fact it means, “What are your roots?” The answer to that question could be  – my mother is from the Black Sea region and my father is originally from Mardin; my father was born in Erzurum but my mother is from Istanbul, and so on. In such a complex society, there are many tensions around identity, let alone the tensions between Turks and the massive wave of immigrants from the Arab world and elsewhere. “Ahmet Yilmaz” also highlights the monolithic view many people have of “Arabs,” who, like Turks, come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnic origins. Until fairly recently, those multiple identities have been downplayed for political and social reasons, but now they are more on display, which is enriching the literary landscape. 

The other question was how to manage the relationship between Ahmet and his wife. In her efforts to placate their Turkish landlord, Fatima challenges her husband’s sense of control over their household, with tragic consequences. Finding the right tone for her wheedling and his mounting rage was hard. Nor was it a straightforward process for me to make the Turkish characters sound as condescending and prejudiced as they are in the story. That points to the influence of the translator’s personal background; I worked in Turkey for several years and never once encountered the kind of prejudice Karima portrays, so I struggled a bit to convey it. 

What draws you to short stories – and the things they can accomplish –  as opposed to 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?) 

KVV: I like short stories because they pack a punch or deliver a message with a minimum of words and a maximum of effect. Arab authors seem to prefer writing novels, but I wish even more of them would publish short stories. From a purely practical point of view, it’s also much easier to get a short story published in translation than a full novel. Making more Arabic short stories available in translation would increase familiarity with this huge pool of talented writers and foster a wider appreciation of Arabic literature, not to mention the richness and complexity of the societies of the region. There are over 400 million speakers of Arabic in the world, so we are clearly missing the opportunity to read a lot of good writing. 

As you’ve pitched and worked on Karima’s novel and short stories, what has been most frustrating and most rewarding? Why would you like to see her work in translation? 

KVV: The most rewarding part of working on Karima’s fiction has been the rapport I enjoy with the author herself. She’s wonderful to work with – responsive, always ready to explain or clarify, and strongly committed to her writing. She’s at an early stage of her career as an author, but she worked as a journalist for years both in Morocco and in Turkey. For her writing, she draws on her life experience and her work as a journalist, and that contributes to the immediacy of her fiction and the relevance of its subjects. Her new novel Turkish Dream, about Arabs living in Turkey, will appear in Arabic in October, and I look forward to reading it. 

Why should Karima’s work be published in translation?  First, because she’s a great storyteller. Her writing is accessible; its directness and lack of pretension draw the reader into a very different world. Secondly, Karima writes about aspects of the Middle East that Western readers don’t always hear about – poverty, rural Morocco, Amazigh society, the effects of religious fundamentalism on women, and the powerful bonds between women.

Karima’s first novel Cactus Girls deals with the effects of Islamic inheritance law on women in Morocco, and specifically with the provision known as ta’sib, which dictates that when a man dies without sons, his inheritance is shared between his immediate (female) survivors and his siblings. Though the details are quite complex, the application of ta’sib can contribute to the impoverishment of the female survivors. I know of no other novel that has addressed this topic.  

And last, I think English readers would enjoy hearing from more Moroccan women writing in Arabic. There are many who write in French, Meryem Alaoui for example, whose novel Straight from the Horse’s Mouth has appeared in a superb English translation by Emma Ramadan. Alaoui also evokes the lives of poor Moroccan women, but her novel is more light-hearted, with a Hollywood ending. There is no Hollywood ending for the women of Cactus Girls; they find their redemption through their love and support for one another, which enables (most of) them to survive in an unforgiving patriarchal society. 

All that said, Karima actually has a wicked sense of humor, so her work is frequently amusing, not just doom and gloom. I hope we will have a chance to see the full novel in English soon. 

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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.

Yesterday: Shortlisted Translator Katharine Halls on Dismantling and Rebuilding Stories

Tomorrow: A talk with Maissa Tanjour and Alice Holttum: On the Value of Co-translations

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Watch the author and translator read the story:

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Moroccan writer Karima Ahdad is a journalist and author from the city of El Hoceima who worked until May 2021 as a digital content editor for TRT Arabi in Turkey. Her first novel, Cactus Girls, was published in 2018 and won the 2019 Mohamed Zefzaf prize. Her 2014 short story collection The Last Hemorrhage of the Dream was awarded the prize for best young author from the Moroccan Writers’ Union. Ahdad has just completed a novel about Arabs living in Turkey. She speaks Arabic, French, English, and Amazigh.

Katherine Van de Vate translates modern Arabic literature into English. She previously worked as an Arabic curator at the British Library and as a US diplomat, serving tours in Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, the UK, and Syria. Her translations have been published in ArabLit Quarterly, Words without Borders, and Asymptote.

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3 thoughts on “2021 ArabLit Story Prize: Shortlisted Translator Katherine Van de Vate on Great Storytelling

  1. Very interesting interview, translator, writer, and work! Translators can make things happen, and they often do! Mabrook to both writer and translator, .. and best wishes for October 15!

    1. Thank you, and we’ll have to see if we can coax you into being a judge one of these years. 🙂

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