2021 ArabLit Story Prize Shortlisted Translators Maissa Tanjour and Alice Holttum: On the Value of Co-translations

Maissa Tanjour and Alice Holttum’s co-translation of Mustafa Taj Alden Almosa’s “How Kind They Are” (كم هم لطفاء) 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:

How did you first come across Mustafa Taj Alden Almosa’s short stories, and what made you decide you wanted to translate his work? 

Maissa Tanjour

Maissa Tanjour: On a cold winter evening in December 2015, my brother and I were discussing the storyline and translation of one of his films, as we usually do. During the conversation, he simply could not believe that anyone had the temerity to call themselves a literary translator without actually having heard of or read Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa’s short stories, so I immediately looked him up on Google and social media platforms. During the years that followed, I read Almosa’s short stories. This was a pivotal moment: a moment that Almosa’s literary work spoke to me. As I delved deep into his narrative world and explored his characters and themes I was fascinated by both the marvelously well-written plots and their depiction of endless nightmares. He skillfully deconstructs the world around him to recreate a parallel one inhabited by the narrator — often the writer himself — and other characters. In this dystopian and nightmarish world, Almosa depicts and explores social, political, cultural, religious, ideological, and psychological structures before and during the Syrian war. He adeptly mixes miscellaneous genres in the same text, thus creating influential and poignant stories which succeed in capturing the feelings as well as the inner psychological metamorphoses experienced by his characters. His stories strip our souls and lay bare our emotions in extraordinary ways that only true art can accomplish. The more stories I read, the deeper I was entangled in his narrative world and the stronger the motive became to bring Almosa’s short stories to English-speaking readers. The thought of translating his stories would haunt me for a long time but it was not until September 2019 that I discussed the idea of a potential English translation with the author and secured the rights to do so. 

Alice Holttum

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

MT: “How Kind They Are” was one of the first five stories we translated into English. The other two were “Smuggling Dostoevsky’s Heroes Out of Idlib,” “The Great Plan,” “Seven Months with the Witch and her Broom,” and “A Bus Full of Scumbags.”  What struck me most about this particular story is how Almosa condensed and encapsulated the daily macabre adversities endured by his country and people in a short story that starts and ends with the allegorical dilemma of having curly hair. This dilemma is central to the plot. While the narrator / writer does not seem to care much about his life, he is concerned about his curly hair, how it makes him look like a scary “ghoul” or the “snake-haired Medusa,” and he is uncharacteristically intent on making it “silky soft.” The curly hair comes to represent the narrator’s identity, his desire to fit in and stop feeling like an outsider. It is not necessarily the hair that is important to him, but the sense of belonging it generates. There are many other elements that make “How Kind They Are” special. The sardonic title is intriguing and in itself quite compelling to involve readers in the act of interpreting the narrative. Almosa weaves a disquieting tale of horror with superb sophistication and exquisite literary language and style that help to intensify his vivid portrayal of the oppression and brutal atrocities of the Syrian regime. The combination of dark comedy and absurdist fiction as well as the discrepancy between text content and tone establish the tragic disposition of the writer, his sense and perception of reality, and these add depth and a plethora of interpretations and reactions to the story.

Why did you and Alice decide to work on this translation together? What does co-translating bring to the project that you might not achieve alone? 

MT: It is worth noting that at the time I started translating Almosa’s stories into English, I was trying to help with his asylum application to the UK. I thought it would be great if the Home Office staff who would review his application could have the opportunity to read his short stories. Having worked with Alice since our university study in 2005-6 and subsequently on several projects including translating and editing of film scripts, I contacted her about editing the first short stories I translated, which she kindly welcomed as always and was very enthusiastic about. When Almosa’s asylum application was unsuccessful, Alice and I decided to continue working on the translation project that we had started. At this stage, we agreed to work on the translation project collaboratively and we embarked on the co-translation journey in January 2020 and completed the translation of nearly 60 short stories by June 2021. We are currently pitching the collection to publishers and, at the same time, submitting individual stories to magazines in the UK and other countries. 

The decision to co-translate was the result of our mutual interest in literary translation and our belief that literature and other art forms can provide power, freedom and justice in the midst of chaos. Our aim is to increase the visibility of Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa and his literary work, which may be less well known in the UK, and bring it to a wider audience, most crucially when these stories relate to lived experiences. We believe this helps personalize and give a human face to major events — in this case, the Syrian war — which can then hopefully support positive outcomes such as increased understanding, empathy and even action. 

Co-translating is a complex shared process that has enriched the project on various levels: the macro level which includes the socio-cultural, political, and ideological aspects of source and target texts; and micro level which covers the selection of words, grammatical patterns, forms of speech reproduction, narrative perspective, and culture-oriented problems such as allusions. Alice is a native English speaker. She studied BA (Joint Honours) in Russian and Arabic at 2:i level. I am a native Arabic and near-native English speaker with a BA in English Language and Literature. We both have relevant MAs, too; Alice’s is in Applied Translation Studies (Arabic-English) and mine is in Interpreting and Translation Studies (English-Arabic-English). Alice and I work very well together and complement each other effectively. Each of us is approaching the text with a wealth of knowledge of both languages and cultures. We are both outsiders and insiders, readers and translators, hence approaching the text from various angles and perspectives which ultimately enriched the translation process and product.

How specifically did you work on it? Did one of you start and the other revise? Or did you both make your own versions? Or was it some other way entirely? 

MT: Many models of co-translation exist. For Alice and me, discussion and communication is crucial. Translating fiction, as with writing fiction, is a creative activity where translators or co-translators manipulate the different strategies in order to achieve communication with target readers. First, I would start by translating the story, i.e. creating a first draft. I would discuss with Mustafa any socio-cultural, political, ideological references in order to find a possible equivalence. I was particularly interested in what the writer meant by using certain references and what impact was intended on his target readers. Discussions with the writer sometimes generated a few possible strategies and options to translate a specific reference that I would write down in a comment next to the reference to discuss eventually with Alice. After a few readings and revisions of the draft, adding comments about the issues to review at a later stage, this draft is sent to Alice along with the Arabic originals. Alice would work on the first draft, editing the draft while referring to the original. She would also add comments about any potential issues that we need to discuss. Once this is done, Alice would send me the drafts with the edits tracked so I can read again, and accept or reject the suggested changes. We would meet online at this stage to discuss and review all the problematic issues we encountered while working on the translations to decide on the best possible interpretation and consequently translation. This was the process we went through with each story or collection of stories. The process was efficient and enriching to the translations and to us. We were translators as well as source and target text readers. It was a complex activity to create the translations and at the same time a process of learning that contributed to our knowledge on linguistic, artistic, aesthetic, and socio-cultural differences.

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? Do you face these challenges differently as a pair than you might alone? 

MT: One of the main challenges was how to retain and convey the sarcasm and dark humor of the Arabic original while producing a response in target readership close to that elicited in source text readers. Although translators are in an influential position to rebuild the relations in and around the text, it is vital to let the writer’s voice remain visible throughout the translation. It was easier in some places to translate references without adding any paratextual elements such as interpolations or footnotes. For example, there was no need to explain Alomsa’s mythological allusion of “snake-haired Medusa” as it is universal and could be understood by target readers. Whereas other socio-cultural references required the addition of footnotes which made the co-translators’ voice visible. For example, Almosa refers to ‘Addounia TV’ which is readily recognized by source readers, as it was the mouthpiece of the Syrian government. To achieve an equivalent effect on target readership, Alice and I opted to add a brief footnote stating that it is “a pro-regime television channel known for disseminating government propaganda and sanctioned by the EU in 2011 for inciting violence” to make Almosa’s sardonic reference clearer to target readers. In another example, Almosa plays on a popular Syrian saying “Women make up one half of society” by changing it to “Men make up one half of society.” To keep the sarcasm of this expression, Alice and I chose to paraphrase the sentence to “They never believe that men have equal rights nowadays.” Translation is a process of communication not only between the co-translators but also between translators and writer and between translators and target readers. It goes beyond the meaning of words to convey the artistic and aesthetic essence of the original. It is a creative practice which I’d like to think of as directing a film. Where a filmmaker brings a script to the screen through a myriad of techniques to communicate with the audience, a translator communicates the knowledge of the original to target readership using countless linguistic strategies to preserve the beauty of the original.

What do you think is distinctive about Almosa’s literary voice? If you had five minutes stuck in an elevator with all your dream publishers (and let’s say none of them are claustrophobic), what would you try to communicate about why his work should be in English translation? 

MT: Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa has a talent that places him in the top rank among writers of the new generation. The reality of life is very bleak but Almosa has a remarkably sharp eye and can translate poetically what he has seen and experienced into such exquisite language that everything we do, our lives and all our emotions — being terrified in wars, displacement, torture in prisons, falling in love, death — are portrayed with astonishing vividness. His prowess lies in his ability to describe hard brutal reality with startling wit. His fertile imagination has helped him to write stories characterized by satire, cynicism, criticism, expressionism, realism, surrealism, fantasy and absurdity, and he has succeeded in formulating his own unique literary language and style. Almosa’s literary work broadens and diversifies our understanding of social and psychological human nature within various contexts. It is simply an invaluable attempt to denounce war, to exist, to learn how to cope with loss and disappointment, and how to love life in all its manifestations. It is a scream against fear and death as much as it is an ode and a homage to life and love in times of both war and peace.  

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

Tomorrow: A talk with shortlisted translator Burnaby Hawkes.

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Watch the author read the story:

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Syrian author and playwright Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa has published six collections of short stories and four plays that have won him prestigious literary prizes in Syria and the Arab world. Several of his short stories have been translated into many European languages as well as Turkish, Japanese, Persian and Kurdish.

Maisaa Tanjour is a freelance translator and researcher. She was born in Syria in 1979 and currently resides in Leeds. She is also an interpreter with years of experience working in diverse professional, humanitarian, local and multicultural communities and organisations. She studied at the University of Homs, and has a BA English Language and Literature and a PG Diploma in Literary Studies. She came to the UK in 2005 to study at the University of Leeds, and has an MA in Interpreting and Translation Studies, and a PhD in Translation Studies. 

Alice Holttum is a part-time freelance translator and translation proofreader. She was born in Edinburgh in 1979 and currently resides there, working also as a furniture maker. She has a Joint Honours BA in Russian and Arabic (2004) and an MA in Applied Translation Studies (Arabic-English) (2006), both from the University of Leeds.

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