2021 ArabLit Story Prize: Shortlisted Translator Dima El-Mouallem on Authors and Their Ghosts

Dima El-Mouallem’s translation of Said Takieddine’s short story “Camphor Forestland” (غابة الكافور) was shortlisted for the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize.

Before the winner is announced later today — October 15 — we talk with each of the translators about their choices, technique, process, and (sometimes) teamwork:

Said Takieddine
Said Takieddine

Said Takieddine (1904–1960) is the only deceased author shortlisted for this year’s prize. Can you tell us something about him? How did you first come across his work, and why did you decide you wanted to translate it? 

Dima El-Mouallem: I first came across Takieddine as I was looking through Arabic Collections Online (ACO). I like to go through the categories related to my interests every so often, and that was when I came across Takieddine. I’m always up for reading new short stories, so I gave his “Ghabat al-Kafūr” a look, and I’m glad I did! Despite being Lebanese, Takieddine spent a large portion of his life between the Philippines, Mexico, and Columbia, which, in part, lends this distinct flavor to his style. He was a playwright too, which I think explains how well he captured the mood in this story. He was also politically active, and a lot of his concerns and preoccupations shine through. I really liked his distinct voice, and wondered how it would sound like in translation. I hope I did it justice!

What first struck you about this particular story? 

DM: Although Takieddine died in 1960, there are certain sentences that sound like they’re straight out of a sci-fi story. I’m thinking particularly about the line on the neon lights. At first read, you don’t quite know where the author is taking you, and I noticed that throughout the story he keeps on surprising you with the twists and turns of his narrative. You think you know where he’s going, but you don’t, as the ending makes abundantly clear. It was such a fun, strange, eerie read. I think it’s boring to think of the story only as a lesson, although there is definitely a lesson involved. But there’s also an unmistakable tinge of horror in it, which I found fascinating.

If you look at the works you’ve decided to translate, what brings them together? What is it about a work that tells you, Yes, I want to translate this

DM: In my academic work, I deal mostly with premodern Islam, so unfortunately, the authors I find myself working with are deceased. The act of translation becomes a séance. I find myself asking, “Would you have liked this translation? Would you have done it differently?” I hope the ghosts of my authors approve.

My earlier entry with ArabLit was an excerpt from a manuscript on the tricks of thieves and con-artists, by the fascinating al-Jawbari. I like works that are cheeky and fun and unusual. I like works that focus on narrative and the way weaving stories connects us as people and make us less lonely, if only for the short duration of a story. Preserving our moral integrity and basic sense of self depends on the stories we tell to and about ourselves, and the realm of story allows us to investigate that. Sometimes it’s a delightful exercise, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but the alternatives are far worse than mere discomfort. I don’t think the narrator’s solution of isolating himself was the virtuous choice either. There’s a delicate balance that may take an entire lifetime to achieve, but it’s possible to walk in the world and preserve your own integrity, one act at a time.

Both my translations for ArabLit so far have been of works in the public domain. I’m fascinated by many contemporary writers and their works, but unfortunately, I don’t have access to any of them or know their contact details. If any contemporary authors or translators liked my work, I’m open to collaborations of course.

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?

DM: Just as the narrator is constantly being backed against the wall, toward that darkened portion of the verandah, so to speak, so is the reader. I was really concerned about capturing that atmosphere in translation. At the end, when the horrible reveal unfolds, I tried to use the imperative mood and short, clipped sentences to portray that sense of urgency and grotesquery. Takieddine seemed to be preoccupied with the consequences of modernization in his focus on neon lights, radios, and phonographs, so I tried to use jarring adjectives and phrasings to convey that. The decimation of Camphor Forestland couldn’t have happened without large-scale mechanization, after all. Concerning the narrator, I chose not to translate his opening lines using the plural although the Arabic pronouns are plural because in Arabic they’re used as a manner of speaking sometimes, and they were used with a certain forced, jittery levity here. In contrast, I made sure to use the pompous “we” to portray the minister’s “iron fist in a velvet glove” approach.

Are there other works by Takieddine that you’d like to translate or see translated? 

DM: His “al-Mirsāt” in the same collection seems like a promising translation project. I also wonder about his plays: what if they were translated or even performed on stage? 


The winner of the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize will be announced today, October 15, 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.


Shortlisted Translator Katharine Halls on Dismantling and Rebuilding Stories

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

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

2021 ArabLit Story Prize: Shortlisted Translator Burnaby Hawkes on the Translingual Experience


Said Takieddine (1904–1960) was a Lebanese playwright, author, journalist, activist, and businessman.

Dima El-Mouallem is a translator and a scholar of Islamic Studies. She earned her M.A. in Islamic Studies from the American University of Beirut, with a focus on the wonderful, the strange, and the miraculous.