By Tugrul Mende
This month, Europa Editions published Shukri Makhbout’s The Italian in Miled Faiza and Karen McNeil’s English translation. This novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) back in 2015; six years later, English reader has a chance to glimpse Makhbout’s literary world and to read one of the rare Tunisian novels translated to English.
How did you get in touch with Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian? What role did IPAF play in your decision making?
Miled Faiza: We were approached by Europa Editions through a friend. They asked us to translate the first chapter, which we did in June 2018. In September 2019, we received an email from the publisher, asking us whether we were still interested in taking on the project. I had already read al-Talyani and thought that it would be a great opportunity to introduce this Tunisian novel to an English-speaking audience, especially since it deals with the history of modern Tunisia under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. These two leaders’ politics had and still have a very crucial impact on the lives of many generations of Tunisians. The IPAF didn’t play any role in our decision, but it certainly did with the publisher as many of the Arabic novels being translated into English have already been awarded prizes in the Arab world.
The German translator Günter Orth writes at Qantara that “Mabkhout renders his country a great service at the same time providing us with a novel that is part universally intelligible documentary on state security and part relation of the depths plumbed by [its] protagonist Nasser in his amatory entanglements.“ What is your take on Shukri Mabkhout’s novel? How would you describe this novel to someone who doesn’t know the content and context of the novel?
Karen McNeil: I would say that the novel is about how dictatorship and government corruption destroys people. The main character, Abdul Nasser, is a symbol of the Tunisian intelligentsia of this time period, who were corrupted by the rot in society, no matter how righteously and idealistically they started out. Or if they refused to be corrupted, like Zeina, then they were simply crushed. His amorous exploits are part of his downward spiral: in college, he is respectful of women and shows a sophisticated consciousness of the structures of patriarchy (for example, by trying to explain how the spreading of sexual rumors about female activists is an effort to silence them). But by the end, he has become a debauched misogynist. It’s all part-and-parcel of the corruption of his ideals and morals.
What was special about The Italian? Was it evident that it was a debut novel or what made you want to translate this novel by an unknown Tunisian novelist?
MF: The Italian tells the story of my generation. The struggles we went through while dreaming of a better future. Abdul Nasser and Zeina’s story is the story of many Tunisians who were crushed by a violent system rotten with corruption, hypocrisy, and nepotism. As for the novel, it wasn’t evident that it’s a debut novel as Shukri Mabkhout has been established for many years as a critic, linguist, and translator. He’s written many books on Tunisian society, intellectual history, and linguistics. There is a big difference, in my opinion, between writing a debut novel in your twenties and writing it in your fifties, as is the case with Shukri Mabkhout here.
While translating The Italian, which part fascinated you the most or frustrated you the most? What role does the language play?
KM: The Italian is written in Modern Standard Arabic, which is the norm for Tunisian novels, though there have been several in the past few years written in vernacular Tunisian Arabic. For me, the most frustrating part of translating The Italian was working on sections where I felt the portrayal of female characters was off-key, or rubbed me in the wrong way. There’s a temptation to “clean up” such parts, to make them more appealing to the English-language audience, and I had to resist that temptation. On the other hand, I really enjoyed how much I learned about Tunisian history and culture in this novel, things that I never knew, even though I’ve spent a fair amount of time there. In particular, I feel that I got a great sense of the city of Tunis from this novel; I’ve spent very little time in the capital, so didn’t know much about it before.
MF: There are many fascinating parts in the novel, but what fascinated me most are the sections that were written with a cinematic style. It felt at times as if I was translating a movie: the language, the scenes, the soundtrack — and the strong emotions that infuse all of those. I also enjoyed translating every section of the book where the story evolved around a familiar dish or an intimate place in Tunis or in other parts of Tunisia. As for the difficult parts that I struggled with as a translator, there was a section where Shukri Mabkhout used classical poetic language and horse-riding metaphors during a love scene. That was challenging to render in English.
You worked as a team while working on The Italian; what did you process look like? Did you divide the novel which part each of you would translate or did you each translate everything? What was the most difficult aspect while working on the novel?
KM: We both worked on the entire novel, but we worked in phases. Our biggest challenge, working on this novel or any of our translation projects, is just finding the time for it, because we both have day jobs. And we have three small children, so usually we can’t physically work “together” — one of us has to be with the kids! So the way we work is that Miled will take a first pass, translating the Arabic into English, conveying the meaning pretty literally. Then I take that text and rewrite it in idiomatic English, while referring back to the original Arabic frequently. Then I go through and review it, trying to smooth out the language and assuring consistency in names, places, transliterated words, and such. At all points we confer frequently with each other: if he is stumped about how to translate a concept into English, he’ll ask me; if I can’t figure out what something means, even after consulting the original text, I’ll ask him. This is a way of working together that we’ve developed while translating poetry and short stories, and it works pretty well for us. With The Italian, we had the additional phase of review by the publisher’s reviewer Addie Leak. She did an amazing job reviewing our translation. Not only did the final work turn out much better than it would have otherwise, but I learned a lot from the process that I will take into future translations.
You are probably aware of Ismael Fayed’s review on Mada Masr which was published a few years back, in which he writes, “But my biggest beef with The Italian is the homophobia that effectively shapes the novel’s opening and end. Two key scenes are Abdel Nasser’s encounter as a child with a neighbor who tries to sexually assault him and his subsequent attack on this neighbor. This is the only LGBT character in the novel, although at some point rumors that Abdel Nasser slept his way to becoming a journalist (by seducing the editor-in-chief) are dismissed by the anonymous narrator as malicious and completely unfounded gossip. It is very hard to comprehend why Mabkhout uses the word luti (sodomite) and shaz (pervert) for “homosexual.”“ Would you agree with this and did you have a conversation with the author about these terms?
KM: I am aware of this review, and I think it raises a valid point that is the case with much Arabic literature (The Yacoubian Building comes to mind as another example), where there is a case of pedophilia that is conflated with homosexuality. The problem is not necessarily these depictions in isolation, but rather the fact that they are often the only depictions in Arabic literature. (Although this might be changing with some cutting-edge modern novels, like the Tunisian vernacular novel Wild Fadhila.) And I agree that this is unfortunate, and something I hope to see change. But the other criticism, about the narrator’s attitude and the language used, I don’t agree with because I think that this is an accurate reflection of the society Mabkhout is writing about. The novel is set in Tunisia, in the latter half of the 20th century: showing characters who were “enlightened” on this issue would strain credulity. And those words, though ugly, are the words that are widely used, even today: that is just the nature of the language, and it’s reflective of the society as it was (and is).
How much did you need to do research into Tunisia’s history and the time that the novel was set in? How much does the novel reflect the past and/or the present?
MF: I am familiar with most of the history that the novel covers with the exception of some details about the student activist groups in the early seventies, which I had to do some reading on. I also had to do some research on some Marxist philosophers mentioned in the novel who I didn’t know before. The rest of the events or time periods the novel dealt with were familiar to me. I personally witnessed some of the most important events the novel mentioned, such as the bloodless coup by Ben Ali that ousted Bourguiba. I also heard first-hand of many other events mentioned in the novel from my parents or siblings, or I had read about them. The author wanted to tell a story of our aborted dreams, our struggles against a brutal system that terrorized us for many decades whether under Bourguiba or Ben Ali. The story of al-Talyani is the story of most Tunisians who grew up, went to school, and graduated from college only to find out that their country wouldn’t tolerate their political activism, whether on the right or on the left. It is the story of a one-party system under which people don’t have many options: you either “walk by the wall” as we say in Tunisia (which means to keep your head down and avoid trouble), or work from within the system like Abdel Nasser did — or leave, like Zeina.
Do you think Tunisian literature is sufficiently represented in English translation? What other authors should be translated?
MF: I don’t think that Tunisian literature is well-represented in English translation compared to some other Arab countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. Tunisian novels are not written against the background of wars, suicide bombings, and mass graves. I believe that many publishers are not interested in a normal love story or any story that is not exotic enough for their marketing appetite. The few Tunisian novels which are available in translation made it into English thanks to the prizes that they won, or because of the curiosity the country attracted after the Arab Spring. I am hopeful, however, that the young vibrant translators will be able in the near future to make a strong case to convince publishers about the merits of Tunisian literature, and Maghrebi literature in general.
KM: I don’t know how to judge whether Tunisia is well-represented or not in English translation; it is a small country, though an interesting one in my opinion. I do know that there are several Tunisian novels that I would like to translate, if God gives us life (and spare time!). The first is A Date in Its Cluster by Bashir Khrayyef. He’s a founding father of the Tunisian novel, and this novel is beautiful. It’s a shame that it hasn’t yet been translated, even though it was published in 1969. I think it hasn’t yet been done because it would be difficult for any translator who is not Tunisian: Khrayyef writes the narrative in Standard Arabic, but the dialogue is all in a southern dialect of Tunisian Arabic. The way in which the language of the novel is so grounded in its setting is one of the things that makes it beautiful, but the dialect holds some difficulties for anyone who is not very familiar with Tunisian Arabic. The second novel is A Farewell to Rosalie, by Hassouna Mosbahi. Mosbahi has had other novels translated into English, but this one has not been yet and it’s one of my favorite novels. The third is Family Secrets, by Faten Fazaa. This is one of the new crop of novels written in vernacular Tunisian Arabic, and the first written by a woman. And it’s a novel I enjoyed very much, although in translating it I would face a challenge in representing the light and beautiful Tunisian Arabic that it’s written in. One review that I read described its language as bneen (“delicious”) and I quite agree. I would love to take on the challenge of translating it.
Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is a regular contributor to ArabLit.