How (and Why) to Subscribe to a Serialized ‘Kafka in Tangier’ Translation, Free

Kafka fi Tanja was published by Dar Tabarak for Publishing and Distribution in 2019. The first chapter appeared in Phoebe Bay Carter’s translation at ArabLit; you can subscribe to the rest of the novel, in installments, at kafkaintangier.com. You can also hear audio narration of the translation-in-progress by translator Paula Haydar.

Author and translator answered a few questions about the project.

How did this come about? Where did you get the idea? Have you seen other translators do projects like this, either independently or with a publisher? On a substack, or patreon, or elsewhere? 

Phoebe Carter: The idea for a serial translation, sent out via newsletter to subscribers, came from Mohammed, who wrote to me about it just a couple of weeks ago. He and I met when I was visiting Tangier in January 2020. He gave me a copy of his novel, which had just been published in Cairo. I devoured it in one sitting, laughing out loud several times as I read. I got excited then about translating the novel, and did actually translate the first chapter, before setting it aside for over a year. Without any publishing prospects, and various other translation projects underway with uncertain futures, I found myself starting to feel a bit too much like Aaliya from Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Unnecessary Woman, who translates a novel every year, only to store them, unpublished and unread, in her apartment. As much as I adore her, I still harbor aspirations of being a necessary translator – or, more modestly and accurately, a translator who is read. So, when Mohammed came to me with this idea and, to be frank, a contract with remuneration and deadlines – since these, though less fun to talk about than the pleasure I derive from puzzling over a text and bringing good literature to new audiences, are also a motivating factor – I threw myself back into the translation.

And I am excited by the idea of experimenting with the way translation and publishing is carried out. I haven’t come across any projects that take exactly this form (if you know of any, do send them our way!) but just in the past couple of years, I’ve encountered several other projects that break the mold of one source text>>one translator>>one final published translation that meets its audience. The New York Translation Collective (whose translation of Faraj Bayrakdar’s A Dove in Free Flight I am eagerly awaiting), for example, turns translation into a formally collective practice. Or Yasmine Seale’s Nights Bot, which tweeted out fragments of her translation-in-progress of the 1001 Nights, creating a virtual community following the translation as it was still in creation. And there is David Damrosch’s Around the World in 80 Books, though not itself a translation, is largely about translation, which he published first in blog form – an entry a week, each on a different book – before the book was released by Penguin Random House (3o2balna…). 

Mohammed Said Hjiouij: There’s always a first time, right? But I would be a fool to suppose that I’ve come up with a completely original idea. I have not come across anyone who has done something like this, but that does not mean that someone, in some corner of the world, writing in a language unknown to many, has not come up with a similar idea. Maybe that person just doesn’t know someone who can take notice of the project and pass it on to others.

So this will be . . . entirely free? A person signs up to get the chapter installments, one each Wednesday, and then at the end they’ll receive the ebook (also free?)? 

MS: Yes, exactly. A draft translation of a new chapter each week, and then the entire novel thereafter. Free. Readerswho are eager to read the drafts of the translation, and who may share their opinions and observations, deserve to then obtain the file of the entire novel after the final edits. If a publisher gets excited about the novel during this process, in order to publish the English translation they will have to agree to the continuation of the project until the end.

I hope you gave yourself a running start? Even Charles Dickens and Ihsan Abdel Kouddous must have missed a week sometimes.

PC: I’m certainly no Dickens or Kouddous, but I do work better when someone else is holding me accountable to get a section done every week. So, I am happy to have some pressure, as well as the immediate feedback and gratification of the work being read right away. That said, we did think having a bit of a cushion would be a good idea, so we’re starting the newsletter on January 5th, and I’m using the quiet of the long winter break between semesters of grad school to prepare that cushion.

Can you tell us a bit about the book? What did you enjoy about this? Why do you think it will work as a serial project? 

PC: This is a very slim, concise novel, packed full of so much delicious stuff: family drama, social critique, fantasy, and a delightfully ironic narrator. I love Mohammed’s intertextual play with The Metamorphosis and other texts, without letting it overrun the development of his own unique cast of characters. The protagonist is a young man in Tangier, who harbored dreams of becoming a literary critic, only to be hit with the reality of working two jobs to support his parents, wife, and children. One night, he reads Kafka’s Metamorphosis before going to bed, and wakes up to find himself transformed into a monster. After his transformation, he begins to discover a whole new side to the members of his family as their deeply buried secrets begin to come out. 

I hope that whoever subscribes to our substack will be as delighted and swept up by Mohammed’s narration as I was, and that I will be able to find a similar lightness, humor, and irony in English. At fifteen chapters, and about 14,200 words in Arabic, this is a very different beast than the hefty serialized novels of Dickens or Mahfouz, where readers would have spent hundreds of pages in the London or Cairo of these authors. But I think the short length of the individual chapters, as well as of the novel as a whole, along with the pace of each chapter, all lend themselves to a serialized, digital format. I hope the chapters’ arrival in readers’ inboxes will be a welcome opportunity to step into Hjiouij’s Tangier for a few minutes every week over the next few months.

What are the benefits to publishing a translation independently? Authors talk about “drawer novels,” and I’ve heard of translators who have “drawer translations”; what are the upsides and downsides to publishing a translation this way? (Or is there even a firm line between a very small publisher and publishing independently?)

MS: For me, this is a modest novel. But from time to time I receive an opinion from a reader, whom I do not know, who expresses his great admiration for it. The Arabic version was not successful (in terms of quality of design, printing, and the publisher’s contribution to marketing). Sometimes I think about forgetting this novel, but sometimes I think it deserves another chance. Translation is a way of giving it that chance. But it is a very short novel and publishers are not enthusiastic about novels of this length, let alone the fact that convincing a Western publisher to publish an Arabic novel by an unknown writer is nigh impossible. So why shouldn’t I be the publisher of my own novel? I found that Phoebe was enthusiastic about the novel and I could count on her to complete the translation, so I hired her to do so.

Indeed, there is really no dividing line between self-publishing and a very small publisher. I can do most of what a small publisher can do, even if I’m playing on a court other than my own. It is an adventure, and an opportunity to learn. It’s an investment I’m willing to make, and I think whatever the outcome I will profit from it, and I hope Phoebe will, too.

How does this fit in with the rest of your translation practice? 

PC: The first major translation project I undertook was Argentine poet Laura Yasan’s book The marilyn hold [la llave marilyn], in my last year of collegeI did most of my work sitting around a table in the library or at home with a handful of friends, who ended up serving as my subject matter experts, editors, and sounding board when I was torn between different possible phrasings. In Laura’s book, wrestling appears as an extended metaphor, and there is a lot of scientific vocabulary as well. One of my usual working companions had been a high-school wrestler, and another was studying biology. So, when the term doble nelson came up, there was someone to tell me that “full nelson,” rather than “double nelson,” is the more common term in the Anglophone wresting world, and someone else with a better ear for scientific English to walk me through a poem full of alloys and oxidation. And this remains my translator’s dream: to assemble my friends around me as I work, with all their particular areas of expertise, ears, and imaginations. Part of my hope for this experiment is to replicate something of this on a larger, virtual scale – to have our readers be able to write back and say, “hey, this part sounds off to me,” or “what if you tried this instead?” Mohammed is always my first reader, though, and I am grateful to have his attentive feedback. He has already saved me from a few particularly foolish blunders.

So could readers on substack be that community? And — if they have other thoughts about a particular turn of phrase (wrestling terms or otherwise) — should they send you a note?

PC: Yes! That’s exactly how we’re envisioning it. Readers are invited and encouraged to send their thoughts, suggestions, gripes… The chapters that will be going out weekly are not final drafts, not only because I am sure I will make changes once I have the entire text in front of me and can edit it as a whole, but also because I am hoping people will let us know when something sounds off to them or they have a suggestion for a different phrasing or what have you. You know, now you’ve got me thinking — maybe I’ll even include a note along with the chapter on any particular challenges I ran into, as I might in a translation workshop, along with that section in Arabic for bilingual readers.

You can sign up for free weekly installments at kafkaintangier.com.

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