On Self-Translating ‘A Foreign Novel’

This is part of a special section on self-translation.

By Khalid Lyamlahy

An author’s/translator’s note: 

The novel Un Roman Étranger was published in France in 2017 by Présence Africaine Editions. It is about a foreign student narrator who lives in a Paris-like city and struggles to renew his residence card, write his first novel, and conquer an almost impossible love. In an environment becoming increasingly hostile to him, he seeks refuge in writing, ardently pursuing his belief in the possibility of self-reconstruction. The novel asks: what is a residence card? A fleeting sign of identity, or a pretext for writing a novel? And what about the renewal procedure: how to describe the administrative spirals, the endless round trips, the unbearable tensions and the exasperating wait times? 

The narrator’s only social interactions are with two University classmates: Sophie, a gorgeous young woman intrigued by his foreign background and to whom he wishes to declare his love, and Lucien, an amateur painter who has lost interest in studies and grapples instead with one of his most challenging works. The novel depicts both the harrowing, and often humiliating, procedure of renewing a residence card, and the deeply painful process of writing a novel. It is a text about identity, difference, and the act of creation as resistance. Although the protagonist is far more privileged than many other immigrants, he is still subject to various forms of exclusion and must deal with fear, anxiety, and doubt. 

In France, the expression “un roman étranger” (a foreign novel) is commonly used to designate novels originally written in languages other than French. Here, it serves to highlight both the narrator’s attempt to reconstruct and document his odyssey in writing, and the alienating administrative-bureaucratic system in which he becomes enmeshed while seeking to renew his identification document. The novel opens with a quotation from Albert Camus’s Notebooks: “I know that now I am going to write. There comes a time when the tree, after much suffering, must bear fruit. Every winter ends in a spring. I must bear witness.” The foreign student’s administrative and writerly pursuit speaks to the power of literature to illuminate reality and turn personal experiences into literary objects.

The novel is divided into two parts, each consisting of three alternating yet interrelated plots: the renewal procedure, the writing of the novel, and the protagonist’s social interactions. As the reader moves from one chapter to another, the three dimensions of the narrative become increasingly connected and overlapping in a dense network that echoes the protagonist’s uncertain journey. The second part of the novel begins with a quotation from Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born: “The substance of a work is the impossible—what we have not been able to attain, what could not be given to us: the sum of all the things which were refused us.” Writing a novel, for the foreign student, is an attempt to overcome rejection and expose some of the persistent impossibilities which foreigners, exiles, and immigrants must continually surmount or break through. 

I wrote the novel in 2013 while I was simultaneously working as an engineer and studying French and Comparative literature at Université Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle. Each year, like many other foreigners living in the French capital, I had to go through the gruelling process of renewing my residence card: booking appointments, gathering and making copies of official documents, taking ID photographs, collecting receipts and waiting for answers and confirmations. At the time, I was haunted by the question of what writing is and can do. Reading the works of the “nouveau roman” movement, especially Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, and Michel Butor, I became intensely interested in the many ways in which literary form conveys a sense of precision that serves to capture reality, challenge assumptions, and reframe problems. A Foreign Novel is a book about how the painful passion for writing and the embrace of formal experimentation can elucidate questions of identity, belonging, and self-fulfilment. 

Self-translation is no easy work. For me, it was an arduous confrontation not only with the act of re-writing but also with my language practices and preferences. I grew up in Morocco, speaking Moroccan Arabic (“Darija”), and learning Modern Standard Arabic and French before English. Multilingualism has always been an integral part of my everyday life, although I now work mainly in French and tend to use English exclusively for academic work. When I started translating the four excerpts, I quickly realized that the novel was slipping through my fingers. I had to control a distant self who was constantly looking over my shoulder. My challenge was to select and reproduce some particular moments that exemplify the experience of the foreign student and convey both the anxiety and the determination that define his experience throughout the novel.  My intention was less to render the exact meaning of my original work than to offer four glimpses into the inherently complex reality experienced by the protagonist at various stages of his journey. I added a title for each excerpt to help the reader navigate the content.  

Like all translations, this one is the result of a collaborative effort. I am deeply indebted to my friends Conor Bracken, Emily Cox, Jake Syersak, and Rebekah Vince, who took the time to read and comment on these excerpts at different stages. I would like to thank them warmly for their extremely helpful suggestions and support. They helped me not only to improve the overall quality of the translation but also to cope with the discomfort of this exercise and to rethink my position as both a writer and a translator. 

Read the four excerpts from the novel, translated by the author.

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Khalid Lyamlahy is Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. His work focuses on North African literature in relation to political, social, and cultural debates in the region and beyond. He is author of Un Roman Etranger (2017) and co-editor of Abdelkébir Khatibi: Postcolonialism, Transnationalism, and Culture in the Maghreb and Beyond (2020). He tweets at @khalidlym.

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