Translation as Lifeline: Paula Haydar on Translating Jabbour Douaihy

By Tugrul Mende

Paula Haydar has translated more than a dozen novels by authors from the Levant, including three novels by Elias Khoury and five by the late Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy.

Haydar’s translation of Douaihy’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted June Rain  was selected as the highly commended runner-up of the 2014 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. She also went on to translate Douaihy’s The American Quarter (2017) and Printed in Beirut (2018), and she has two more translations of Douaihy’s work forthcoming this year: Firefly (شريد المنازل ), which she co-translated with Nadine Sinno is forthcoming from Seagull Books in May, and her translation of Douaihy’s The King of India is expected from Interlink Books this August. She is currently at work on translating her sixth novel by Douaihy, Poison in the Air.

Here, Haydar talks about her long relationship with Douaihy’s work. 

After translating so many works by Jabbour Douaihy, you must have become something of an expert on his oeuvre, What made you choose to translate The King of India and Firefly

Paula Haydar: Like many of the works I’ve translated over the years, one might say these novels chose me. In both cases, the author and publisher sought me out. Both novels received high acclaim and several awards, including making the shortlist for the International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF) – Firefly (Shareed al-Manazil, 2010) in 2012 and King of India (Malik al-Hind, 2019) in 2020. As stated on their webpage, one of the main aims of the IPAF is “to encourage translation of Arabic literature into other languages.” Publishers do indeed look to these lists for titles to add to their holdings. Prior to these two novels by Jabbour Douaihy, I had translated three of his other novels: June Rain (Matar Haziran, 2006), The American Quarter (Hayy al-Amerkan, 2014), and Printed in Beirut (Tubi’a fi Beirut, 2016). Of course, I was eager to work on both novels and would have sought to translate them and secure a publisher myself regardless. 

Courtesy of Paula Haydar

On another note, I would say also that the timing of these projects was an important factor. Nadine Sinno and I began working on Firefly in 2019, the summer before the start of the pandemic. Having each other and having this translation project to work on together was extremely important to us personally and professionally. It helped us get through difficult times, and for Nadine especially, I imagine it was therapeutic to revisit the civil war period she lived through in her youth which is brought to life in Firefly, while simultaneously living through the challenges of quarantine and fear brought on by the pandemic which are not unlike living through a war. It was also during this time that I agreed to translate Bitter Oranges by Basma Elkhatib (forthcoming HBKU Press) and King of India (forthcoming Interlink). Translation was my lifeline during Covid. For that I am deeply and eternally grateful to have had such a meaningful outlet and source of inspiration in my life. Nothing gives a person more nourishment for the soul than a good novel, and no one gets more from a literary work than a translator.

Where do we locate The King of India in Jabbour Douaihy’s overall repertoire and how much did his voice change for the novel? 

PH: The King of India is Jabbour Douaihy’s eighth novel, and certainly not the first in which he displays his literary talents as the master chronicler of Lebanese society. He never shies away from taking an honest look at his country’s foibles and using his narrative skills as a sort of honest yet compassionate mirror in which to reflect or reveal various aspects of his society. His characters, people of his town whom, like Zakariya Mubarak (the protagonist of The King of India), “he could recognize… from their faces, the shape of their heads, the tone of their voices, even if they’d been born after he left” are multi-faceted, and their stories are centuries deep.

Douaihy is obsessed with issues of identity and belonging, religious diversity, corrupt leadership, and with Lebanon’s history of emigration and eventual return to the homeland, journeys that often begin and end in misfortune. Zakariya Mubarak is a prime example of a Douaihy character who leaves Lebanon on the heels of a period of strife, spends years living abroad, experiencing various ups and downs, only to eventually head back to his birthplace, “just as the cherries and goat cheese were coming into season,” so he can live out his final days and be “laid to rest.. among his relatives and townsfolk… where he could have a view of a sea that was small but centuries deep.” We see a similar story play out for protagonists Eliyya of June Rain and Abdelkarim of The American Quarter. In Firefly and in Douaihy’s final novel Poison in the Air, his main characters (Nizam and an unnamed first-person narrator, respectively) suffer from an inability to find their place inside Lebanon. They migrate to various cities and communities but never feel fully at home anywhere. They develop a debilitating nostalgia for the place of their birth that they never recover from, because they are never able to “go home again.”

In terms of narrative style and genre, The King of India shares a lot with Printed in Beirut, another Douaihy novel filled with elements of detective fiction. These two novels also share similar styles, featuring short chapters, third-person narration, and a riveting plot that progresses chronologically with intermittent narration of backstory woven in between. In June Rain, Douaihy employed a multiple-narrative structure. Poison in the Air is the only first-person narrative I have translated by Douaihy. 

Without giving spoilers – what is special about The King of India’s narratives? 

PH: Contrary to its title, The King of India has little to do with kings or India. It takes up the story of migrations away from and back to Lebanon. Central to the novel is the 1860 civil conflict between Druze and Christians in Mount Lebanon, hostilities which, though buried, remain like embers that might easily be fanned into flames even today. The novel also portrays immigration of Lebanese and others from around the globe to America, and what life might have been like for them after arriving by ship at Ellis Island. The novel’s narratives also bring us into current times in the United States, which is where the protagonist falls victim to an act of indiscriminate violence. We see a similar combination of historical events entering into the fictional narratives in June Rain, in which the Miziara church massacre of 1957 in Lebanon is the central backstory. The protagonist is Eliyya, who, twenty years after immigrating to the US, returns to the village to learn about the father who was shot through the heart in the massacre: the father he never knew. 

When did you read The King of India and what did you think about it when you heard that it was nominated on IPAF’s 2020 shortlist? 

PH: I read it in pdf form from a copy Jabbour Douaihy had sent me shortly before it was published. I read it in one sitting, loved the pace, loved the story line, was intermittently moved to laughter or tears. I was thrilled to see it nominated on IPAF’s 2020 shortlist and was happy to translate an excerpt of it for Banipal. Many Dohaihy novels have earned a place on IPAF’s short and longlists. He is highly deserving of winning the award. I’m disappointed he didn’t receive that honor before he passed away, but to be recognized so many times is high honor in itself. 

What does your translation process look like? Was there a lot of research involved?

PH: It is important to me to pace myself during the translation process. I want to avoid translator’s fatigue. I want to give my full energy and attention to every paragraph, page, and chapter from beginning to end. I begin by setting a due date according to a one page a day rule of thumb, plus time for revision. Once I start on this journey, I don’t veer away from it. The novel becomes a part of my daily life every day for at least a year. I especially liked King of India because it is divided into relatively short chapters of equal length (approximately nine pages each). 

Every translation requires a lot of research, and especially novels by Jabbour Douaihy. He brings such a broad range of literary, historical, political, and philosophic references and ponderings into his narratives, not only from Lebanese or Arab tradition, but from around the globe. I’ve spent many an hour checking on details, from proper spellings of people and places to complex theories on economics, psychology, socio-politics, as well as learning as much as I can about Lebanese history.

King of India and Printed in Beirut have sometimes been referred to as mystery or crime fiction, since they do indeed share many elements associated with that genre. Their popularity undoubtedly stems from their compelling plot lines. But in addition to hooking the reader into turning the pages and searching for clues, Douaihy delves into Lebanese society and history and presents them with biting irony. They are detective novels not only in that one is involved in solving crimes, but also in uncovering hidden and unexpected life stories and events. King of India is also filled with trauma narratives. Douaihy writes about trauma with moral imagination, giving readers the distance needed to be able to process what is being narrated without being swamped by it. 

Are there any specific characteristics or elements that you found particularly difficult to translate? 

PH: Douaihy’s writing presents numerous translation challenges – how to capture his style, his rhythm, and his voice; how to convey unfamiliar cultural and historical references in the least obtrusive way; how to pace my own work so each page of prose is vibrant and energetic from beginning to end; how to cast his wit and cynicism most effectively. For The King of India, it was important to consider the length of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, to focus on finding good cadences that would sustain the reader’s attention and be accessible. I paid a lot of attention to rhythm and musicality when sculpting some of Douaihy’s lengthy sentences and paragraphs, in an effort to not let length get in the way of tempo.

What kind of advice do you have to new translators? At this point in your career, do publishers contact you and ask you if you would be interested in translating novels? 

PH: As mentioned above, publishers are often looking for established translators for award-winning Arabic novels. One way for new translators to become established is to publish in literary journals committed to literary translation, such as Banipal.  Of course, it is also quite possible to pitch translation projects to presses dedicated to publishing Arabic literature (or other world literatures) in translation, such as Interlink Publishing, Saqi Books, or university presses such as Syracuse University Press, University of Arkansas Press, U Texas Press, Yale University Press, HBKU and others.

Are there any worka left of Jabbour Douaihy’a that you would like to see in English or other contemporary writers who do not get any attention in English? 

PH: I have already begun work on Douaihy’s final novel, Poison in the Air. I hope to see all of his novels eventually translated. There are only one or two that haven’t been, I believe. 

Also read:

An excerpt from ‘Firefly’ at the Seagull Books website

‘Checkpoint’: Another Excerpt from ‘Firefly

An excerpt from ‘June Rain’ at The Missing Slate