As part of a series of online extras to accompany our Spring 2022 MIRRORS issue, short fiction from Egypt that examines the mirror of interpretation:
By Mahmoud Tawfik
Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock
On the third night of the festival, the writer knocked on his interpreter’s door and said:
“I need you to be less passionate when you translate. Something about your voice has been irritating me.”
The interpreter yawned and rubbed his eyes.
“I’ll say it again, even though I’m sure you heard me perfectly: I want you to tone it down a bit.”
As he spoke, the author straightened up so he was as tall as possible and even got on to his tiptoes for a fraction of a second. This was something he always did—add a bold movement of his body to emphasize a point, especially when he felt anxious.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been in a confrontation with one of his interpreters. The last time he’d visited this country, he was assigned a distinguished interpreter, a tall, handsome, young man. At the beginning of each interview, people would think the interpreter was the author and the author was the interpreter. They wouldn’t even think twice. As soon as they saw him, they’d grasp his hand and shake it excitedly, and the son of a bitch would give a sneaky smile without bothering to correct them. He seriously considered asking for a replacement, but in the end, he felt sorry for the young man—he didn’t want him to lose his job. So he put up with a week of humiliation, and with the way the interpreter would seem to look at him with contempt or pity—the kind of pity that, at the end of the day, isn’t all that different from disgust.
But there was something odd this time round. To make sure he wouldn’t get into such a ridiculous position again, he insisted that the festival organisers seat the interpreter in an enclosed booth at a distance from the audience and have them listen to the translation through headphones. He felt even more reassured when he met the interpreter in person upon arrival: he was just an average man, and not the slightest bit attractive. Yet in spite of all this, the audience still gathered around him after the reading, shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder and congratulating him on his delivery. Whereas all the attention he, the author—the one who should be in the spotlight—received came from some old women who approached him timidly, only to then bombard him with questions and stories in an attempt to compensate for the loneliness and tedium of their humdrum life. When he knocked on the interpreter’s door at midnight, he was well and truly fed up. No, he didn’t need to put up with all this.
The interpreter scratched his head and said: “What a strange request! Don’t you want people to be awed by your writing?”
“Yes, of course, don’t be stupid. What I don’t want is for them to be hypnotized by your delivery.”
“I don’t get it. My delivery is really just your delivery. Have I ever told you that I’m one of your biggest fans? I’ve studied you closely, and I watched recordings of you before you arrived. Even the way you move your hands when you talk—I’ve memorized it all, and I use it when I’m sitting in the booth. You see, all of these things are reflected in my delivery, even though the audience can’t see any of it.”
To prove what he was saying, the interpreter lifted his right hand until it was level with his head, then made it flutter like a bird’s wing. The author stood nailed to the spot, his jaw open wide because, as he watched the other man copying the movements of his hands, a frightening vision struck him. He felt as though he were looking into a mirror, a mirror of flesh and blood. In fact, the interpreter was also short, bald, and overweight, just like him, and he looked about the same age, too. After a few seconds, minutes, or even hours of silence, he snapped himself out of his stupor, gathered the remains of his energy and said:
“Listen, it’s my reading and I’m free to do as I please. And when I ask you to deliver a shoddy interpretation, that means you deliver a shoddy interpretation. Understood?”
Still, the author couldn’t sleep a wink all night. By the time his alarm rang, he had reached a definitive decision: he went straight to the festival organisers and demanded that he read his texts from the interpreter’s booth.
Mahmoud Tawfik is an award-winning writer, journalist and musician. He lives in Cairo, for now…
Nashwa Gowanlock is a freelance writer, editor and literary translator. She is the translator of the collaborative novel, Shatila Stories, and co-translator of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. She is the website managing editor of ArabLit.org.