Author Mohamed Kheir on Surreal Coincidences and the Mysteries of Translation

When award-winning Egyptian poet, novelist, and short-story writer Mohamed Kheir was writing his novel, Slipping, little did he know that his English-language translator, Robin Moger, was sitting just the breadth of a bookcase away. 

This fall, Kheir has been in Iowa as part of the International Writer’s Program 2022 Fall residency. These reflections were written for a panel on translation.

By Mohamed Kheir

I never met my English translator. He lived in South Africa and then moved to Madrid, while I lived in Cairo and didn’t move anywhere anymore. When he was still traveling back and forth to Cairo, he had only translated two of my short stories; stories I thought were too short to require personal meetings between author and translator. So, we started communicating at length via e-mail, Zoom, and Messenger. But he stopped coming to Cairo when I finished writing my latest novel.

Mohamed Kheir at the IWP residency.

One day, sitting in my house in Cairo, rejoicing that the translation of my novel was finally published in the United States, I was surprised to see water leaking from the ceiling. While I was trying to fix the problem, I got to know my neighbor, whom I don’t often see. His front door is next to mine, but our doors are often closed. I knew he was British, and that he had been living in Egypt for years. When I walked into his kitchen, I saw an enormous library in the hall — so enormous that I had to ask him about his work.

“I’m a book editor!” he said.

I told him: “I also edit books and write them, too. Also, my English translator is British — like you. His name is Robin Moger. Do you know him, by any chance?”

The mysterious neighbor smiled. “Robin. He’s a dear friend. He’s often visited me here in this house!”

I paused for a moment. So, while I was writing my novel, presuming that Robin was in Cape Town, ten thousand kilometres south of Cairo, translating my short stories, there were moments when we, the writer and translator, Egyptian and British, who never met, were sitting behind two adjoining doors, a thin wall separating us, under the same leaky roof. On one hand, the situation seemed like a passage from a psychological thriller, or like a lesson that drama students are taught about the difference between reality and the dramatic scene — we have a strange coincidence, a problem, and a mysterious neighbor. On the other hand, just as in reality, I failed to find the moral of the story.

But it made me realize I hadn’t met my other translators, either. The word “my translators” — with the possessive pronoun — is inaccurate here. Let us say: the people who translated my work, primarily poems, into French, German, and Greek. Strangely enough, English was the last language my work was translated into. Still, it was the language that “brought me here,” as NatašĎurovičová (the editor of the International Writer’s Program) said when we met at her office: “because we wouldn’t have known about you if it had not been for Robin’s work.”

“Oh, then they didn’t bring me here just because I’m a great writer,” I thought to myself, remembering how important and odd the translation process is. We don’t pay enough attention to the magic inherent in it; the magic of transferring meanings from one language to another. In my case, this magic brought me across the ocean to Iowa. 

But, like all magic, it can suddenly take strange paths if you don’t heed it. One day, I read Lorca’s wonderful poem “Elegy to a Bullfighter,” translated into Arabic by a great Arab poet. I was agitated by the translation, not because I knew Spanish — I don’t know Spanish — but because I memorized the poem from another translation, which had been done by a man who was neither a poet nor a translator. He was a novelist who put the same Lorca poem into one of his novels after he translated it himself, because one of the novel’s characters loved the poem. His translation was charming, wonderful. It led me into the world of the great Spanish poet. 

But now, having read the other translation, which is very different, I no longer knew which one transmitted the real Lorca. Then I thought, Lorca’s lyric poems, close to the land and the people, might be more appropriate if they were translated into the Egyptian vernacular instead of Standard Arabic, so I immediately began translating them myself. From Spanish? No, I instead “translated” it from classical Arabic into colloquial Arabic. I asked myself: didn’t most Arab readers read Dostoevsky’s novels through translation from an intermediary language, such as French, and not directly from Russian? So why don’t I consider Standard Arabic an intermediate language as well? Some readers liked these poems “translated” into the Egyptian dialect, but I stopped after a while, since I no longer knew, having put Lorca through all these mediums and gates, whether these words were still Lorca, or had begun to be mine.

I was already suffering from another type of translation, which I called “internal translation.” Throughout my life, I have written poetry in classical and colloquial Egyptian. In my country, the poet usually chooses one of the two. In my case, I published four poetry collections divided equally between the two “languages.” I “translated” the poem within me for a long time before I wrote it, from the vernacular to the classical and vice versa, to choose the most suitable form. Even in that little journey between the language and one of its dialects, I realized the simple and astonishing truth: synonyms are not accurate, and we are permanently losing things in translation — even if we translate our own poems.

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Mohamed Kheir is a novelist, poet, short story writer, and lyricist. His short story collections Remsh Al Ein (2016) and Afarit Al Radio (2011) both received The Sawiris Cultural Award, and Leil Khargi (2001) was awarded the Egyptian Ministry of Culture Award for poetry. Slipping (Eflat Al Asabea, Kotob Khan Publishing House, 2018; Two Lines Press, 2021) is his second novel and his first to be translated into English. His poems and his stories have been translated into English, French, German, Greek and spanish. Kheir also writes lyrics for singers from Egypt and Lebanon. He lives in Egypt. 

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