Luke Leafgren on Translation, Najwa Barakat, and Falling Out of Love With His Translations

By Leonie Rau

The cover of "Mister N" by Najwa Barakat, depicting the silhouette of a person filled with pink smoke and pink lines on black.

In May 2022, And Other Stories published Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat’s novel Mister N in Luke Leafgrens translation. The novel, set in contemporary Beirut, explores the boundaries between fiction, writing, and reality, weaving through the eponymous Mister N’s past, present, and imagination. An excerpt of the book appeared on LitHub.

Here, Luke shares how he got started with literary translation, how he approaches tricky Arabic tenses, and explains why for him, translating a whole novel is “a psychological game with oneself.”

I really enjoyed reading Mister N, and I really enjoyed your translation! As an early career literary translator, I’m always interested in how others got to where they are. Could you tell me a little bit about how and why you became a literary translator?

Luke Leafgren: I started translating about 12 years ago. I was doing a PhD in Comparative Literature and during my graduate studies was when I learned Arabic. So I had a love for the language and a growing desire to learn more and become better at it. During the dissertation writing process, I needed something more fun to do, a creative outlet. I submitted a short story translation for the 2011 Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize, and that was just so much fun. Around that time I asked one of my Arabic teachers about the process of getting into translation. This was Khaled Al-Masri, whom I mention in my translator’s note. We had read something in Khaled’s class where I asked, you know, “Can a person just go out and translate something if there’s no English translation?”—I knew nothing at the time. He explained that you need to get permission from the author. In this case, he happened to know the author and that she had someone else in mind [who was] already translating the work, but he said, “I have this friend, Muhsin [Al-Ramli], and he’s looking for a translator for his second novel. Why don’t you read and and if you like it, I can make the introduction.” So I read the novel, and as I was reading I could hear in my mind ways that the narrator’s voice might sound in English, and I thought I could capture that and so I started doing that and I found that I liked it much more than academic writing. After I translated that, Khaled suggested Ya Salaam by Najwa Barakat, so that was my second project. From there, I found that I wanted to keep doing this. I was lucky to translate Muhsin’s subsequent novel, The President’s Gardens, and then that opened further doors to meeting other authors and finding other translation opportunities.

Was it more or less a coincidence that you ended up translating mostly Iraqi writers?

LL: Coincidence, yes. So I started with Muhsin, and then my fourth project, Shahad al-Rawi’s The Baghdad Clock, again coincidental. I reached out to someone to see if he’d be interested in writing a blurb for The President’s Gardens and he said he’d loved the novel, but then very quickly he pitched me on this other project, Shahad al-Rawi. And then he was also the one who pitched me on the project for Shalash the Iraqi. I do have an interest in Iraqi literature, I think the US involvement in Iraq makes me want to see other sides of that country and see what we don’t hear in the news.

And would you say that this is very different to the two novels by Najwa Barakat that you’ve translated?

LL: I’ve now actually translated a third, that’s The Bus (Bas al-Awadim) and so that will be coming out from And Other Stories at some point. So those are three by Najwa that I’ve translated, and there are thematic similarities between Najwa’s work and some of the Iraqi authors that I’ve translated. I’m thinking about the role of Beirut and the Lebanese civil war which plays an important role in Najwa’s work, and I think there are parallels and comparisons that could be drawn with the civil war in Iraq and the degree of violence that that country has seen, which was such a prominent theme for Najwa.

So could you tell me a little more about this novel, Mister N? What drew you to it and why should people read it?

LL: I think great literature addresses perennial questions, things that we come back to time and again. Questions of identity and relationship, you know, who we are and how we relate to other people, or the world around us. This novel dives into those questions in a unique and interesting way. There’s a character who is struggling so hard to answer or understand his own identity and [is] dealing with questions of profound pain and suffering in his interactions with others, and what is the relationship between self and others. It also has this unique literary structure that makes it all the more fun to dive into those questions and puzzle out the answers to some of them, at least in the context of this fictional world that Najwa has created. Plus, there are the metafictional themes that it brings up, and what it means for an author to physically encounter some of their own characters on the streets of their city.

I think it’s a very interesting feature of this novel. As I was reading, it reminded me a bit of Kamel Daoud’s work, or Raja Alem’s, this relationship between author and character, between fiction and reality. How would you say this relationship plays out in Mister N in particular?

LL: Fiction allows a chance of writing a different reality, or exploring an alternate reality. I think that allows for the exploration of those questions we were discussing earlier, you know, about place and relationships to others, and in this case it’s also about the history of the city and the different elements that come together in Beirut. […] It’s interesting that, you know, anything that’s in a book, you have to understand it as fictional in its way, but then when it echoes reality so closely, it forces us to evaluate, or forces us to look again at reality, and think: How much of this is true? How much of this feels real? And what isn’t?

In Ya Salaam, the earlier novel I translated, where Luqman [a character in Mister N] comes from, the story feels very much like it’s set in Beirut and is referring to the Lebanese civil war, but that city is never mentioned by name. So it allows you the chance to consider, “What other situations does this apply to?” It suggests that it’s not so important, she’s not talking specifically about Beirut, but about the general relationships between characters and the ways people treat each other and that’s something that can happen in any time and place. This novel is a little bit different in that it’s very much set in Beirut and it offers the reader information about Beirut’s history and how it came to be the way that it is today, but we can’t take that as historical fact either. We need to evaluate what is being said and what is being seen through the eyes of these characters, what is being experienced by Mister N. It invites us to do more research and to learn more. I think that the point of the novel is not to give us a history of Beirut, but it does offer ideas for us to explore.

I agree, that’s a very good point. It’s definitely not a Sonallah Ibrahim kind of historical novel, but it is very much rooted in the place, very much a specific place and time. And that question of time is very interesting for this novel. As a reader, at times I had to read things two or three times just to make sense of when everything was taking place in sequence. I’m still not sure I got it entirely, and that must have been even more difficult as the translator. You write in your translator’s note that verb tenses were very difficult, because Arabic is much looser in its meanings of tenses. Do you have any examples that were particularly difficult?

LL: My understanding of the novel changed from the first reading to the second reading, and even beyond that. It took time and an understanding of the whole to make sense of the parts of the book because of the way different time frames are woven together, and we don’t always get signposts about which time we’re entering when we start reading a particular section. Even if you know temporally when you might be placed, you don’t know the relationship of the speaker’s voice to that time: who exactly is the narrator and from what vantage point are they recounting that episode? So the structure of the novel has this destabilizing aspect and puzzle nature. But then, the Arabic itself contributes to this. Najwa uses the potential of Arabic verb tenses masterfully throughout the novel. In Arabic you can narrate the past with present tense verbs—often by clearly setting the episode in the past at the start, but Najwa doesn’t always do that. Sometimes, that past setting has been created by a previous section elsewhere in the novel and then we step back into it without realizing that we have. That was sometimes difficult to capture in English. First of all, difficult to interpret exactly where we were, and then difficult to express in English what’s going on in the novel in Arabic, because English doesn’t have the flexibility sometimes that Arabic has. So we need to make choices, and try to make choices that don’t exclude the other possibilities or the ambiguities that are present in the text. That was a fun challenge, I’d say. One particular part that comes to mind—maybe the very last edits I sent before the proofs went to printing—had to do with this issue. It was the very first pages of part three, where Mister N wakes up in a hospital. First, there’s this paragraph describing that kind of madness and sense of himself and where he is, and then these experiences of nurses coming in and out, and these insects crawling on his body. It’s all in the present tense, but then at some point, Najwa shifts into the past tense and knowing when and how to do that [in English] was particularly challenging, and I went back and forth a few times.

Do you have a specific process of taking notes, or how you approach things like that—would you, for example, label certain parts in a way?

LL: Thinking broadly about the craft of translation, it’s such an immense undertaking to translate a novel. Making a very rough draft, with maybe sometimes 500 words an hour or slower, 800 words an hour when things are going really well. But then, when you have a novel-length project, that’s a lot of focussed, concentrated hours to get a rough draft, and that draft is often very rough. The next step would be going back and trying to turn those Arabic-sounding sentences into English-sounding sentences, moving away from a literal word-for-word translation to something that might have been written originally in English. And then going back to the Arabic and evaluating line by line to see if I’ve missed things, if I’ve misinterpreted things in my revisions. And then also to highlight the questions that I have—that can happen in the first pass or in the second—often I’ll use a PDF or word file and highlight in the Arabic text, words or phrases that I want to come back to, and there’ll be several iterations of editing and going back. At a certain point, [I’ll be] making a list of the questions that I need to consult somebody about, the author or another native speaker, and sometimes prioritizing those questions and listing them in order of importance, because it can be a little overwhelming if you send 50 questions to an author! Are they going to answer them all? Are they going to get to the ones that you feel are most crucial?

Another comment about the process is the sense that it’s kind of a psychological game with oneself, or there are psychological hurdles to get past, and sometimes you play games with yourself to motivate yourself to keep going. Skipping ahead to an easier section, coming back to a more challenging section. Keeping the momentum going somehow, sometimes working from the end of a paragraph or a chapter. On that topic of psychological challenges, there’s a point in most of my translation projects where I fall out of love with the book, where I think that what I’m producing is not going to be read by anybody and shouldn’t be read by anybody. But then there’s a later moment in the editing process where things start coming together and you see the overall structure and can start reading it as literature, when I start believing in the project again.

Apart from the verb tenses and the general structure, was there anything else that you found particularly challenging about translating this novel?

LL: Najwa’s language is very vivid and descriptive, so imagining the scenes wasn’t so much of a challenge—to put yourself there and to see what she’s describing. There were certain words that I got stuck on. There was one I had to ask Najwa about and I’m very glad that I did! It would have been an embarrassing mistake if I’d assumed I knew what was going on. It was a word I was having trouble finding in any of the dictionaries, but I thought I understood it from context. It was the word “gigolo” turned into a form II Arabic verb and used as the masdar, and so what is the masdar of “to gigolo” is a question in itself, but I totally missed what was going on. So I’m grateful for catching that with Najwa’s help!

You started talking about the relationship between the author and their characters earlier, and I was just wondering—the author and their characters, and in Najwa’s case, even characters from earlier novels, have a very particular relationship in this novel. How do you feel you come into that as a translator? Do you feel like a spectator, or would you say you’ve thrown yourself into the melee, so to say?

LL: I think it’s a little of both, which is an exciting aspect of literature. I guess translating is a type of reading, a very, very close reading. As readers, that’s one of the powers of literature, that we get to observe a scene or enter into it, or maybe even enter into the minds of characters participating, experiencing something. So that’s one of the powers of literature. One of the powers of writing is inhabiting those scenes and characters so closely, you’re coming up with them, you’re inventing, you’re speaking their words. Translation forces you to do both of those things.

I remember in the experience of translating Oh Salaam—I think I mention this in the translator’s note—I initially didn’t want to translate that novel, because I found the characters so unpleasant. I didn’t want to spend that time with them. But then, in the process of translating that [novel], there was a certain pleasure, maybe a perverse pleasure, in trying to imagine saying things that I would never normally say, that I, as an individual in my own life, had to try to find words for certain situations that I don’t enter into, and describe things that I haven’t seen, haven’t experienced, wouldn’t do. That’s another thing that literature can do, and translating literature can offer us.

I read that you also teach a course on translation, and I was wondering—also from personal interest—what you tell your students: what are the most important qualities a literary translator should strive to have?

LL: My class is designed to help students understand translation rather than train them to become literary translators, so that’s not a question I start with. Every week we read more than one English translation of the same classical text or poem, and every week we do a different language, so nobody has mastery of all of the languages, and some people might come in with very little foreign language experience, but through that comparison process we can see some of the questions that translators must have been wrestling with, just by seeing how they respond to those questions differently and produce such different things. You can see different translation theories being enacted by the different translators.

But, people in that class—some of them, I think— aspire to do some translation, and all students are encouraged to make translations, even if they initially believe themselves unqualified to do so. I hope to inspire them with a love of translation similar to what I found.

All that is a preface to say I don’t go into that class with a particular philosophy of literary translation that I want to impart. But, if I were to articulate my thoughts, prompted by your question, I would recommend that people start with a love of literature and a pleasure in the process, the process including research and language learning, constant learning about a language and culture, infinite puzzles to be solved on a page and throughout the book. So I’d say a pleasure in the process and a love for literature, because that will give you intrinsic reward from translation which can be so important when the extrinsic rewards are very modest and not guaranteed.

After that, I think the important thing would be to understand that translators are writers, and that they’re creating a work of literature in the new language […]. You’re not just interpreting meanings and conveying that in your target language, but you’re trying to express those meanings with as much artistry and style as the original author did. That invites and allows for a certain creativity for the translator as a writer.

I personally really like the restraint on the creativity you have as a translator, because you are creative as to the use of language and as to the ways in which to express the meaning, but the meaning… obviously, it’s open to interpretation, but someone has written a story that you have to convey in some way or another that is faithful, hopefully, to the original.

LL: That idea of constraint is an important aspect, too. You’re not inventing something, you have to be faithful, you have to be able to hold up the two next to each other and say, in some way this is that. Personally, I find that constraint helpful in my process. When I was younger, I dreamed of being an author because of my love for literature and what the power of stories meant in my own life, I wanted to somehow participate in that process. Translation allows me to contribute to that process, participate, without some of the burdens of the immense freedom that the original author has. A parallel might be in writing poetry, having a sonnet form provide some limits and some structures that then enable the creativity of the poet. As a translator having the structure of the text I’m working with allows me to write things that I would not feel capable or confident to write on my own.

You mentioned a few works you are in the process of translating or that are coming out soon—would you mind summarizing what’s coming out and maybe tell me what you’re working on next?

LL: And Other Stories published Mister N, and they’re also going to do two more translations, Shalash the Iraqi, which should come out next spring, and then at some point after that, The Bus, by Najwa Barakat, which I’m very excited about. Although Najwa wrote it in 1996, you still find people who say that was their favorite book when they were growing up, and it’s never been translated in full, only excerpted a couple of times. I’m really excited to be able to do that. Another novel that I’ve drafted and am excited to polish and find a home for is The Outcast, by Inaam Kachachi, shortlisted for the IPAF a couple years ago. It’s a historical fiction with three very distinct characters whose lives interweave in geography and over time in a very interesting way. The project I’m drafting right now, under contract with Other Press, came out in Arabic in 2022 by Dar al-Adab. It’s called Tale of a Wall, by Nasser Abu Srour, who published a collection of poetry last year. Nasser grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem and has been in prison in Israel since 1993, after being convicted of killing a Shin Bet officer during the first Intifada. He composed Tale of a Wall in prison, and played recordings of it over the phone to his niece, who then transcribed it. The book combines autobiography with philosophy, history, and poetry, as well as the letters exchanged with a lawyer he falls in love with. It’s a moving account of his life told in a very literary manner.

Luke Leafgren is an assistant dean of Harvard College, where he also teaches a course on translation. He won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for his translation of Muhsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens. His most recent translation, of Mister N by Najwa Barakat, was published in May 2022 by And Other Stories, who will also publish his translation of Shalash the Iraqi in 2023.

Leonie Rau is ArabLit’s Assistant Editor. She holds an MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and is a research assistant at the University of Tübingen, Germany, where she is currently preparing her dissertation proposal on medieval Arabic recipe collections. Leonie is also an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. Her translations have appeared on and in ArabLit Quarterly and Guernica. She can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.