Extended Conversation: On Wishes, Translation, & Being ‘Deena Shubeik Lubeik’

On the most recent episode of BULAQ, co-hosts Ursula Lindsey & M Lynx Qualey spoke with author, illustrator, self-translator, and comix artist Deena Mohamed, whose delightful graphic novel will be out January 10, 2023 in the US as Shubeik Lubeik and in the UK as Your Wish Is My Command.

After an hour conversation about the development of this boundary-breaking graphic novel in Arabic and the process of publishing in English, we still had more questions about the translation process, the role of research in the creation of this urban fantasy, & more. Fortunately, Deena also had more to say.

Listen to the conversation with Deena Mohamed.

Photo courtesy Deena Mohamed.

Which changes that you made to the English might then influence a new edition of the Arabic? Would you for instance change what’s my page 18 in the Arabic (28 in the English), to have the crossed-out 25% and 50% discounts in the sign? Or is that…an adaptation for the English-language reader? The more extended backstory for Abdo and Aziza (which I love)? The fantastic “WishScanPro”?

Deena Mohamed: Oooh the crossed out pricing in the English is actually a remnant of confusion someone who read it in English had when they read the first part. They didn’t understand why someone hadn’t bought the wishes at the kiosk the whole time since the sign was there and were really stuck on that part. Like just couldn’t get past it. I was wondering how I could show through environmental storytelling what might be taken for granted to an Arabic-speaking reader—that nobody would buy a first class wish from a kiosk. As Nour’s friends joke (with implied classism), “Is it also a BMW dealership?” As in, how can a kiosk have a licensed wish? It would be like a kiosk selling authentic luxury handbags. Except, of course, with wishes there is a real risk to “knock-off” or stolen wishes, so people simply wouldn’t be interested. It was also a way of showing how long Shokry had been trying to sell them and that the sign was hand-written, both things that are evident in the Arabic. I completely forgot that I had made that change for the English version, but I suppose I kept it in as a reminder of my acquiescence to pedantry from the pitching phase. Truthfully, most readers can understand the concept of “the wishes simply weren’t selling until such and such happened” as a framing for a story, but I think this reader had me like, ok, well, English-speaking readers clearly need a bit of hand-holding or they’ll start calling it a plot hole. By part 3 in the Arabic, it becomes clear that Shokry was already very torn about selling them, so it’s no wonder he didn’t really bother to explain his own sign or promote the wishes until someone who was a regular visitor of his kiosk (Shawqia) pointed it out. This is a very long way of saying I would not change this for the Arabic, it’s not really necessary. 

I do however want to add the extended Abdo and Aziza backstory—this is once again more context for the English-speaking reader, but it is one I didn’t mind because Part 1 is basically a short story I kept expanding as my opportunity to do comics kept expanding, and I love that the more established I became the more time and pages I had for Aziza’s backstory and happiness. I think Arabic-speaking readers will really enjoy the new introduction even though it doesn’t add any context to the relationship they didn’t already know. The WishScan Pro is also one of my favorite additional pages, something I had been trying to do for a while. I had actually thumbnailed it back in 2017, before the Cairocomix Festival, but it was one of those indulgent pages I sacrificed for time (I was an art teacher and also freelancing back then.) I was really happy to go back to it.

In some cases, is the extension only necessary in the English? Like maybe the extended paperwork-stair-climbing at the Bureau of Wishes? The Arabic-language reader probably will have tried to register something themselves . . . 

DM: This is another spread I had originally thumbnailed in the Arabic and left out due to time constraints! At the time, my priority was the storytelling, so I focused on pages that moved the story forward. But rather than being additional information as it might be for the English, I think these pages just set the tone and dreaded feeling of trying to do paperwork and I actually think Arabic-speaking readers will find it more cathartic to see illustrated than explanatory. So it’s another spread I would absolutely like to add back to the Arabic.

When I was researching Egyptian comics, I remember hearing Magdy el-Shafee say “I began to have a desire to tell these stories in an Egyptian environment. Instead of all the stories featuring John and Tom or whatever, I want them to have Abu Elwa and Hussein.” There’s a real novelty to seeing modern Egyptian life illustrated like this because it’s not as common as people think and most of us haven’t grown up with it, and I know that because I enjoy it too. It’s the joy of representation in its most literal form; visual representation for the sake of its own existence. It was right at the periphery of artists (and specifically digital artists and not fine artists) beginning to draw more of the environment around them and posting it online, which opened the floodgates to a sort of permission to draw things we see in the way we want to, rather than draw what we feel like we should be drawing. When I was thinking of Shubeik Lubeik, one of my most important goals was to create this sense of joy for an Egyptian readership to see things in black-and-white illustration in ways they might not have encountered before. I think it’s one of the most powerful and appealing aspects of comics in general, the elevation of the mundane through drawing, seeing it through the eyes of an artist. So, really, the fact that it may be something the Egyptian readership already knows and is familiar with makes it more important for me to draw rather than less, but at the end of the day I had to be (brutally) practical about what I could do within the timeframe and wrist-capability I had, otherwise it would have never been published back then.

The WISHES!!!! advertisement that Shaqiqa’s grand-nephew designed is uglier, to me, in the English? (I mean, no offense to Shaqiqa and her grand-nephew, it’s a very charming kind of ugly.) Do you “translate” design standards? 

DM: It’s very nice of you to say that but it is absolutely meant to be ugly in the Arabic too! I wanted to play with Arabic graphic design and type throughout the book, but I feel like this was actually quite easy to translate visually. Both of them are charming types of ugly, designed to look like someone who was just learning to use Photoshop for the first time and is abusing all of the text effects they can. It was also nice for me because I studied graphic design and was not good at it at all, so I understand Shawqia’s grandson very well. In fact, when he sees the sign again in Part 3 and is horrified that his old work is just hung up for the world to see, this was also how I felt about some of the panels in Part 1, which were drawn over 5 years earlier, so it was a little bit of a character/creator moment of solidarity.

Was the publisher involved, at all, in your translation decisions? For instance, your decision to make the translator a sort of a character in the footnotes, guiding (and sometimes educating) the reader? Or were these decisions you talked through . . . with your author self?

DM: My editor, Vanessa, definitely gave me a lot of trust and freedom in that aspect. But I remember wanting to talk to her about it because it was much more present than the Arabic, and became a noticeable aspect of the storytelling more than just being a “translation.” So we did discuss it. I remember specifically for Part 2 I was having trouble adding the narrator in for explanatory footnotes because so much of it is in Nour’s own voice, and it was beginning to get hard to tell them apart. It was Vanessa who suggested that the “narrator” font be used for Nour’s graphs up until the moment they tell the therapist that they’ve been making graphs. After that, the graphs are in the same font as Nour’s thoughts. This is a very subtle switch I don’t expect many people to pick up on, but I think it works to explain how the two voices co-exist in the book to tell the same story; one from a distance and one from up close. 

The translator-character seems to get more involved as the book progresses; in the first section, the translator gives us largely straightforward information, while in the second they start to offer commentary, as with <Originally spoken in English.> This will happen frequently.

DM: See, this is definitely the details of the translation I wanted to discuss the most! Actually, the narrator in the Arabic has a personality too and a certain dryness. In part 1 the narration is very present to explain the world because the story never gets into Aziza’s head. The narrator exists in the Arabic as a guide too, but rather than being a guide for Egyptian context, the narrator is a guide for reading comics — explaining when we’re in a flashback,  the passage of time and settings that might not be clear to someone who isn’t familiar with some of the shorthand in comics. The narrator is also a guide for the world of wishes, explaining what some characters (such as Abdo) might wish for. In fact, the narrator in Arabic is very off-hand about Abdo’s death. If we translate it literally, its narrated as “Abdo had always wanted to ‘get’ a Mercedes, but it was the Mercedes that got him instead” to set the tone for the story.

The narration almost vanishes in Part 2 because it’s so internal to Nour, except to explain the things Nour doesn’t or to clarify when Nour lies to people, and in Part 3 the narration returns to take us through Shokry’s life in the introduction, particularly his new kiosk. I believe the last instance of the narration in Arabic is page 110 of Part 3, when Shawqia (who takes over the narration at this point) says, “they called me Shawqia el Shatoura (Shawqia the clever)” and the narrator interjects to say “they called her Shawqia el Sha’eya (Shawqia the naughty).” This is partly to show that the narrator is still there, and will tell you the truth even if Shawqia doesn’t. Sometimes Shawqia’s narration to Shokry glosses over some of the things that are more apparent in the art, as (naturally) she isn’t fully transparent with him, so the art is more of the true narrator rather than Shawqia’s voice-over.

In the end, this was the guideline I adapted for the English “t/n voice,” except I expanded the role given the need to clarify cultural context or make translation notes, but I kept the same tone and dryness. It was most complicated in Part 2, because in the Arabic the narrator shares the stage with Nour’s graphs and charts, so that was the time I talked to Vanessa to work it through.

How did you decide how you wanted to indicate things originally in English? Had you seen the <bracketing> strategy elsewhere? 

DM: Yes, I believe it’s a common method of depicting translation in comics lettering! You can even see it in the best movie ever made, Spiderman into the Spiderverse, in the scene where the villains break into Aunt May’s home, Scorpion speaks in Spanish and the <bracketed translations> pop up onscreen.

I’ve long been wondering how your work with Heba Abd el Gawad | هبة عبد الجواد & her “Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage” project might have influenced or become part of part three of Shubeik Lubeik? How is research involved in building an urban-fantasy landscape?

DM: Actually, this was kind of funny—when Heba called me about the project I was already very busy working on Part 3, but I’d also had the rough outline for it established for years, so I knew what Shokry’s storyline and his father’s storyline were about. Because of that, I had previously applied for an artist residency with the French Institute in Qurnah, Luxor because I wanted to do research for the book there. I knew el Qurnah is one of the most antiquity-dense areas in Egypt, which was Shokry’s father’s background, and I wondered how that affected the families that had lived there for centuries. I don’t think I did any tourism during my residency, I spent most of it talking to families who lived there and doing visual research. The research mainly influenced the storyline of how they end up moving to Cairo, because rather than the rural-urban migration that’s common to most families that originate outside Cairo like my own, displacement and the loss of historic homeland in both Luxor and of course Aswan is an ever-present shadow hanging over daily life. Mostly I think about how I want people reading the book to feel—there needs to be emotional honesty and a sense of realism for certain aspects to land, and part 3 was very research-heavy because both Shokry and Shawqia have very, very different backgrounds from me, whether in terms of age, class, religion, or dialect, so I talked to a lot of people and asked for a lot of help.

Basically, by the time Heba called me and explained her project I was just like, “I don’t think I have time to make something independent for this right now, but… my current graphic novel is already discussing this?” and then we had a really great conversation about how we had already been thinking about the same thing and working on very similar things. It just ended up working out that way. I’ve generally learned a lot more about Egyptology and archaeology from her since then, so it’s a project I’m proud to have been a part of. 

The djinn who come out of the 1st class bottles are far more human-looking—and polite-looking!—than the 3rd-class djinn who come out of the Delesseps cans (which have a more animalistic form). Is this because the 3rd class djinn have greater control over their forms? And the first-class djinn are supposed to make their wish-ees feel comfortable? 

DM: Yes! First-class wishes are basically far more “manufactured” than third-class wishes and as such are constrained to appeal to their owners as much as possible. I think a lot of people find classical Arabic calligraphy very beautiful and for good reason, but I loved playing with the scribble-monster modernity of the third-class wishes too. When people talk about Arabic calligraphy they tend to think of its long history as a well-established and rigid, careful artform (which is what the first-class wish implies) but Arabic is such a flexible and illustrative language to play with that you can also make monsters with bad calligraphy. There are quite a few third-class wish designs in there I really love.

Do you have more extended-universe background on the world? Might we see anything else from the Shubeik Lubeik world? Or are you moving on to other projects?

DM: I always have more information on the Shubeik Lubeik world because I’m always thinking about it, but I’m also happy with how these three books showed this world as I wanted to show it. I didn’t want the world-building to overshadow the storytelling, and I’m happy with where the story ended. Am I moving on to other projects? I have no idea. I feel like Shubeik Lubeik has been part of my life for so long in the background of everything I’ve been doing, I don’t even know what it’s like to move on. At Cairocomix sometimes people just use it as my last name: “Are you Deena Shubeik Lubeik?” and I’m very happy to be like, “Yes, I am Deena Shubeik Lubeik.”