‘What Have You Left Behind’: On Translating Trauma, and What To Do After Reading About Yemen

By Nashwa Nasreldin

 Sawad Hussain (R) in conversation with Cecilia Rossi (L) at the launch of What Have you Left Behind

Released at the end of last year, Yemeni journalist and writer Bushra Al-Maqtari’s What Have You Left Behind is a harrowing collection of testimonies from the war in Yemen, translated by Sawad Hussain.

On the 23rd of November, Hussain was in conversation with Cecilia Rossi from the University of East Anglia’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, as part of the book’s UK launch.

Published by Fitzcarraldo editions in 2022, the book has been hailed as “almost unbearable to read” (Marcel Theroux), “an act of witnessing” (Neel Mukherjee), and “an oral history of war’s folly” (Matthiew Aikins).

As the publishers note on their website: In 2015, a year after it started, Bushra al-Maqtari decided to document the suffering of civilians in the Yemeni Civil War, which has killed over 350,000 people, according to the UN. Inspired by the work of Svetlana Alexievich, she spent two years visiting different parts of the country, putting her life at risk by speaking with her compatriots, and gathered over 400 testimonies, a selection of which appear in What Have You Left Behind? Purposefully alternating between accounts from the victims of the Houthi militia and those of the Saudi-led coalition, al-Maqtari highlights the disillusionment and anguish felt by those trapped in a war outside of their control.

At the event, Hussain raised a few key points about al-Maqtari’s book and about her work more generally. Some of the topics touched on include Hussain’s journey to translating this book, the effects of working on traumatic texts, differences in stylistic choices when it comes to literary fiction versus non-fiction, and the question of what readers can do after reading such harrowing real-life accounts.

How the book came about

“I first came across her as an author when I was doing some work for ArabLit blog […] I was doing a post for Women In Translation month, and I was contacting a number of authors from different nations, asking them for female-authored books that they would recommend. For Yemen, I got in touch with Ali al-Muqri, who is a really famous Yemeni author, and he recommended Bushra Al Maqtari. And I hadn’t come across her before. He mentioned her novel which is called ‘Khalf al-Shams’ Behind the Sun, which is coming out with Tilted Axis Press in my translation (it’s been delayed so it won’t be coming out till 2024).

“I had started working on that novel and then I was contacted by Fitzcarraldo editions – it’s very unusual for me to be contacted by a publisher. I’ve done over… I think 16 books and for 13 of them I had to pitch the book. […] My editor, Tamara, contacted me and said: We hear you’re working on her novel for this other publisher, have you heard of her nonfiction book? And I said yes. And she said well, it’s just been published in German and Bushra now has an agent and they want us to look at it — this was back in 2020. She asked for a reader’s report […] At the time, I was working on an Omani novel and I didn’t have time to do a reader’s report. I wrote back and said I’m really sorry I haven’t got time to do a reader’s report but if you’re interested in a sample I’d be very interested in doing one. And so, they managed to get someone to do a reader’s report from the German version instead of the Arabic one […] So the German was instrumental in this, and so they asked me to do a sample. […] I got the contract and they said they liked the sample and so I started translating.

“With the authors I’ve worked with, it’s really interesting to see the writers who write fiction and non-fiction and how different their styles are in each of the genres. It’s a huge privilege for me to work with authors on their different genres.

“Usually, I’m in very close contact with my authors and I WhatsApp them via audio voice notes. But with Bushra, I was keenly aware that I didn’t want her to relive… I mean, for her to even collect these testimonies was extremely traumatic. She’s still living in Sanaa, she has witnessed atrocity after atrocity, so I didn’t want to ask her any questions unless it was extremely necessary. […] I would try to ask her, as much as possible, very few questions and only something factual.

“The accounts were recorded in Yemeni Arabic and she transcribes them in Modern Standard Arabic. But there are a few Yemeni words still in here, which I sometimes had to just confirm, but I would ask some colleagues sometimes instead.

On translating trauma

“I became highly anxious [during the process of translating this book]. There are a lot of accounts where young children and murdered brutally in the book. I have a young son. It affected my entire family life. We had to sit and talk about strategies in trying to combat the effect this book was having on me.

“What was really helpful was attending a workshop by Jenna Tang, who translates Taiwanese literature, which she did for translators who are working with traumatic works. There were translators from Sri Lanka who were dealing with poetry during the [period of the] Tamil Tigers and another translator working on war accounts from Syria, so that was instrumental in terms of getting some reparative and restorative practices as a translator when working with traumatic materials.

“You feel so selfish, i.e. I’m not living this and yet I’m so affected by it. You feel guilty because you feel so affected by it. You don’t have the right to be feeling all these things, to be having nightmares, to feel so upset. At the same time, you feel powerless because you think, what can I do? When the book went out for review, a number of reviewers got in contact with me saying what can we do after we read a book like this? So I asked Bushra: ‘“’What do you want readers to do? Do you want us to write to a local representative? Is there a particular organization you want us to donate to?” She said: ‘All of it. You need to keep amplifying what is happening in Yemen because people have forgotten.’

On editing victims’ accounts

“I was keenly aware of respecting the voices of the book. Usually in Arabic literature when I’m translating fiction, I can be a bit more… sometimes you can take some liberties. [for example] if there’s a lot of repetition of a certain structure, I might ask the author if it was intentional and they say no. English is a lot less forgiving of repetition of adjectives and verbs and sounds a bit dull if you have that happening. […] In these accounts, each of the victims did at times have certain turns of phrase they would repeat and adjectives, and it did come out with [my editor] Tamara, whether we could edit out some of them, and I did push back because when someone is speaking you don’t necessarily have a thesaurus at hand, this is their way of speaking. The responsibility I felt was to stay as true as possible to the voices in the book, even if it’s not as literary as one might expect.

“Another example is that there are some times when the timeline that the accounts are following is a bit muddled, where some of the witnesses will talk about their loved ones in the past tense and then suddenly move to the present tense and then move back to the past. Which does happen a lot with Arabic literature, and I always have to iron it out. But this was one instance when I said no, when you have lost someone dear to you, at times it does feel as though they are there.

“It’s not meant to be a clean account of war. It’s very raw. Bushra went down and reported these testimonies and I wanted to be careful because she’s already made them a bit more literary by transcribing them and bringing them into Modern Standard Arabic. I think, if we had access to the original accounts in Yemeni Arabic it would be a different translation – it would be completely different.

How the testimonies were collected

“In terms of how she collected the testimonies, what I’m aware of is that she collected over 400 and then she whittled it down to 43 in the book. But I know that she had to disguise herself when crossing the border between north and south Yemen in order to access the testimonies from the other side because what’s really important to her is that she’s not standing with either side in this war, and she’s not saying anyone is right or wrong. She just wants to show the amount of devastating loss that’s occurring. When translating it, it was clear she doesn’t lean one way or another.

“I know that she had to risk her life to collect these testimonies. [Her health has suffered as a result, but] Bushra has decided to stay in Sanaa, Yemen. 

“When people ask what can they do… even just telling more and more people about this book, posting it to people, sharing it [would help]. They don’t have to read the whole thing. We need more people talking about what’s happening in Yemen.”

Also read:

Sawad Hussain’s “Translating Trauma

An excerpt of the book is forthcoming on ArabLit.

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