Finding the Music and Rhythm of Zakaria Tamer in English: A Conversation with Alessandro Columbu 

By Tugrul Mende

This May, Syracuse University Press will bring out an English translation of Zakaria Tamer’s Sour GrapesThis collection of short stories, originally published more than twenty years ago, remains a vibrant, sarcastic, and deeply relatable literary journey. 

Alessandro Columbu and Mireia Costa Capallera made the decision to translate the collection to English. In this conversation, Dr. Columbu talks about how he discovered Sour Grapes and how he and his co-translator found a music and rhythm to echo Zakaria Tamer’s in English. 

When did you first come across Zakaria Tamer’s work? 

Alessandro Columbu: I read his stories as a student learning Arabic in Syria. As I progressed at the institute where I was studying, we started learning through literature. They would give us short stories, both to read and to learn new words. One of the authors that they always recommended was Zakaria Tamer. So I discovered his work as an Arabic-language learner. Compared to other authors, his style is relatively simple. It’s effective and powerful, but in terms of language, it’s more accessible than most. I left Syria with a lot of books, and most of them were collections by Zakaria Tamer, which you could find everywhere in Damascus. 

For my M.A. in 2012, I did a translation of another collection by Zakaria Tamer, called Taksir Rukab, which came out in Arabic in 2002. My supervisor and I discussed a translation project instead of a research project, which involved translating Tamer’s work from Arabic into Sardinian. At the time, there were no Arabic books translated into Sardinian. (Also read: On Why I Translated Zakaria Tamer’s Stories from Arabic into Sardinian)

The other thing was that I was hoping that I could go back to Syria. I was hoping that things would change, or that the revolution would succeed. In the meantime, I was coming to the UK to do my PhD. While you wait for things to happen, other things take place. In 2015, I decided to finish the book and translate Taksir Rukab in its entirety. 

What was your journey with Sour Grapes?

I tried to track down several books that I hadn’t found in Damascus, and one of these was Sour Grapes. I couldn’t find it online. Arabic bookshops in London didn’t have it. I went to Lebanon, to the publishing house’s headquarters in Beirut, but even there they didn’t have it! It seemed impossible to get ahold of the book. What I did then, which I should have done from the beginning, was to contact Zakaria Tamer, asking him to help me find a copy. He replied immediately and mailed me a copy of the book. 

In 2014, for the first time, I was able to read Sour Grapes. It is near-impossible to find this book in Arabic. And since this book is so difficult to find, I thought the best thing to do was to translate it. 

I used some of the stories to teach my students vocabulary and grammar. This was how I got one of my students involved, and I completed this translation with a former student of mine, Mireia Costa Capallera. 

Around 2019, we finished translating the book. Then the hardest part was to find a publisher that would look at the draft. 

What were the difficulties? 

AC: I had never translated something into English before. No one knew who I was. People know me now, since my monograph is published, and the translation will be published. At least if people google my name, they find something. But back in 2019, I had published a translation in Sardinian but there was nothing in English. In 2020, we received an email from Syracuse University Press, after having approached then months before. They were very interested in our proposal, and we were extremely pleased with the relationship. Translation is one thing, but going over it line by line is tough work, and they have been extremely helpful. 

What do you think is most remarkable about Sour Grapes

AC: The beauty of Sour Grapes is that you could read it as a novel. The characters appear in more than one story. Most stories are set in an imaginary quarter of Damascus. Sometimes, the stories are very short. Reading Syrian literature, you might expect to find a lot of politics, or authoritarianism—which you do find, but it’s not the only thing. The most enjoyable thing about the book is the irony and sarcasm. There is a lot of dark sarcasm. There are also stories that are peculiar. They also talk about the history of Syria, and one story is set in the 1920s, when the battle of Maysalun is happening, when the French took control of Syria and created the mandate. 

You have to keep in mind that the collection was originally published in 2000. You can never tell if the things are happening in the past or in the present. Tamer always liked to play with history, to make satiric and sarcastic comments. A lot of stories explore sex and sexuality and the dynamics of marriage. We have a lot of women characters who perform their sexuality in an open way; express sexual desire, and are vocal about their sexuality. This is typical in all of his collections, but it shows in this collection in particular. The other collection I translated is a bit darker; Sour Grapes is more entertaining. 

What were the challenges of conveying his style in English? 

AC: Translation is never easy. You have to sit down and think about the right words to convey the rhythm, the music that is in the original. We managed to convey the same meaning. What is difficult sometimes is when the author is playing with Arabic words. There are inevitably things that are lost in translation. It is impossible to convey everything, but I don’t think that the collection is less of an accomplishment or that Zakaria Tamer is less of an astonishing writer in English than he is in Arabic. I never read Russian novelists in Russian, I don’t read Russian; I still think they are astonishing writers. 

Translation is effective as long as there is an effort to understand the context in which the stories emerged. Sometimes, we made decisions to leave words as they are in Arabic. We added a short glossary at the end of the book, but we thought, in some cases, transliteration would be more natural, and translating the word would impact the translation in a way we didn’t like. There is the word zaghrutThere are words in English that are close in meaning to zaghruta, trill or ululation, but these don’t come close to the meaning. It’s something that people do in Syria, and it’s not something that can be translated. The same goes for some expressions, like Subhan Allahwhich we left as they are.

What was your translation process like? 

AC: We didn’t really coordinate in advance; we decided to translate whatever stories we wanted to translate independently, in draft form, and the other person would look at the draft and contribute to it. Every single story has been basically translated by the both of us. Maybe one or the other did the first draft, but the other person improved it, polished it, or the other way around. There was a part of the collection that I’d already translated when Mireia came in, but these were mostly drafts. I was in the early stages. We haven’t met physically since I left Manchester; we only spoke online. 

Do you have a favorite story in the collection? 

AC: Al Murtabash is definitely my favorite story. It has so much history in it. It’s a fascinating period, when Syria was transitioning from being part of the Ottoman Empire, into World War I and the arrival of the French, and the rise of Syrian and Arab nationalism. It is an extremely interesting time and a critical juncture in the history of Syria. 

You have the protagonist, who is stubborn because he refuses to take of his fez when the French come. As soon as the French arrive in Damascus—at least, according to the story—they say that no one should were the fez. We want to modernize the country, they say, and the fez is part of the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. It is banned, and no one should wear it. The author is playing somehow with the hijab ban with France. This character is the only man in the whole city who is stubborn enough, and the French decide to sentence him to death. I don’t want to spoil the whole story for the reader, but it has so many interesting twists. For instance, the protagonist quotes passages from the Quran, which the French general doesn’t understand or doesn’t recognize. This is something unusual—perhaps and you wouldn’t expect this from a writer like Zakaria Tamer. 

What would you say were the main challenges in translating the collection? 

AC: The thing with translation is always this: When you look at it from the outside, you think that the difficulty is with the original Arabic, because there might be parts you won’t understand. The hardest part is finding the music and the rhythm and the correct choice of register in English. Mireia and I were a bit insecure at the beginning, because neither of us are native speakers of English—although I hate the term native speaker, and I don’t think that it explains anything about how a person speaks. I think it’s kind of misleading to assume that someone who is a so-called native speaker will know more, and I don’t think that is true. Still, we were very insecure, especially when we were approaching publishing houses about this. In this regard I am incredibly grateful to Sawad Hussain, who is also a professional translator. I met her in Cambridge a few years ago, and I started emailing her a lot because I wanted to get advice. She told to me to get rid of the insecurity of not being a native speaker. So I am incredible grateful to Sawad, for helping us find a publisher and find the confidence to finish the translation.

How do you see the collection in the overall scope of Zakaria Tamer’s work? 

AC: On the personal level, this is one of my favorites. My all-time favorite is Damascus Fires, which came out in 1973, when I think he reached a peak as an artist. It is a wonderful collection. As someone who fell in love in the city, that is a wonderful collection to find out more about the beloved. You can divide his career into two periods: there is the Syrian period between the 1960s and 1970s, and then there is the English period. He moved to settle down in England in the 1980s. He published five collections from England, and Sour Grapes is part of the second period. I’d say that Damascus Fire was his artistic peak from the 60s period, and Sour Grapes is his artistic peak in the second period. It encapsulates everything about the second period. There are a lot more female characters, and a lot more sarcasm towards gender, towards tradition. It encapsulates everything in one collection. 

Which other stories would you like to see in English? 

AC:I think Damascus Fire deserves to be published. It came out 50 years ago. As far as I am concerned, it would be the collection that I would most like to see published in English. It would be a brand-new project, and hopefully it will be easier for me to find a publisher in the future.