Encounters Between Languages: Nancy Roberts on Translating Ibrahim al-Koni’s ‘The Night Will Have Its Say’

Tugrul Mende

Ibrahim al-Koni’s language-mixing historical novel The Night Will Have Its Say, translated by Nancy Roberts, is a retelling of the story of the seventh- and eighth-century leader al-Kahina during the Muslim wars of conquest in North Africa. Here, Roberts talks about how The Night Will Have Its Say introduces the reader to a world of the past, and the ways in which languages and translations play a crucial role in the novel. 

What can you tell us about al Kahina? 

Nancy Roberts: A Berber queen, priestess, and military leader, al-Kahina (d. circa 703) succeeded the Berber king Kusaila (d. 688 CE) in leading indigenous resistance to the Muslim military campaigns across North Africa, known then as Numidia. The Muslim campaign was led by the Umayyad commander Hasan ibn al Nuꜥman (d. 710 CE). Although her personal name was Dahiya (or some variant thereof), meaning “the beautiful gazelle” in the Amazigh language, she is known in Arabic-language sources as al-Kahina, meaning “priestess or soothsayer,” given her alleged ability to foresee the future. According to some accounts, she died on the battlefield, sword in hand. According to others, she committed suicide by taking poison rather than be captured by the enemy, and according to still others, she was captured and later executed. Although she was finally defeated, her resistance has since served as a model for other freedom fighters.

What we know about al-Kahina is based almost entirely on what was written by Arab historians. As in connection with other aspects of her life, there are different views concerning her religious identity, with some claiming that she was a Jewish sorceress descended from Ethiopian Jews, and others claiming that she was a Christian, and that she derived her power from a Christian icon. According to still other accounts (from which al-Koni derives his depiction of her), she practiced an indigenous religion of Numidia that included worship of the goddess Tanit and veneration of ancestors.

While reading the novel, it made me think of how I could access more of this history. How would you introduce English readers to the history of the story, who might not be familiar with the events of the seventh and eighth centuries?

NR: The Night Will Have Its Say is, in fact, a historical novel, and, as I see it, it is the purpose of the novel itself to introduce readers to the story. In other words, I don’t think the author expects readers to know the story before reading the book. However, in my role as the translator, I tried to make it easier for readers to understand the events of the story by adding translator’s notes and appending a section of key terms at the end of the novel, where I explain particular words and expressions and give background information on the various characters, historical events, and locations referred to in the course of the novel.

How did you approach including non-Arabic text in the translation?

NR: I was aware from the very start of the novel that one of its themes would be language, translation, and encounters between languages. This was one of the things that drew me to it, including the amusing and lyrical way the author describes the opening encounter between al-Kahina and the envoy sent by the Muslim general Hasan Ibn al-Nuꜥman. The interpreter plays a central role in their exchange, and he exerts himself ever so earnestly to convey their messages back and forth in a critical situation. In this connection, it was clear that al-Koni had quite intentionally placed al-Kahina’s words in her own Amazigh tongue. He could easily have written the whole dialogue in Arabic. Instead, however, he chose to carefully transliterate her every word as she would have spoken them in her native language, and then provide the Arabic translation on the lips of the interpreter. This presented no great difficulty for me. Rather, I simply transposed al-Koni’s Arabic transliteration of the Amazigh into an English one. To my disappointment (but not surprise), the publisher insisted that we remove the diacritical marks I had included to make the transliteration a more exact representation of the original sounds, their reasoning being that such marks are usually reserved for academic works. But the sounds of the Amazigh are still represented well enough, I suppose, and most importantly, the reader is made aware of the fact that this conversation was not taking place in just one language, but in two.  

The story is quite complex, and there are a number of stories nested within. While working on the novel, how did you keep up with the plots, and what were your thoughts about the novel while reading it for the first time? 

NR: As in most novels, there are subplots here, that is true, although for me, the main events were still discernible and more or less easy to follow. In order to keep track of who was who, I took notes along the way, writing down characters’ names, who they were in relation to each other, and so on. I was drawn in emotionally by many aspects of the novel, which depicts a passionately fought struggle between an indigenous people and a power that is seeking to take them over and rob them of their self-determination in the name of a religious cause. I was also drawn in by various characters’ personal struggles, the focus on the place of women in the respective cultures and religions being depicted, al-Kahina’s intense spirituality and mystical bent, the insights into human nature and society, the view it presents of religious truth, and the vision of social justice it puts forward.

Which characters were you the most taken with, and why?

NR: A character that particularly moved me didn’t even have a name, as I recall. A native of the Maghreb, this man had embraced Islam and was doing his best to adhere to its rites. However, Ibn Nuʿman’s soldiers had seized his three daughters and led them away by force in place of the jizyah, which a devastating drought had rendered him unable to pay (bearing in mind that the jizyah is a tax that is only to be extracted from non-Muslims). Heartbroken over the loss of his daughters, the man goes in search of them. After hearing the man’s plea, Ibn Nuʿman does everything in his power to recover his daughters. Alas, however, his efforts come too late, as the caravan which had taken them into their various places of exile and enslavement had set out two days earlier. The bereaved father makes several reappearances in the course of the novel, a damning reminder of the injustice he and his family have been subjected to in the name of religion.

The other character, who doesn’t appear until very late in the novel, is the Umayyad Caliph Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz. Succeeding the unscrupulous Marwan Ibn Abd al-Malik, Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz sets about to eliminate the corruption and injustice that have marked the Umayyad caliphate before him, but he pays for his reform campaign with his life when he is assassinated only a few years after ascending the caliphal throne.

What difficulties did you come across while working on the novel? What were the particular challenges presented by the title?

NR: Al-Koni is a master of the Arabic language and extremely eloquent. As a result, his prose can be quite dense, with long, convoluted sentences that are difficult to unpack. So my challenge was to convey his message in an English that was equally eloquent and beautiful without being awkward and unwieldy. This, of course, required first drafts of passages that were very, very rough and literal, followed by countless goings over and rewordings over a period of time.

I also encountered passages or phrases where I simply didn’t understand what the author was saying, so I would write to him and ask him to explain. He was always very generous and detailed in his responses, which I greatly appreciated.

Another challenge I faced in this novel, and which I haven’t encountered before as I recall, was the translation of a passage in which al-Koni had put an exchange between characters in the third person (indirect speech). When I translated it as it was in the Arabic, it came across sounding dry and somewhat tedious. So I decided to convert it this into a dialogue (using second-person pronouns and direct speech in quotation marks) where none had existed in the Arabic, and I feel that this approach worked well.

Regarding the title, which in the Arabic is Kalimat al-Layli fī Ḥaqq al-Nahār, it might translate literally as “The Word of the Day Against the Night.” I don’t remember exactly what process I went through in coming up with an English title I felt satisfied with. However, I tried to distill its spirit or essence and, based on having read the novel and soaked up its themes, which include an ongoing dialectic of “night” and “day” as symbolic of injustice and justice, destructive forces vs. life-giving ones, and in which the former so frequently gains the upper hand, the English title, “The Night Will Have Its Say” came to mind. The message conveyed by the title is summed up, I think, in the last sentence in the novel, which follows the description of Caliph Umar’s assassination with the words, “It was as though the Fates had been determined to teach the generations a lesson in division with regard to justice, namely, that the shares of history allotted to justice are but pitiful respites during which it pays us a fleeting visit, alighting briefly as a phantom in the lower realms of creation. After all, it is a minor, time-bound exception to a crushing rule: that injustice alone reigns immortal!” A more complete translation of the title would be, “The Night Will Have its Day Against the Day,” but the author and I agreed that the shorter version works best.

When you started to work on the novel, did Hoopoe approach you for publishing the novel, or was it the other way around?

NR: I had the chance to meet al-Koni personally for the first time at a conference in Doha, Qatar in 2018, and he expressed interest in having me translate something he had written. He then sent me three novels, and asked me to choose which one I wanted to work on. Of these three, the one that spoke the most directly and powerfully to me was this one. So I translated a sample chapter and wrote up a proposal, which I sent to Hoopoe for their consideration.

How do you see the novel as a part of al-Koni’s oeuvre? 

NR: In order to address this question, it may be best first to look at the themes that are common to The Night Will Have Its Say and al-Koni’s earlier works, which include: (1) the mystery, majesty and sacredness of the desert, (2) human hubris and the futility of clinging to an illusion of permanence at the expense of our relationship to the natural world, (3) the tension between settled and nomadic life (which also relates to the idea that people seek out a false sense of permanence by building cities rather than contenting themselves with the truer security afforded by the open wilderness); (4) “day” and “night,” and the inexorability of the re-emergence of darkness after light, evil after good, especially if we continue in our hubris, seeing Nature, and other peoples, as “the Other;” (5) the sacredness of the native cultures, languages and religions of the world, which are inseparable from the sacredness of the natural world that we are destroying; and (6) the realm of the Unseen.

Given the length of this list, one can see clearly how this work of al-Koni’s fits into the larger scheme of his writings. At the same time, however, it contrasts with his earlier works in some significant ways, for example, in: (1) its being a historical novel, (2) its emphasis on the centrality and dignity of the woman, which is tied in turn to the relationship between Islam and the native religions of North Africa, particularly those that venerate the woman; (3) the sacredness of language and the call to recognize this by expending ourselves in learning others’ languages, be it other human languages, the “languages” of other cultures, religions and mythologies, or that of the natural world, the desert in particular; (4) the recurring mention of Anhi, the “lost” scripture which no longer exists in written form, but which lives in people’s hearts and embodies the core truths of Islam as well (if Muslims would only see this); (5) the futility of clinging to the letter of the scripture at the expense of its spirit; and (6) the failure of virtually every religion to bring about justice on earth. This last theme is reflected in the lines al-Koni cites from the 8th Century poet Abu al-Atahiyah in the beginning of the novel:

Never has day given way to night,

 Nor the stars orbited the heavens,

 But to transfer power from a ruler 

 Whose reign has given way to another.

What other projects are you currently working on? 

NR: Last year, I finished translating a short-story collection by Palestinian author Sheikha Helawy called They Fell Like Stars from the Sky (forthcoming, Neem Tree Press), which draws on the author’s experience growing up in an “unrecognized” Bedouin village that was wiped out in the 1990s to make way for an Israeli railroad.

A project I just finished working on is the biography of a twentieth-century figure from Jordan (the late Emir Zeid Bin Shaker), commissioned by his widow, and likely to be published in Jordan. It was particularly interesting to work on, given the fact that I lived in Jordan for 20 years, and given the close connections between Jordan and Palestine. 

I’m now getting ready to embark on a major project that involves translating Parts I and II of Walid Saif’s historical novel al-Taghrība al-Filasṭīniya (The Palestinian Odyssey), which was written based on an award-winning television series that preceded it and which gained wide circulation in the Middle East. I feel really honored to be tasked with this work, which is very close to my heart in ways both sorrowful and joyful. The work is being funded by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, and will be looking for a publisher in the months to come.

Also read:

An excerpt from The Night Will Have Its Say on the Hoopoe Fiction website.

A review on Africa is a Country: ‘Greed Has Fiercer Allies than Justice’