Nada Faris on Why She Stopped Avoiding Translation & Bringing Bothayna Al-Essa’s ‘Lost in Mecca’ into English
Nada Faris has long been a writer and creative-writing teacher. She has authored several books, both poetry and fiction, and was a fellow at Iowa University’s International Writing Program back in 2013. But it wasn’t until she went to Columbia to do her MFA — which she completed in 2020 — that she became interested in translation.
Nada recently finished her debut translation, set to appear this fall: Bothayna al-Essa’s Lost in Mecca. She talks here with M Lynx Qualey, who (lightly) edited the translation for publisher Dar Arab.
Before you worked on Bothayna’s خرائط التيه, which will appear as Lost in Mecca from Dar Arab, I knew you as a poet and author of fiction (Mischief Diary, Fountain of Youth). In the acknowledgments of Lost in Mecca, you write that it was Susan Bernofsky who encouraged you to try a translation class when all you wanted to work on was poetry. First, thank you, Susan!
Second, what was it about that translation class that (finally) caught your attention?
Nada Faris: The orientation itself, even before the workshop, caught my attention. Students who were comfortable in more than one language were invited to a small gathering where we were told that translation was a great way to improve one’s writing.
This was the first time I had heard anyone speak about translation in personal and creative terms. As someone born and raised in Kuwait, I often avoided translation events because of the ways in which propaganda often slipped into discussions. Even the most liberal and well-meaning teachers were guilty of claiming that the Arabic language is more beautiful and more complex than all other languages and that Arabic poetry is incomparable and thus untranslatable. It always rubbed me the wrong way and made me wonder, “Surely there are more fulfilling activities you could dedicate your life to and get paid for instead of teaching something you believe is subpar?”
I had mostly heard of translation as a diplomatic endeavor to build cultural bridges. I’ve also heard it described in a more aggressive sense, for instance, translation as violence. Both at university, where I tried to avoid translation events as much as possible, and afterward, when I was visiting schools and campuses to teach creative writing, I’ve heard translation described in equally unappealing terms: for example, as the problem child of capitalism, as loss or disappointment, and even as servitude (where one’s job as a translator is merely offering oneself up as an empty vessel for another person’s work to flow right through them). There was little in what I had previously heard in Kuwait about translation that was even remotely enticing, maybe because, in contrast, I was approaching creative writing with absolute reverence.
“Through writing,” I’d explain to my students time and time again, “we could hear our thoughts and even change them, communicate personal values and build new communities, experience joy, pain, passion, and grief, then ascribe words and phrases to these emotions, and even lay the foundation for a new future.” I taught writing as a powerfully transformative act that relied on enhancing our creative power. “And by becoming more authentic,” I excitedly declared in my workshops, “we become more accountable, and life becomes more meaningful.”
This is why I was at Columbia in the first place. I had already spent more than ten years writing and teaching the craft to my community as a tool to help us heal and grow, and after sharing all I knew, I decided to improve my technical abilities and acquire enhanced pedagogical skills to serve my community better.
But, at that orientation, translation was being talked about as writing—not in the Romantic sense (i.e., “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions”) or as an apolitical endeavor, for instance, writing as a personal expression devoid of nuanced power relations, but as writing in the way I’d been engaging with for many years—writing as complex, creative, personal, and communal. There was excitement over the possibilities that translation could open up rather than the stuck-up lament I was familiar with, which often claimed that the English text would never match up to the original, or that it fostered loss and violence, or that translation was merely a cover to express one’s belief in the superiority of one race and one language above the rest.
I was here to improve my own craft, after all, and if translation could help me expand my relationship with creative writing, then I thought it was worth giving it a shot. I had only translated office memos and a sports documentary up until then, and, honestly, it did not feel like the translation I did before Columbia was anything like “writing.” It felt both mechanical and servile.
So, I took a class, and because there were many of us translating from different languages, none of the students could sneak in a snide comment about one language or one identity being better than the rest; and because we were all writers, when we did discuss the politics and power of translation, we did it as creatives elaborating on craft, literary lineage, and our innovative agency in the process—not as pseudo politicians. I loved absolutely every minute of that workshop!
From that point onward, I registered in every translation class I could squeeze into my schedule and ended up double-majoring in writing and translation. And though I had gone to Columbia to focus on poetry, it’s the translation courses that have left the most positive marks on my memory.
You also write, about Bothayna’s novel, in particular, that you fell in love with it during the translation workshop. What other elements—beyond loving the novel—convinced you that you wanted it to consume such a large part of your life? What are you looking for in the future when you translate works?
NF: When I requested the rights to translate Bothayna’s book, I had only read and translated the first chapter. It wasn’t until I started working on chapter two in my second translation workshop that I realized the book’s point of view oscillated between the boy’s family and the kidnappers.
During Spring Break, the Covid shutdown occurred, Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets outside my apartment complex, and New York implemented a curfew. It was then that I decided to read the entire book before working on my thesis. Although my friend had warned me that the book had made her depressed for a month, I had thought she was exaggerating. But as I read the book amidst the external and internal chaos, I found myself unable to get out of bed that day…
There was so much I wanted to discuss, analyze, argue about, and praise in the book that when it finally found a publisher, I had to process my thoughts and feelings as a reader before I could approach the page as a translator.
The book delves into some of my personal traumas, so I am uncertain if I want to tackle that kind of material again so soon. For my next translation, I hope to choose something that will continue to challenge me as a writer but perhaps something that will require less therapy.
There were many parts of the translator’s afterword that filled me with admiration and delight; one was how you refer to having “investigated” (as the primary detective of this novel) the ways various readers of the Arabic original felt upon completing the novel, and that you took on board their comments (that it created a sensation of marvel and splendor, and that readers felt as though they were both rushing toward impending doom and claustrophobia).
Where did you find these readers? Were they friends or colleagues, or did you find them elsewhere (through Goodreads)? And how did you approach asking them about their reading experience? Did you have a limited number things you wanted to know, or was your inquest more open-ended?
NF: It felt like a genuine investigation rather than casual conversations because I was grappling with my own thoughts and emotions about the book’s content while also feeling enthralled by the quality of the writing. I was particularly interested in what motivated people to buy a book that was banned in Kuwait, what prompted readers to recommend a book to their loved ones despite its challenging storyline, and what drove academics to research a text that they considered simultaneously important as well as problematic.
In addition to reading reviews on Goodreads, I also scoured Arabic forums and Twitter for more opinions.
People’s feedback about Bothayna’s book convinced me that the narrative deserved to be translated because it is not a one-dimensional story. In other words, it is truly paradoxical, repelling the reader while captivating them.
Learning that I was not alone in the way I reacted to the book was such a relief. It made me realize that my feelings weren’t because the book tapped into my personal traumas or highlighted the power of writing—the most significant tool in helping me face my traumas in the first place. Hearing others’ experiences made me realize that the paradoxical affect was created through rhetorical strategies. This discovery blew my mind, and I couldn’t wait to tackle the puzzle of reproducing the contrast in the English version.
Sometimes, you use the same methods as the original—for instance, you achieve a borderless mood, in part, by not enclosing direct speech in quotation marks. But, sometimes the effects are similar but the methods are different. (Verb tenses work differently, for instance, as does paragraphing, pronouns, typography). How did you map out all the elements that created the emotive effects in the original, and link them to elements you wanted to use to create these effects in translation?
NF: While working on this book at Columbia University, I struggled to find the right balance between translating the surface level (what people see on the page) and the impact of the surface level (how people feel upon reading the text). I continuously experimented with this balance until just two months before my first deadline, when I realized that I was never going to find the perfect line between changing material to honor the author’s intention and showing my readers that I know how the text would look like if it were translated literally. With over 400 pages to translate, revise, and proofread, I had to buckle up and get going.
Reading Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men helped me finally decide on several formal concerns. From the former, I visualized the integration of description and conversations within the same paragraphs, and from the latter, I visualized the briskness of dialogue and the use of white space to create tension.
To help me keep track of tenses and typography, I wrote a list on a small Post-it and kept it near my keyboard.
Rhyme and half-rhyme were important methods the original used to create sonic effects, and I was surprised at how effectively you slipped it into the English without it becoming too sing-song or showy. I have to admit, I think my instinct would have been to remove the rhyme, but I was persuaded by your statement: “In my view, the mechanics of rhyme, phonic echoes, and beats or stress employed in the original do not act as a frivolous cover to an otherwise self-evident tale but are rather the very building blocks through which the story itself is told.” Is this sonic reverberation part of the “circling in place” element of the novel? What other roles do rhyme and half-rhyme play?
NF: The most important aspect was to communicate to the reader that the work is an artifice, using the term in its original sense. This is particularly crucial for a work of art that pushes the boundaries of storytelling.
I felt that removing the sonic landscape might render the narrative photographically—as if it were a picture taken in the Middle East—which might cause the characters to be mistaken for real people. Therefore, I emphasized to the designer that photographs should not be plastered on the cover. Instead, my author and I sought an artistic, modern, and abstract image as the visual entry point to the story, one that could not be confused with anything literal, one that underscored the author’s creative agency.
The approach I had with the cover mirrors the one I had with the language. The sonic landscape was thus a fundamental component in maintaining the author’s subjectivity and emphasizing the artifice of the work.
It was interesting to me that you draw in Bothayna Al-Essa the person into your translator’s note, and her role in—for instance—dismantling the censorship branch of Kuwait’s Ministry of Culture, and in everything she does at Takween. It’s an interesting element of translation that the Arabic-language reader is much more likely to already know who Bothayna is when coming to the book, vs. someone picking it up in English, at least outside Kuwait. Why did you want to include elements of Bothayna’s advocacy on behalf of writers?
NF: During my discussions about the book, Bothayna’s role in society frequently came up as a topic of interest. Some even mentioned that they would not have read the story if it was written by someone else.
This was interesting for me to hear because it seems that we are living in contradictory times. On the one hand, people believe that the author is dead and readers should only engage with what is available on the page. They don’t even need to compare it with what is available on all the pages, just the one they find interesting at any particular moment. On the other hand, there is an equally powerful trend that believes the author’s identity and position in power hierarchies should determine the way in which readers interpret texts. I’ve read papers, for instance, and heard talks by celebrated writers and scholars who unconsciously switch between both poles, starting off by talking about how they are post-structuralists and will be judging what is both present and absent from a text, then attributing intentionality to the author at the end of their argument. This results in the dead author being resurrected only to determine whether they are, for instance, racist, classist, sexist, and so on, based on this individual’s reading, which lacks the author’s biographical details.
I believe in transparency. If a reader approaches Lost in Mecca with the idea that “the author is dead,” I hope they maintain that viewpoint until the end of their papers. If, on the other hand, a reader is truly interested in the author’s personal viewpoints and character, then I suggest they get to know the person they are writing about. People’s lives are not always reflected in one of their publications. That’s why I tend to say that I am the corpus of my work. In other words, I am the sum of what I have published and how I have utilized my platform—not the reflection of a single poem, short story, or article.
What did your work on this novel teach you, as a translator, that you will bring to your next project?
NF: I didn’t even know which dictionaries to consult before I started working on this book. I was familiar with my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, but I didn’t even have the right setup to translate. I have a small laptop on which I write. I love it because it’s compact and can be carried everywhere. But when I started to translate, especially in the early stages where I needed to have multiple windows open to research numerous definitions, explore etymology, look at various stages of my own translation (typed section, claque, first English draft, literary version, etc.), it became more pressing for me to work with a bigger screen, one which could showcase these many windows at the same time.
I also didn’t realize that I’d have a different attitude to translation than I did to writing. For instance, my favorite writing hours are 3-6 am in the morning, but I can’t translate during those hours. In fact, it turned out that I was working on various stages of the translation in different parts of the day. And the duration differed as well! For example, I spend fewer hours translating than I do writing, I need more breaks in between translation sessions than I do writing, and these breaks are longer too. I don’t know if this is talked about in the field or not, but translation is really painful. It hurts my head, eyes, back, neck, and even jaw. So I’ve had to figure out how to make the process more ergonomic over time—while also figuring out my limits as a professional doing this work that looks like writing but that taps into other areas of my psyche.
As a creative who is bipolar, I’ve learned to harness my creative moods and rest during depressive episodes. As such, while I have three books out in the world, you’ll notice that all my books (Fountain of Youth, Mischief Diary, and Women of Kuwait) are collections of shorter works. This is the first time I’ve had to work on a longer project: a +400 page novel!
So one thing I’ll definitely be bringing to my other translation projects is the list of strategies I developed to make sure I reach the finish line.
What are you looking for, in new translation projects? What elements of a novel (or short-story collection? poetry collection? memoir?) would make you want to commit to it? What are your considerations when looking for a new book (or even a story, a poem) to translate?
NF: I tend to live life on instinct. With Lost in Mecca, for example, I asked for the rights even before I read the whole book. It’s been like that my whole career. I’ll get last-minute offers, or I’ll say yes to something before it even crystallizes or becomes a real opportunity.
The one thing in common with all these projects, though, is that they test my limits and force me to grow as a human and an artist. Maybe it’s the mystic in me, but I view every challenge as an opportunity to transform. I want to look back at my previous year and not even recognize who I was because I have developed new skills, a different mindset, or even the kind of experience that enables one to show up in the world as though anew.
Has this intense work on literary translation impacted your writing or teaching practice?
NF: Yes! In fact, I had to go back to the basics to figure out how I was going to approach the syntax. For example, was I going to stick to the Arabic’s sprawling sentences? Or chop them up to make them more manageable for an English-speaking audience? So just to remind myself of what the English language can stylistically accomplish, I took Brooks Landon’s course on Audible Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. Then I read Nina Schuyler’s How to Write Stunning Sentences: 100 Simple Exercises from Beloved Authors to Improve Your Writing Style. Both helped me think about how to structure English versions of Bothayna’s Arabic text. Then, I read James Dickins’ Thinking Arabic Translation and Noureldin Abdelaal’s Translation Between English and Arabic just to ground myself in what is considered general practice in the field and to give me a sense of how much I’d be veering off from academic expectations if I decide to lean toward English style rather than accepted translation practice. And to top it off, I read James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense to consider the different rhetorical strategies I could rely on to help me recreate the affect of the fast-paced narrative. Now, having done this stylistic legwork, I can’t help but notice how they’ve impacted my writing and my teaching. As a poet, the sonic landscape, suspense through formal strategies, and style through bending grammar have always been important to me, but the work I did this year to prepare for the translation helped me integrate those poetic elements into my prose and the kinds of workshops or seminars I’ll be offering soon.
Can you talk a little about your hopes &/or fears for the reception of Lost in Mecca?
NF: I hope that people realize how much work was put into this translation and that this level of craft is apparent in the original—in other words, my biggest hope is that readers relate to Bothayna and myself as artists. I also hope that people experience the same emotions after reading the English version as they would from the Arabic. And, finally, I hope we talk more about translation as an affirmation and not a negation, as something that honors our higher and more creative impulses—as something that is profound.