On Translating Khaled Khalifa: A Conversation with Leri Price

By Tugrul Mende

This July, Khaled Khalifa‘s No One Prayed Over Their Graves was published in Leri Price‘s translation. Price has several long-term relationships with authors. Her second book by Samar Yazbek is coming out next year, and this was her fourth translation of a novel by Khalifa. No One Prayed Over Their Graves is a historical novel set in early 20th century Aleppo. In this conversation, Leri Price talks about the process of translating this novel, working with Khaled Khalifa and where this book fits in his overall oeuvre, and lastly she shares advice for emerging translators.

How different was your process in translating this novel, vs. his other novels? 

Leri Price: I think because this is the fourth novel I have translated by Khaled, I am used to his voice and I am used to the way he structures his sentences. It is something that I am more and more familiar with. It’s always nice to come back to that and to see how these particular characters develop.

Leri Price and Khaled Khalifa
Image: SoA, Adrian Pope


The difference doesn’t come really from the book, but from the publishers in terms of the process that comes with it. In terms of style, it was definitely a departure from Death is Hard Work. Death is Hard Work is a very different novel, it was interesting to sort of go back, to a more old school Khaled.

What kind of relationship do you have with Khaled? And have you ever worked with other translators of his, like Larissa Bender, who did the German translation?

LP: We had a lot of contact. I plied him with frequent questions. He is so patient, he is just really lovely to work with, and I worked very closely with him. I usually do a few drafts first so they get to a substantial shape, because some queries resolve themselves when you read more the text. I go back to him quite a few times with queries, and after the editors see it, I go back with their queries as well. It was also great to work with Larissa. We worked together very closely on the text. It was my second time working with Larissa and my third time working with Khaled’s German translators. I really love a collaborative approach.

It was not an easy book at all to translate, so it was really helpful to discuss it with another translator. Both of us read different things into the text. Both of us interpreted it differently. I don’t read German, but Larissa reads English, and I sent her an early draft of the translation.

We talked about characters, for example. It was really fun and very informative because of the historical nature of the novel. Both of us did a lot of research. Together, we pinned down a few queries about, for instance, a hospital. We established that it was founded under one name and then it was renamed later on, so we had to make sure there wasn’t an anachronism in the text.

What does your translation process look like?

LP: For me, I usually start at the beginning and plow through. Sometimes, I’ve already read the book; sometimes I need to read the book, depending on the commissioning process. But when I do my very first draft, I try to draft it in such a way that it feels like I’m reading it for the first time. If that makes any sense. I leave myself little notes about important words or sentences for later drafts.

Have you noticed any changes in his writings or his style through the books you’ve worked on? And how would you locate No One Prayed Over Their Graves in his overall ouevre?

LP: I think the biggest departure is from Death is Hard Work. It was always a work in parentheses; it was written in different circumstances, and he wrote it with a particular aim. He usually takes years to write a novel, and Death is Hard Work was written in a few months, I believe. That was such a dramatic departure from his earlier work, where there is a sense of stillness and stagnation, and a recurring motif is that things are trapped and rotting. All of a sudden, in Death is Hard Work, there is a movement and a new sense of urgency. There was a whole sense of momentum, albeit still with the same motif of betrayal and decay.

Moving to the new novel, it was interesting to see how this book fitted in to his work overall. It does continue on from his earlier work. There is this momentum that runs through the novel. Among the images that he uses, the river is one of the most important. The fact that you open up with this astonishing scene—something that has swept away. The river can stand for many things,  however you want to read it. What really struck me was that he opened with the sense of motion, and people’s helplessness in the face of it.

You have Khaled’s earlier work, where people are sort of trapped and can’t move, and then you have the later development, where you have got movement, but they are still trapped. There is so much going on in the book. Hanna, for example, is a very dynamic character, and he sets things in motion and is at the center of this whirl of activity for much of his life, and yet he is still trapped. In the end, the only way he feels he can reclaim himself is by staying still and—stagnating! I’m not sure if trapped is the right word because the characters have still agency. It is just that they are subject to the pressure of time and society, the weight of all these external factors. The characters do their best to lead their lives, but they become swamped and overwhelmed by the outside world. Hanna’s solution is just to reject it and withdraw completely. There are still moments of beauty and integrity, and the characters really fight until the end to be true to themselves, even when it leads to their undoing. It is really heartbreaking.

But while the individual is struggling, we strive for human connection. When you think about all of Khaled’s work, it is the people who found love, not only romantic love, who are protected from damage. This is held up as what’s important and is a common theme through Khaled’s work. You can see it in this book as well, for example with Zakariya’s sister, Souad. She has wonderfully deep friendships with her brother’s friends, deep, loving, and sincere friendships, and they sustain her and the other people. The love affair between Mariam and William Eisa ended tragically but, even with their naivety and recklessness, they are held up as a model for the rest of the characters.

Since this is a historical novel, how much research did you do in order to understand every detail in the novel and what other works did you consult?

LP: I do always research about the novels I translate, but  some books need more than others. As for example with Sarab, which was written by Raja Alem, where the novel was about the siege on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I didn’t know anything about it; in the world’s narrative, it was overshadowed by the siege on the American embassy in Iran. It was something I knew very little about.

For No One Prayed Over Their Graves, most of the research I did was through academic articles. Ottoman Syria is a period about which my knowledge was pretty superficial. It was interesting to see how the Ottoman empire manifested in Syria and all the different administrative practices, and whether people felt like the Ottomans were occupiers or not.

The everyday things were the hardest thing to research, such as details about furniture and carriages. It was a lot of time that did not really show up in translation.

One character, Father Hourani, spends his life examining Syriac manuscripts. There are some wonderful repositories online of similar documents. This didn’t really directly inform the text, but I tried to get myself in the vibe by looking at pictures of Aleppo from that period, drawings and photographs and family portraits (like the ones William Bayazidi might have taken). I was just going and looking at them. As I mentally arranged the characters in the scene, I would use [the photos] to inform myself. It helped me to get me in the right mind set. Of all the books I have translated, this was the furthest away in terms of the time period.

I changed my mind a lot about spellings of names and how to write about clothes. That is really tough, I think. Clothing indicates social status and people’s class, and you can’t really always include that in an elegant way. But I believe in the reader; I don’t think we have to hold readers’ hands through every unfamiliar situation. I like to trust them a bit.

Which character did appeal to you the most and how would you describe them?

LP: So, my favorite is Zakariya. I feel sorry for him. I feel like he is a great, noble character, and he is so kind. He has some brilliant qualities that he brought to the friendship with Hanna, the caring and this unconditional love, and that was what I think led to his tragedy. He ended up in in a place that he didn’t want to be, living a life that made him miserable. I felt like he never got the resolution that Hanna did. I really felt for him. I think Zakariya loses more than Hanna.

But I was fond of all the characters, really. I think it goes back to the technique that Khaled uses in order to show how people’s lives are connected even when they don’t know about it. What I love about his writing is he takes his time showing how the connections occur. They are all connected through this flood at the beginning. For me the river is a metaphor for destiny, if that’s the right word, but  people read it differently. The march of history, with all of the social obligations and constructions that brings with it—they are all connected, even when they don’t seem to be.

The novel starts in 1907, how much is this novel a purely historical novel and how much does this novel reflect the present?

LP: All historical novels are about the present. You write about the current society through the lens of a different one. What you can see in this book is that there is wave after wave of tragedy. Time and time and time again, whether it’s famine, or a massacre, or an earthquake—we are powerless in the face of these things. When you think of everything that’s happened to Syria in the last 150 years, how far do we go back and where do we stop? I think it is very much about the present; it’s about how people do their best in the fact of annihilation, when their lives are turned upside down. It is an inescapable part of being alive, as the world is constantly at risk of being changed, and for Syria in particular it feels like it’s been one thing after another. But that being said, I don’t think this is a depressing book, and I don’t think that Khaled has a depressing philosophy.

When tragedies, when large-scale loss and destruction occur, we are constantly trying to figure out how to be human in the face of them. That is something that very much speaks to what is happening at the moment. Syrian friends have spoken about the fact that the Syria they knew has gone forever, homes have gone forever, people have been lost, and how do you go on?

The book teaches us that people do go on, even though they’re hurt. Tragedy leaves it marks for generations. But the connections that people make also leave their mark. This project seems to be a way of understanding what has happened and what is happening. You can’t trace what is happening right now only to the last few decades. One thing that is notable in this version of history are the connections that are made across religious lines, where characters are Aleppans first and foremost. It is about placing current tragedies and how we retain our humanity.

What advice would you give to younger translators?

LP: Patience is a good attribute to have, because it takes time to build connections and to sort of build knowledge. An important thing is that you must not compare yourself to other people. You certainly need patience and hard work, but you also need luck, and luck comes to some people faster than others. You follow your own trajectory and that is absolutely fine. Keep learning. And finally, find your people, because translators are a really supportive bunch. They are so ready to cheer each other on. One way of doing that is to build connections with other translators and applying for mentoring programs. Your people are out there!