The ‘Strange, Somewhat Miraculous’ Tale of Translating Lena Merhej’s ‘Yoghurt and Jam’

Lena Merhej’s Yoghurt and Jam (or how my mother became Lebanese) first appeared in Arabic in 2011, and has since been published in French, Spanish, and Italian translations. This year, an English translation — by Nadiyah Abdullatif and Anam Zafar — will come out from the UK- and Singapore-based Balestier Press. Back in 2015, we published an interview with Simona Gabrieli, co-translator (with Marianne Babut) of the French edition of Yoghurt and Jam. Eight years later, we are pleased to finally have a chance to talk with both Lena and the book’s English co-translators.

Anam and Nadiyah, what drew you to this book? How did you come across it (and how do you, generally, discover new graphic novels that you enjoy)? 

Nadiyah Abdullatif: It was quite a strange, somewhat miraculous story for me. I had been doing commercial translation part-time while mainly working in another field, but in 2021 I decided to take a leap and go into translation full-time. Literary translation wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind because I didn’t really know how to get started with it, so it didn’t seem like a practical option, but when a colleague at my online leaving-do asked about my idea of the perfect project, it was actually this book that flashed through my mind. I love graphic novels and had spent the pandemic catching up with reading them. So when I signed up to a course about translating humor in Arabic literature led by Sawad Hussain, I was really surprised that we were working on extracts from this book! Not only that, but soon after, Sawad offered to be my mentor, and she was the one who suggested this project for us and put us in touch with Lena. In terms of the book itself, it offered a touching insight into what it was like growing up in a context of civil war and conflict — something I’ve had no experience of — and there were also many things that I related to: my mother, like Lena’s mother, is a doctor who moved abroad and worked intensely while raising several children. My father, like Lena’s father, devours books and newspapers. And despite having quite a different background to Lena, I also had a multilingual upbringing with a great deal of linguistic and cultural variety to make sense of.

From an excerpt that appeared in The Markaz Review.

Anam Zafar: To find out about Arabic graphic novels, I mostly follow ArabLit, ask for recommendations from friends, and see what people are talking about on social media. I also enjoyed the recent episode on the Bulaq podcast with Rawand Issa about her graphic novel Inside the Giant Fish (trans. Amy Chiniara). I intend to follow CairoComix more closely from now on, too.

For Yoghurt and Jam in particular, we’ve got our shared mentor Sawad Hussain to thank for her matchmaking skills! I joined her “Translating Humor” course, organized by the British Library, because humor was a genre I hadn’t yet had a chance to translate. I loved translating an excerpt of the graphic novel during the course and I let Sawad know so. I was also impressed by Nadiyah’s suggestions during the sessions. After the course, Sawad suggested that we work on pitching the project as a pair. It hadn’t been fully translated into English and we were both fairly new to the literary translation scene, so we could help each other out. I’m continuously grateful for how Sawad helps other Arabic translators!

Yoghurt and Jam appeals to me for many reasons. Firstly, I like how Lena is able to weave humor into what is otherwise an emotionally heavy story about cultural identity, war, and generational trauma. The combination of the light with the heavy mirrors how we so often deal with difficult situations in real life, and this spanning across the emotional scale shows through in the range of illustrations Lena is able to use throughout the book. As a British-Indian-Pakistani Muslim myself, I’m always interested in seeing how others grapple with the theme of hybrid cultures through art. Plus, as someone with knowledge gaps in my own family history, Lena’s journey into her mother’s past was inspirational. I appreciated her talking about the joys, challenges, and logistics of her investigation—and to then share her results with the world, in a beautifully crafted piece of work.

Lena, it’s been a while since you published مربّى ولبن, which came out in 2011, and you’ve done a number of other projects since then. When you go back to it now, more than 10 years later, what about it draws your attention, or feels different than it did a decade ago?

Lena Merhej: Murabba wa Laban is my memory box. I had a box full of photos and drawings from my childhood, but I lost it in my mid teens. I also never had a memory box with a dancing ballerina, so Murabba wa Laban plays that role. I love that. I open it and visit the memory, then try to revisit the memory before the book. We have also talked about it in the family throughout the years, and that has given it many new memories.

You’ve moved between illustrating for children’s books and comics and graphic novels for adults. In what ways do these two practices inform & build on each other? Do you learn things while collaborating with an author and publisher on a children’s picture book that you can apply to working on your own visual-narrative storytelling? Or vice versa? 

LM: I was a gamer and a programmer very early on, and I was fascinated with interactive media and the notions of enabling the user. But when 9/11 happened, I was in NYC and I witnessed the artists’ reactions to speak up and tell. Everyone was telling stories, drawing, writing on the pavement and on the walls. I went back to Beirut that Christmas and asked my nephews and nieces about the war their parents witnessed. And they knew nothing. Since then, my focus has been telling stories.

I started with making animated films, then I illustrated children’s books and wrote my own comics. To me, they are all realizations of visual narratives, stories that need to be told. Images that need to be drawn.

I am now illustrating in collaboration with a writer, and it is much less challenging than authoring alone, which can be painful and full of responsibility.

When I illustrate, the focus is more on the graphics, and that is an exploration I am always interested in. But I think that, like many, I can’t make myself write. It comes like a burst to relieve a frustration, a suffocation, or a great need “to put things down on the table.”

Anam and Nadiyah, what are the particular challenges of translating graphic novels, vs. translating prose (or poetry)? Are there aspects you focus on with a graphic novel that you don’t — or don’t in the same way — with other literary translation projects? 

NA: It’s difficult for me to answer this one, as Yoghurt and Jam was my first real literary project and we had a lot of success with it in terms of getting excerpts published and quickly finding a publisher, despite it being the first time either of us was working with a graphic novel. I worked on a couple of comics alongside it, and I found all of those projects far less daunting and challenging than the work on prose fiction I did later. I think there are a few reasons for that: word counts for graphic novels are usually much lower, and illustrations make it much easier to understand what’s going if the text is ambiguous, and they also give a point of reference for language style. I still had to do my research, and I remember a workshop by Sarah Ardizzone on translating graphic novels at Bristol Translates 2022 being especially helpful — it taught me to really look closely at the images and think hard about the story they’re telling and the kind of voice they have. The other tricky thing was working with a pdf. We had heard that other translators worked with numbered boxes in a Word document, but we felt it would be easier to see the words in context (while also checking that our translation would definitely fit) so we used textboxes directly in the pdf. It was a bit fiddly, but it worked!

AZ: You have to make sure the translation doesn’t contradict the images in any way; you need to consider what is being said with words only, images only, or both; whether this balance will or can be mirrored exactly in the English version or not. I wouldn’t say it’s easier or harder than translating prose, just different. What I loved about translating Yoghurt and Jam was immersing myself in visual art as well as words, which both give me equal joy in life. I now have the following question stuck on my office wall, taken from the webinar “Translating Picture Books” organized by the Eric Carle Museum: What words do the pictures want you to use?

In terms of more logistical challenges, deciding to insert text boxes over the Arabic PDF made me want to tear my hair out at times, but we both agreed that it was worth it to be able to work directly with the images and see how our translation choices fit with them.

Lena, you have, by now, worked with a number of different translators moving in and out of different languages (and have translated some of your own work, and maybe some work by others?). How do you see the particular challenges of translating comics? Do you ever gloss them for a new audience, adding information that isn’t in the original?

LM: I believe that many things are lost in translation. I can never write exactly what I mean. Also, I was brought up in a multilingual family and country, having to juggle languages, not mastering either, and thus my capacity to infer while living in the doubt of the meaning is eminent. Since the first books I read, I was trained to read between the lines and rely on the context, always leaving unknown words in their ambiguous state. For this reason, it frustrates me when colleagues expect me to fix a certain meaning; it wakes me from my poetry and bleeds truths that sometimes I am still too vulnerable to write. I tell myself that it is like reaching out from writing to myself to writing to others, and it scares me that it might be turning poetry into prose.

Anam and Nadiyah, both of you are, of course, accomplished translators in your own right. Can you talk about what you enjoy about the co-translation process, in general, and why it was a good fit for this book in particular? Of course there is the downside to co-translation (sharing an already small pot of money) but what are the upsides?

NA: Working with Anam was a wonderful process! We enjoyed it so much that we’ve pitched for other projects together and we’re always keeping an eye out for new collaboration opportunities. Beyond our great working relationship, we’ve also become very good friends and a good listening ear for each other about all kinds of translation quandaries. Through the co-translation process, I learnt a HUGE amount from Anam. She had more experience with literature and pitching to publishers, in addition to editing experience, so I learnt a lot of techniques from her that I later incorporated into my other projects. For me, one of the greatest things about working as co-translators was being able to bounce ideas off each other, and I felt that we were more decisive and less prone to second-guessing than I can be on my own. I also think it’s worth saying that while the pot of money is shared, and the work is definitely not halved, we’ve been able to cover a lot more ground together in terms of pitching extracts, promoting our work, and getting advice on various aspects from other translators.

AZ: For this project, Nadiyah and I shared the fee that a single translator would have received for working alone on this project. As far as I’m aware, this is a reality for most co-translations, and for this reason it was important that both of us had other work to supplement it. Being a firm believer that co-translation improves the final output — when the co-translator relationship is a good and ethical one — I would argue that co-translators should both be paid a full fee.

I enjoy all kinds of collaborative translation work, from workshops to swapping edits with a friend — and I LOVE co-translation. I enjoy being able to spew ideas at a real person rather than having them bounce around in my own head until all words lose meaning. Having more ideas in the room ultimately leads to better translation choices. This was our first time working on a graphic novel, so the moral support and sense of camaraderie was invaluable. The pitching process was less tedious and quicker because we split the tasks between us. Of course, all translation is collaborative anyway — whether that’s consulting the author or workshopping your draft with other translators, researching contextual material, etc – but having “two people knee-deep in the text together” is like “having an extra lamp on in your brain”, as Aleshia Jensen has said in an interview about her co-translation experience with Helge Dascher (that interview, by the way, helped us formulate a plan about how to translate together).

Nadiyah, you mentioned that you’ve become friends. What kind of relationship does a person need to have with their co-translator? What sort of pairings make a good co-translational relationship? (I’m always startled when married couples, for instance, can make a translation partnership work.) 

NA: I think it helps when people have similar interests and motivations, and I think there’s a personality element, too. Being able to work with others does mean being humble, open to other viewpoints, and able to compromise, while also voicing concerns when you have them. Communication is key. Anam and I definitely had different preferences at times, but we always handled them tactfully and respectfully and found a solution we could both get on board with. I think we are just naturally compatible as co-translators.

AZ: You don’t need to be friends before working together — our friendship formed during this project. But we already knew we had similar translation interests and styles and that we got on well. Also, the relationship needs to be honest and one that you both genuinely want to be in. Me and Nadiyah will always tell the other when we feel uncomfortable about something, we are always upfront about our availability and expectations, and we won’t agree to a translation decision just to be polite. Neither takes it personally. Also, you should be upfront about what kind of co-translation relationship it is: is someone acting as a mentor to the other, or not? How will you split the work? What is each person’s tolerance to deadlines being extended? What is your partner’s communication preference (phone call, email, text messages) and do they have strict working hours?

English-language publishers seem to lag behind when it comes to the translation of Arabic graphic novels. Yoghurt and Jam has already appeared in French, Spanish, and Italian. Was this to your benefit, in the translation process? Have you glanced at all at how Simona Gabrieli, for instance, worked out any aspects of her translation?

NA: We both read the French translation before working on our translation and found it helpful to see the translation choices. Simona was really enthusiastic about our project, and it really felt like she was rooting for us! She offered us the left-to-right layout as well as lots of useful information about sales and publicity that we were able to include in funding applications.

AZ: It really helped to be able to tell publishers that Yoghurt and Jam had already been translated into other languages — although this shouldn’t be a must for publishers to consider taking on the project. And I would say that what helped the most during the translation process was Lena’s availability and patience when answering our vocabulary- and context-related queries. We learned so much more about her family and thought processes behind the work through those conversations.

Lena, I talked to Simona before the French translation came out, but not after. How was the reception in French, vs. the reception of Mónica Carrión Otero’s Spanish translation, vs. the reception of the Arabic in Lebanon and elsewhere? 

LM: I am not sure how to evaluate the reception. I think it was in Italy that it was best received. I know that my Italian fans on instagram are many and the buzz around it is still going on in the media and in the academic circles. 

What keeps you coming back to the graphic novel form, as part of your storytelling practice?  

LM: Comics to me are the balance between animation and picture books. I like to articulate spaces and characters, I love stories, and I like books. How juxtaposed sequences tell a story is fascinating to me and an ongoing search and experimentation. Also, when I think about all the books I contributed to, my heart gets bigger. I think about my father (who read the encyclopedia in the salon (!) and valued books like treasures) and feel proud. 

Graphic novels (and children’s books) don’t have to be collaborative, but you seem to have chosen a shared path: co-founding Samandal, working with authors and publishers to realize their vision of a picture book — for instance — rather than just focusing on your own work. Why have graphic novels, in particular, been something you wanted to do as part of a community? 

LM: I was part of the post-war generation that had to be a pioneering generation for all the things we didn’t have during the war. I was also part of a small boom in the illustration field in Lebanon. From 2005 to 2010, the community around children’s books grew very quickly. The Ministry of Culture, the French Institute, and the Anna Lindh Foundation gave a great push for collaborations and exchanges to happen among publishers, illustrators, writers, and librarians. However, the consideration of writers of picture books as authors and illustrators as visual translators was limiting to me and to many colleagues. However, the activities around comics were still lagging from 2002 to 2007 with no manifestation (workshops or publications) other than in newspapers, while the means and the need to create a community for comics was there. Samandal as a community was made from necessity: first to create a space for comics to thrive in and second to release the author in me and the artists in Samandal.

I’d like to briefly ask about making a living as a visual storyteller. How could the books landscape be slightly (or very) changed to make it easier for graphic novelists and comics artists to produce good work and earn a decent living (without burning out)?  

LM: An author (writer and illustrator) has to sell about 3500 copies of a book to make a minimum living (around 1000$/month), when a book is made in six months while doing freelance work. This is very constraining and difficult to attain. However, residencies and funds, like the funds of the CNL in France, can help artists develop their projects before reaching a publisher. Building a community of readers and fans online is also important to sell the book. Publishers also have their responsibility. They should pay authors royalties rather than lump sums and make an effort to pay the authors in advance during the production time.

This is a question for all of you! Do you have plans for launch events or talks, to spread the word about this book (finally) being out in English translation? 

AZ: Nadiyah has worked on an upcoming online event with the National Centre for Writing (NCW) bringing together translators of graphic novels from the Arab world, featuring Amy Chiniara (translator of Inside the Giant Fish by Rawand Issa), Deena Mohamed (who self-translated Your Wish is My Command/Shubeik Lubeik) and Emma Ramadan (translator of My Port of Beirut and My Great Arab Melancholy by Lamia Ziadé). The event will showcase artwork from the books, including Yoghurt and Jam, and discuss the translation process. It will be broadcast via NCW’s YouTube channel at 7pm UK time on Tuesday 26th September, in the lead-up to International Translation Day. Lena is also planning to make an appearance at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, in the UK’s Lake District, on Saturday 30 September. Watch this space for more!