Place: Egypt

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge” by Ezzedine C. Fishere

She was a victim of her own mythmaking about the mysterious Orient.

Shortlisted for the Arabic Booker when it first appeared in 2011, Ezzedine C. Fishere’s Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge has already been reprinted eleven times. Ahead of its English publication on 1 April, we collaborated with exciting new publisher Hoopoe to present the excerpt below. Brimming with observation, this vignette provides a searing glimpse into the life of Egyptian diaspora coming to terms with a hyphenated identity.

Though he had spent five years in London writing up his doctoral thesis, he hadn’t met Jane there, but in Cairo, which surprised their small circle of friends. Jane was tall, slim, shapely, and beautiful, with long chestnut-brown hair, which she would either let hang around her shoulders or pin up with whatever was to hand, normally a pencil. She had come to Cairo for a year to learn Arabic, on some scholarship or another. She grew to love the city in all its chaos and ended up settling there. They gradually got to know each other, and grew closer until they ended up more or less living together in an apartment in Giza, behind the zoo.

The thought of marrying Jane had occurred to him early on: she had many of the qualities he sought in a partner. But something about her unnerved him, so he didn’t tell Leila or Youssef about her until he was sure of their relationship.

He traveled with her to Britain to visit her parents, who lived on the outskirts of Glasgow. They walked to the riverbank where she had played as a girl, gazing across the endless pastures. She took him to the local pub, where throngs of young men had pestered her as a teenager. And they met all the neighbors who wanted to see “this Egyptian Jane has fetched back.”

Jane was a good-hearted, decent sort of person, but her relationship with Egypt was confused. She told Darwish when they first met how much she loved the Egyptian people’s good-naturedness, and their warmth and humanity. She found something in them that she had felt lacking from her life in Britain. He laughed to himself, being someone who actually loved the cool standoffishness of the British, finding in their respect for privacy something he lamented as sorely missing from Egyptian life. They found themselves in reversed positions, as he criticized she defended Egyptian life and people: “Yes, she is lying. From a legal point of view, she’s lying. But it’s not a real lie”; “This is not a weakness, it’s caution”; “No that’s not nepotism, it’s really just an expression of gratitude”; “It’s absolutely not a class thing; it’s a different view of roles and responsibilities.”

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from Brazil, Egypt, and Spain!

This week, we take off on tour just south of the equator, where Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Maíra Mendes Galvão, gives us the scoop on Indie Book Day and some big-time literary awards. Then it’s east to Egypt, where we’ll catch up with Editor-at-Large Omar El-Adl about some exciting recent and upcoming events. Finally in Spain, Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski highlights new releases and a chance to win poetry collections!

Maíra Mendes Galvão, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, has the latest from the lit scene:

The National Library Foundation of Brazil has issued an open call for publishers from all over the world interested in translating and publishing works by Brazilian authors to send in their proposals. Selected works will be eligible for a grant. Publishers have until May 2 to apply.

Raduan Nassar, veteran Brazilian writer with a short but acclaimed bibliography, has made headlines after giving a politically-charged speech on February 17 when he accepted the Camões Prize, issued by the Ministry of Culture of Brazil in partnership with Portugal. Mr. Nassar has called out the present government’s controversial claim to power, calling it anti-democratic and pointing out specific instances of misconduct by the administration, the president’s cabinet, and the Supreme Court nominees.

The popular Plana Fair, catalyst of a movement to popularize self-publishing and small publishing houses in Brazil, is holding its fifth edition under the name Plana – Art Book Fair at the São Paulo Biennial building, taking over the ground floor and the mezzanine of the iconic Pavilion Ciccillo Matarazzo from March 17 to 19. Plana will feature around 150 national and international exhibitors and a parallel program of talks, screenings, performances, and workshops.

Brazil is taking part on this year’s Indie Book Day on March 18, an initiative to promote and popularize independent publishing. It is a concerted action with a simple proposition: to go to a bookstore, any bookstore, on this particular day, buy an independently published book and post a picture of it on social networks with the hashtag #indiebookday.

Casa Guilherme de Almeida, the São Paulo State museum dedicated to Modernist journalist, poet, and translator Guilherme de Almeida, is holding a two-day conference dedicated to the translation of classics—the 3rd Translation of Classics in Brazil Conference—with the theme Re-translations in Conversation. Speakers will focus on comparative efforts of the differences between the premises, procedures, and results of translations of the same classical works.

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Egypt, Bangladesh, the ALTA conference and on the recent Nobel Prize list.

Welcome to this edition of Asymptote’s weekly update, a hop, step, and jump tour de force bringing you the latest from three continents of literature in translation. To kick off, our Egyptian Editor-at-Large Omar El Adi sends us his bulletin, including news on literary prizes and an upcoming event in London. We then zoom in on Bangladesh, where Editor-at-Large for India Naheed Patel reports on recent festivals and the passing of Bangla authors. Also, US-based Assistant Editor Julia Leverone visited the ALTA conference so you didn’t have to. And finally Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us the round-up from the literary world on the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. 

Editor-at Large Omar El Adi has the latest literary news from Egypt:

The inaugural annual lecture of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation will be given by Palestinian author Anton Shammas at the British Library in London on 14 October. The jury for this year’s prize includes last year’s winning translator Paul Starkey, professor of Arabic Zahia Smail Salhi, writer and journalist Lucy Popescu, and literary consultant and publisher Bill Swainson. Paul Starkey’s 2015 win came for his translation of Youssef Rakha’s The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars (2014). An excerpt of Rakha’s third book Paulo (forthcoming in English) was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Asymptote. The winner of the prize will be announced this December.

In Alexandria, Tara Al-Bahr, an interactive online platform, is launching its second print edition with original essays as well as translations into Arabic on the topics of cultural and artistic practices and urban change in contemporary Alexandria. Tara Al-Bahr launched in May this year, and its second printed edition came out on Thursday, 6 October.

The Facebook group Alexandria Scholars is commencing a series of talks, titled “The City Dialogue Series”, with the support of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, and curated by the sociologist Amro Ali. The first lecture, “Alexandria and the search for meaning”, was on 10 October and explored solutions to the city’s problems “through the terrain of historical, urban, and philosophical analysis”. Future events involving writers, academics, political figures, and researchers have already been planned for November and December.

In publishing news, Mohamed Rabie’s Otared (2016) was released in English translation in September by AUC Press. The novel was shortlisted for the International Prize in Arabic Fiction in 2016 and is set in a dystopian post-revolutionary Egypt. An excerpt is available here.

Halal If You Hear Me, a forthcoming anthology of writings by Muslims who are queer, women, gender nonconforming or transgender, is calling for submissions. Editors Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo are looking for submissions of up to five poems or two essays, including a cover letter with contact info and a short bio. Those interested should email halalifyouhearme@gmail.com before 1 December, 2016.

Editor-at-Large for India Naheed Patel shares some stories from the neighbouring Bangladesh:

Next month sees Bangladesh’s capital revving up for the annual Dhaka Literary Festival, which runs from November 17-19.  The festival has been held at the historic Bangla Academy since 2012, and is directed and produced by Sadaf Saaz, Ahsan Akbar, and K. Anis Ahmed. In the face of numerous recent Freedom of Expression violations in Bangladesh, the festival marks a resurgence of Bangladeshi literary culture, reaching across a number of different disciplines and genres: from fiction and literary non-fiction to history, politics and society; from poetry and translations to science, mathematics, philosophy and religion. The festival has more than 20,000 attendees and past contributors include Vikram Seth, Tariq Ali, Rosie Boycott, William Dalrymple, Ahdaf Soueif, Shashi Tharoor, Jung Chang, and Pankaj Mishra as well famous writers of Bangla literature like Hasan Azizul Huq, Selina Hossain, Debesh Roy, and Nirmalendu Goon.

In August and September Bangladesh mourned the passing of two prominent Bangla poets. Author, poet, and playwright Syed Shamsul Haq died at the age of 81 in Dhaka on September 27, 2016, and renowned Bangladeshi poet Shaheed Quaderi passed away in New York at the age of 74 on August 28, 2016. Haq was given the Bangla Academy Award in 1966 and the Ekushey Padak, the highest national award of Bangladesh, in 1984. He was also honored with a Swadhinata Padak in 2000 for his contribution to Bangla Literature. Payer Awaj Paoa Jay’ [We Hear the Footsteps] and Nuruldiner Sara Jibon [The Entire Life of Nuruldin], his most popular plays, are considered to be cornerstones of Bangladeshi theatre. Shaheed Quaderi received the Ekushey Padak in the category of Language and Literature in 2011 and was previously awarded the Bangla Academy Award in 1973. Prominent Bengali scholars such as Kabir Chowdhury, Kaiser Haq, and Farida Majid have translated his poems into English.

READ MORE…

An Interview with Translator/Novelist Nael ElToukhy

"In a sense I am trying to secularize Arabic—a holy language for Muslims—through another holy language, Hebrew."

A novelist and translator of Hebrew literature into Arabic, Nael ElToukhy’s passion for Hebrew literature is “rare,” by his own admission, among students of the language in Arab universities. He moves with dexterity between different registers of colloquial and standard Arabic and his speech is often loaded with profanities, at other times with creative coinages. Venturing beyond from the Statist logic that led to the creation of Hebrew departments, ElToukhy interrogates the semitic roots of Arabic and Hebrew, presenting his thoughts on the two languages as a novelist and translator; the challenges that two semitic languages present, the similarities in trilateral roots and the prejudices facing their readers on either side. He has published a collection of stories and 4 novels, the latest of which, The Women of Karantina (2014), is available in translation.

OA: In a series of articles you wrote, you say you first studied Hebrew in university because your marks weren’t good enough to study English. What dictated your direction when you first became a translator?

NT: At first you are in line with what they [the publishers] want, more than what you want. Because you need to justify your existence, to justify the language you use, and in addition to this, being a young man, you don’t usually know what you want, but this comes with time and you become interested in some things more than others.

OA: How did your interests develop?

NT: There are many stages in this; first I was interested in the Israeli left, the radical left who’s against the occupation and is anti-Zionist, and now there has emerged a more interesting topic for me which is Arab Jews or Jews who came from Arab countries, I work on both but now my passion has shifted to the second topic and to themes such as how Arab Jews learned Hebrew and how Hebrew mixes with the Arabic of their grandparents, and then comparing their dialects and accents to Ashkenazi Jews who came from Europe. This gradually became more interesting than the radical Israeli left.

OA: How does this affect your translation process and your choice of texts?

NT: I was translating a chapter from a book which references a poem by an author called Hayim Nahman Bialik, titled “a poem to a bird,” and the text was written by a Moroccan Jew. He recounts that in school they had learned that there is a certain verse which contain the letters ح and ع, two very central letters. This is because Arab Jews, at least the first generations, used to pronounce the ح and ع, whereas the Ashkenazi pronounce the ح as a خ (kh) and the ع they almost don’t pronounce.

This became very important in Israeli society because if one pronounces the ع they are immediately recognizable as a Jew who came from an Arab country. Now these nuances have become blurred. In the text by this Moroccan Jew, he references a word which means ‘small chick’ and which contains both letters. The author says because the teacher was Ashkenazi, they did not learn the other pronunciation and learnt to say both letters the Ashkenazi way. When translating into Arabic, the obvious translation does not contain either letter so I had to be creative to find an equivalent which did. Eventually I was able to get both letters. So sometimes in translation you play around with language to be able to bring out this difference in translation.

As far as my choice of text, right now I am working on a novel by Almog Behar, a Jewish author of Iraqi origin. The protagonists are also of Iraqi or Moroccan origin. The author and the characters are both devout and there is a chapter which concerns Jewish temples, and specifically Eastern Jewish temples (meaning those which came from Arab countries). In these temples, they emphasize pronunciation, meaning what is the correct pronunciation and what is not, similar to pronunciation with regards to Quranic recitation.

So it is very important because, as opposed to Christianity, Judaism and Islam still speak their liturgical languages. In one chapter, the rabbi explains what letters today in Israel are mispronounced and which are not. This applies to many letters in modern Hebrew today which are pronounced differently because the Ashkenazi accent changes the Hebrew equivalents of a hard ط to a ’t’ and the ص becomes as a German Z. So this chapter brings up examples of words which if mispronounced become confused with other words. This is hell for a translator because you are trying to find Arabic equivalents which have the same letters the Rabbi mentions and there is a possibility that they will be confused with other Arabic terms which contain the same letters. It takes a lot of effort but what helps is the similarity between Arabic and Hebrew. The word “rabbi” also presented a challenge: the rabbi is a central figure in the novel. The word for that in Arabic حاخام (hakham) does not sound pleasant and when you make it plural it becomes حاخامات (hakhamat) and that doesn’t sound good either, not to mention the word has a certain political association. The Israeli equivalent to Al-Azhar, I made into حاخامية (hakhameya) and it still didn’t sound good, so I brought it back to its origin which is “hakeem” meaning wise man, from the word حكمة (hekma) or wisdom, as a Hakham is a wise man, and phonetically it makes sense, so Hakhameya became Beit El Hekma (house of wisdom), and Hakham became Hakeem.

I explained this in the introduction but with repeated use, the reader should understand that ‘wise man’, in a completely Jewish religious context, is a rabbi. I also kept using the word معبد (ma’bad) for temple and then decided on the word كنيس (Kanees), which shares the same root with the knesset. This word was used in the early 20th century by Arab intellectuals. The other one معبد (Ma’bad) might mean a Buddhist temple or anything else but كنيس (Kanees) is specific. Finally the word Jerusalem is Yerushalayim, at first I put it as اورشليم (Orshaleem), as it is a word which exists in Arabic as well.

The writer when he saw the draft said, why not القدس (Al-Quds)? But I wanted to get rid of these associations in the Arab reader’s mind and portray a Jewish, not Arab, Jerusalem. So the compromise was that in religious contexts, when it is mentioned it is now Yerushalayim, whereas in secular or everyday usage it became al-Quds.

There is a section where the protagonist goes to East Jerusalem and takes a stroll; over there it is all Quds, but when it’s a prayer, it’s Yerushalayim. Yahweh was a problem at first because in the middle centuries Jews used to translate Yahweh into “Allah” and it was no issue. But I chose to make it Yahweh. I wanted to remind the reader of the Jewish context, even though the author at one point translated the word into Allah, which was the one instance where I kept it. 

OA: You assume a particularly active reader?

NT: Yes. I am interested in a pre-Quranic Arabic particularly. The simplistic Arab imagination says that pre-Quranic history of Arabic is the Mu’allaqat, but I go further and interrogate the memory of the root language that gave rise to Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc. So when I say I want to remember Arabic in this state, I am also secularizing it by separating its history from the Quran. And in a sense I am trying to secularize Arabic—a holy language for Muslims—through another holy language, Hebrew. So this is the reader’s role for me; I am not trying to point them necessarily in a particular direction, but I use common trilateral roots and make it smooth enough that the reader will read it and not notice but if the same reader pays attention they will catch it.

OA: What does a secularization of Arabic hold for the attentive reader?

NT: At the very least, Arabic becomes an ordinary language and it will evolve. Whether it’s the classical of Quraysh or spoken dialects. I am in love with the Arabic language, and I see it as a very rich language, even in the context of Semitic languages, not as a bias but simply because it has been used as the lingua franca of a very large region, meaning it has been enriched and gave way to many variants. This linguistic variation is important, because as opposed to a standard Quranic language, it was an ordinary language where creativity is possible. For the same reason, I have an interest in Arabic colloquials.

There is a common idea that Arabic cannot express certain things, which I find absurd. The association with the Quran discourages people from being creative with language but if one has enough creativity, the language has the capacity. I would like the reader to remember this creativity and think of the Arabic language with regards to its respective historical development and not as a language which has been given to us divinely.

OA: In your own writing and in translation, how do you navigate the problematics of using the standard versus the colloquial?

NT: I use it whenever appropriate, for example there is a chapter set in red light district chapter in a Hebrew text, I used colloquial for this throughout. In Almog Behar’s book, almost all of it is in Modern Standard Arabic. For this text I felt that using dialect would’ve taken away from its language and given attention to my writing more than the talmudic, sacred atmosphere in the original. In my own writing, I use classical for narration and colloquial for dialect.

OA: In your novel The Women of Karantina, recreating Alexandria hinged almost entirely on language. The fictional Karantina and other aspects of the novel present a very different view of the city. Why did you strive to present this remapping of Alexandria?

NT: I wanted to set it in Alexandria and counter the image of the cosmopolitan city that most people have. Most of us were born after the Europeans left, so we never saw this cosmopolitan Alexandria. I wanted to present a different city: the dirty Alexandria with its prostitution, drugs and crime. In fact, I barely really talk about Alexandria: there is no space. The protagonists go and start the fictional Karantina as a separate neighbourhood and so it ends up not being the real Alexandria, rather an imagined one. The only place that has the most ties to Alexandria is the dialect. It was the most entertaining aspect of writing as my ear is very sensitive to dialects and changes in language. It takes place in the western part of Alexandria, off the coast and away from the sea, so the strongest connection is the language. I would even say the novel could have taken place in Cairo had it not been for the dialect.

OA: Articulating identity through language informs your translation and writing in a profound manner. How do you expect others to surmount translation challenges with regards to your own writing?

NT: Yes, I think of language as the cornerstone of identity. I am more interested in language more than identity; there is a huge debate in Israel when it comes to eastern Jews for example when it comes to language and so hebrew has also influenced and come into this. There is also huge variation in Alexandrian dialect that I sought to present.

Keeping this in mind, there are some compromises that a translator- and more importantly an author- must keep in mind. You write and then you see how it is rendered in translation, not the other way around. I would not keep the untranslatability of any phrase or word in mind as I write. You must have enough wisdom to know what cannot be translated. There is an unspoken agreement between yourself and your native reader that you are presenting her with riddles, and hidden information that is inaccessible to a foreign reader. I did not even think that my novel would be translated, but despite this, I think it is a successful translation and what is important is that the ‘soul’ of the text is transmitted, which I believe to be between tragedy and comedy, between reality and cartoonish absurdism. It moves between parodical academic rhetoric and completely absurdist passages. What is important is that this is transmitted to a foreign reader: that they are able to make this distinction between these two registers in writing. But whether a foreign reader can understand that this is in Alexandrian or Cairene- you give up this idea and make peace with it.

 

OA: Are there any complications to translating Israeli writing and publishing given the discourse around normalization in Egypt and the Arab world?

NT: It is easy to publish the translated book but difficult to pay royalties to an Israeli institution, as this is seen as a form of normalization. Fortunately, younger writers give it up to circumvent the politics. There was an anthology of anti-war poetry, dealing with Gaza and all the authors were receptive. Almog Behar as well, had the royalties to the book in Arabic, so these issues were avoided. It is usually better for me to talk to an individual (an author) rather than an institution. This does not always circumvent politics; the first book I translated from Hebrew was Idith Zertal’s Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.

A book about death in Israel, inspired by Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’. Anderson says death is used to create identity, and the author explores this idea from the 1920s until Yitzhak Rabin’s death, as well as issues relating to the holocaust, such as how the survivors were portrayed and collective memory. I worked on it independently without solicitation and I spent 8 years translating it. At the time I did not know anyone in Israel. When I did meet someone in Israel, I asked for the author’s email and I emailed her and told her that I really liked her book and was almost finished translating it but that there would be an issue with paying royalties. She refused to waive them and said she was also concerned the book might be ‘read wrongly in Egypt’, fearing it would be read in a propagandistic way. I published it anyway, as uncomfortable as I was with it, because I did not like that I did it without her involvement but I had worked on it for 8 years. Although it received little recognition in Egypt, perhaps as divine punishment.

OA: How would you describe an emerging translator’s access- especially in the context of Hebrew- to publishing in Egypt?

For Hebrew, there is a gap between students studying Hebrew and cultural production. For a middle-class student in an Egyptian university, there is a separation of studying the language and literary or cultural circles. My exposure to this came from my interest in writing. The professors, for instance, have no interest in literary translation. There are some who are excellent at what they do, specifically in the field of linguistics, but they have no connection to culture, and they would never publish in a cultural journal, only an academic one. In some way, I feel a certain pressure- not as a novelist who also translates from Hebrew- but because I am truly passionate about the language, and that is a rare thing to find.

*****