In Conversation with Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz

Our editor-in-chief talks with the co-translators of Tahar Ben Jelloun's About My Mother

Lee Yew Leong: First of all, how would you classify this new book from Tahar Ben Jelloun? The story opens with an autobiographical narrator (Ben Jelloun himself) talking about his ailing mother, but then changes mode with italicized passages, where we get stories about his mother’s past recreated from her perspective.

Ros Schwartz: Do we have to classify it? I think there’s a problem with trying to categorize books by non-Western writers which often don’t follow a linear narrative arc according to traditional European classifications. I appreciate that doing so makes life easier for publishersand is essential when entering books for prizes and applying for subsidiesand for booksellers, but my experience of translating Francophone writers such as Ben Jelloun and Dominique Eddé (Lebanese author who writes in French) is that their books defy categorisation. So while this book is strongly autobiographical, recounting the demise of Ben Jelloun’s mother, it also has a strong fictional element where he imagines what might be going on in his mother’s Alzheimer’s-raddled mind.

Lulu Norman: Yes and also into the past, when he imagines her life as a girl and what it must have been like for her in the Fez of the 1940s; there’s a more obviously ‘fictional’ feel in those passages. The narrator, who is called Tahar, pieces together the story of her life, constructing a narrative out of what he knows and what he imagines. Ben Jelloun calls the book a novel, in order I suppose to give himself the fullest leeway and perhaps avoid any ruction in life, since everyone’s memory is so subjective.

LYL: Could you share with our readers what went on behind the scenes of this project? How both of you got attached to this translation, for example? How did English PEN play a part in the materialization of the book, and how long did you take to complete the manuscript?

: This project is very dear to my heart. I’ve wanted to translate Ben Jelloun ever since I read L’enfant de sable in 1985. A couple of years ago I’d just finished translating Escape by Dominique Manotti for Gary Pulsifer at Arcadia and he mentioned that he’d just acquired Sur ma mère. Gary, this one’s for me, please. It’s funny because as a translator you can get typecast. Gary had me down as doing crime fiction. Anyway, he immediately said yes, and wrote to Tahar to make sure he was OK with my doing the translation. In the meantime, there was a radical change of management and direction at Arcadia, and the project was dropped. I was devastated and wrote to Anne-Solange Noble, rights director at Gallimard, to ask if I could seek another publisher. I took the book to Lynn Gaspard at Saqi who snapped it up. Sadly Gary passed away before the book was published, which is why we have dedicated our translation to him.

I asked Lulu to work with me because we’ve collaborated before (The Star of Algiers, Aziz Chouaki; Belly of the Atlantic, Fatou Diome). This was a challenging book in all sorts of ways and I find working with Lulu very stimulating and enriching. About my Mother is written in two very different voices, that of the author/narrator and that of the mother, and I wanted to really bring out the distinct registers.

The project won both a PEN Translates and a PEN Promotes grant, which will give the book a tremendous boost. Tahar will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 28 August and hopefully in London in October. The PEN Awards are a fantastic endorsement, and much sought-after by publishers.

The translation took around nine months.

LN: My own mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and was about the same age as Ben Jelloun’s mother, and I had been her carer, so I felt very confident about the translation from that point of view. And coincidentally, I had taken my mother to some of the exact same places that Ben Jelloun had taken his, in Tangier, which he describes in the book. So the book had huge resonance for me in a lot of ways. I had made a decision to stop translating for a while, but all those echoes made me feel I had to do it, because it was this book and because it was Ros. I feel very happy and confident working with Ros; we know each other’s approach so well now it makes everything much easier and quicker,

LYL: For a lot of readers uninitiated into the art of translation, co-translation is probably a bigger mystery than translation. Could you shed light on the process of co-translating the book? Did you handle different sections of the book, or did you go over the same text together? And how did you handle differences in approach?

RS: Co-translation can only work if the two translators have a similar ethos, sensibility and approach. Lulu and I are absolutely on the same page, which I know from having worked with her before and for a number of years, formally and informally. Dividing this book was easy because of the different voices: I translated the narrator and Lulu translated the mother. We each drafted our own sections, then exchanged and revised one another’s work. We’re both ruthless at this stage. The important thing is to get the best possible translation, so no tiptoeing around one another’s egos. We usually accept nearly all the other’s suggestions (with a ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ sigh). We then go over the new, blended version separately and refine the translation further. By that stage we’re both completely inhabited by the book and there’s no more ‘Lulu’s bit/Ros’s bit’.

The final stage is spent curled up on Lulu’s sofa for a caffeine-fuelled session reading passages out loud (a vital part of the process), brainstorming to resolve any remaining problems, drawing up a list of queries for the author, thrashing out any disagreements.

Then we then both go through the copy-editor’s comments, and at proof stage we make further improvements. A translation’s never finished.

LN: Yes, the brainstorming is the best part of co-translation, but we were under such time constraints this time it didn’t last long. This is where the knottiest issues are finally faced, the parts we’ve probably been trying to avoid. And in fact, devoting that attention turns up so much, the language begins to yield and lets us get further in.

LYL: What were some of the challenges you faced translating this text?

RS: I think the biggest challenge was to create a translation that preserved the lyricism of Ben Jelloun’s writing. This is very much a language- rather than plot-driven narrative, so the writing needs to be very accomplished, balancing music with meaning. Pinning down the speech rhythms, is always tricky. The book also spans a long time period, going back to the mother’s childhood, so we needed to be mindful of era-appropriate language. We discussed strategies such as whether or not to use contractions, and for which sections.

LYL: What’s your view on cultural references that don’t survive the transposition intact: Better to (over-)explain or leave unsaid?

RS: There are a lot of culture-specific words, which we chose to keep, providing a glossary at the back so as not to intrude on the reader experience but giving the information needed. When possible we worked in an explanation in the text, but only if it could be done unobtrusively. It’s important to both of us to keep the sense of place and culture and not to ‘colonise’ the text.

LYL: As translators, you are the closest readers of the text. Could you tell our readers what was the most memorable part of Ben Jelloun’s book for both of you?

RS: Both Lulu and I had mothers who died after suffering from Alzheimer’s, which is another reason why we were both so engaged with the book. I’m not sure if there’s any one part that stands out for me, but I was aware throughout of the overlap with my own experience and the emotions it stirred up were a sort of driver throughout the project, and also informed the translation.

LN: During our brainstorming session, there was one passage that suddenly opened up and made sense, which had been eluding us. It described better than anything else I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot on the subject) the desperation of being with someone you love who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a feeling that’s incredibly hard to quantify and that I’ve never been able to understand or describewhat happens to time, the way it lengthens and becomes an abyss you almost fall into, how unbearable it can be. I loved doing that, both because it seemed that by translating it we were mastering the experience, and also because of the intimacy of shared, live discovery. And then that passage seemed to me the very crux or axis of the whole book.

Read an excerpt of Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz’s translation of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s About My Mother, published in our Translation Tuesday showcase at The Guardian, here.

Photo credit for Ros Schwartz (pictured on the right): Anita Staff

Lulu Norman has translated the work of Mahi Binebine, Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, Amin Maalouf and the songs of Serge Gainsbourg. Her translations have been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Best Translated Books Award, among others.

Ros Schwartz has translated a wide range of Francophone fiction and non-fiction writers including Andrée Chedid, Aziz Chouaki, Fatou Diome, Dominique Manotti and Dominique Eddé. She was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to literature in 2009.

Lee Yew Leong is the founder of Asymptote, winner of the 2015 London Book Fair Award for International Literary Translation Initiative. As Asymptote’s fiction editor and editor-in-chief, Yew Leong has presented a newly translated story or poem in The Guardian every Tuesday since November 2015. Based in Taipei, he works as a freelance editor and translator of contemporary Taiwanese literature. Winner of the James Assatly Memorial Prize for Fiction (Brown University), he has written for The New York Times, among others, and currently serves as one of the judges for PEN International’s 2016 New Voices Award.

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