Translating le multilinguisme

Translation is never a horizontal movement; there is always an uneven power dynamic between two languages.

Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.

The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.

When I interviewed her last April (the best thing about being Assistant Interviews Editor here at Asymptote is the excuse to ask people who are older, wiser, and more knowledgeable than I am about our shared areas of interest), Marcia Lynx Qualey described the linguistic tensions in the Maghreb: “In Algeria and Morocco, language is a thorny issue, with colonial and post-colonial Frenches, as well as Darija (that region’s spoken Arabic), Modern Standard Arabic, and Tamazight. What are you schooled in? What literary language do you fall in love with? Where can you find your audience?”

Even if one considers Arabic alone, the issue is not so simple. “Dialect carries so many political and identitarian resonances in Arabic, as it does in most other languages, but in Arabic it has been a particularly up-front issue,” says Arabic translator and scholar Dr. Marilyn Booth. Many native speakers are not literate in Arabic, in part because of the diglossic nature of the language: the relationship between Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA (the “high” variety, in technical terms), and the colloquial (“low”) varieties of Arabic varies from questionable to downright tenuous. To a certain degree, a native Arabic speaker learns MSA like a second language, not dissimilar to a contemporary English speaker learning to read Hamlet or the King James Bible—it’s recognizable, but not natural or instinctive. As a result, an entire generation of literary giants (such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Kateb Yacine, and Driss Chraïbi, all educated in French colonial schools) primarily wrote in perfect metropolitan French; those who write in Arabic now write in MSA, a common written language that, in spite of a few regional flavors, has allowed me as a student to transition between Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, and Egyptian texts without undue difficulty.

The Arabic found in Begag’s writing is not the Arabic of literature or education, the Arabic taught in classrooms and spoken in newsrooms throughout the Arab world, or the Arabic I have learned to read and translate from. It is Darija, the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic spoken in the medinas, souks, and hammams of Begag’s parents’ homeland of Algeria, the Arabic spoken in his kitchen and in the streets of le Chaâba, the Arabic I spoke in Morocco with taxi drivers and shopkeepers, but never my professors. To find this Arabic consigned to the page was jarring, but also warm and familiar, less like deciphering a linguistic puzzle and more like being welcomed into a friend’s home (As a Seattle native, it’s a bit like how I’d feel if a weatherman said, “It’s spitting right now with some sunbreaks, but the mountains are out!” on national television). It lends a distinctly spoken dynamic and Maghrebi flavor to the written text, and as a result approaches the limits not only of language but of the written medium itself.

While Begag throws in elements of his spoken dialect of Arabic, saying “Chkoun?” when someone comes to the door and using the Darija for common household items, the text’s spoken dynamic comes through even more clearly with the father Bouzid, whose accent is reproduced without explanation. “Ci Allah qui dicide ça. Bi titre, j’va bartir l’anni brouchaine, bi titre li mois brouchain.” “C’est Allah qui décide ça. Peut-être je vais partir l’année prochaine, peut-être le mois prochain,” Begag “translates” in his glossary. A francophone reader has little trouble deciphering even the most complicated of these mispronunciations because they follow French orthography, even with Arabic phonetic rules, but it’s impossible and inaccurate to reproduce the effect in translation. The very nature of accents and dialects requires that they be peculiar to a particular location or demographic—how can one find an equivalent to those things without taking on additional, and unnecessary, cultural significance in the target language?

In both cases, translators Naima Wolf and Alec Hargreaves did not try to do so; bracketed definitions and even whole lines of text reworked in English are scattered throughout their translation: “Ci Allah qui dicide ça. Bi titre, j’va bartir l’anni brouchaine, bi titre li mois brouchain. [That’s for Allah to decide. Maybe I’ll go back next year, maybe next month]” (199). The final line of the book falls a little flat when it has to be repeated between brackets. The English translation of Begag’s novel, entitled Shantytown Kid, reads like an academic text, complete with bracketed text explanations of both these oral French approximations and unfamiliar words, a lengthy glossary, and a bibliography of other texts on Begag and beur literature. Begag’s original glossaries were mostly ironic (his Guide de la phraséologie bouzidienne “translates” some of Bouzid’s French mispronunciations, for example), but the English translators submerged the ironies in professorial earnestness for the benefit of the Anglophone reader.

Hargreaves writes in his introduction to the translation:

The original text . . . deliberately mixed nonstandard pieces of French pronunciation with liberal doses of Arabic and Lyonnais slang unfamiliar to the average French reader . . . [who] was encouraged to widen his or her linguistic and cultural horizons by inferring the meaning of unfamiliar terms from their contexts within the flow of the narrative, rather than having his or her attention deflected to external notes or other forms of editorial apparatus. (xviii)

Ironically, by taking on the “forms of editorial apparatus” that Begag eschewed, Hargreaves and Wolf undermine this effect in their translation. Begag appeared to be perfectly happy to leave the onus on the francophone reader to learn from the exposure to unfamiliarity and difference, rather than spoon-feeding his language to them. And the decision clearly didn’t hurt him—the novel won the Prix Sorcières in 1987.

When I think of multilingual texts engaging in complex political and historical realities, I think of Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux’s “Schizophrénie linguistique”: “Et on ne speak pas French on the school grounds, et ni anywhere else non plus.” Or Shenaz Patel’s Le silence des Chagos, a novel that makes liberal use of untranslated, unexplained Mauritian Creole for much of the dialogue between characters. In many cases in the excerpts published by Anomalous Press, translator Patricia Hartland chose to leave the dialogue as-is, instead of translating it into English. As a literary, rather than academic, text, it is a masterful work, almost poetry in its delightful prose, and the kind of editorial apparatus favored by Hargreaves and Wolf would disrupt rather than enrich the artistry. As my personal literary hero once placed in the mouth of his character Gandalf, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Or, to use a more culturally appropriate reference to Voltaire, “By so doing we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life.”

There is now, and always has been, a complex relationship between French and Arabic. Translation is never a horizontal movement; there is always an uneven power dynamic between two languages, whether through policy or cultural influence, and never more so than between the language of colonial powers and the languages of the people who resisted their rule. Rather than merely adopting the language with greater influence as many of his literary predecessors chose to do, Begag leaned into the fraught relationship between the language of his family and the language of his country, forcing his reader to confront it in his writing.

This is clearly not just a question for French or Arabic translators to consider. When I spoke with Dr. Paul Worley about his translation of Spanish and Mè’phàà poems by Hubert Matiúwàa, he described his choice to not translate certain Mè’phàà words within the body of the text:

There is already a lot of tension between the Mè’phàà and Spanish texts both in terms of what is translated and what isn’t, and I hope that the decision not to translate some words, and furthermore not to provide footnotes for certain of these words, recreates that tension once again in English and forces the reader to think of Mè’phàà as a living language . . . Not translating thus becomes a way to encourage the reader to admit that, even in translation, she must come to terms with her own linguistic and cultural limits, and that more work and attention will be required to gain a deeper understanding of the text.

Booth, who notably refuses to use glossaries in her translations, acknowledged the difficulty of addressing this tension. “I want readers in English to think about other languages and how bi- or multilingual so many of us are, thinking in different languages, and maybe not finding the right term in one language—and that English cannot and should not ‘say everything.’” Booth often leaves Arabic words in the text of her English translations when she thinks it will do the job better than finding an English approximation.

As a translator, like a windowpane, I have done my job the best when the reader forgets that I’m there. In a text like Begag’s, it is impossible to forget that every word walks a tightrope stretched between disparate languages and modes of expression, but I can only hope that it is possible to render the distinction more delicately than with the harsh corners of a pair of brackets shouting I am translator, hear me roar.

Claire Jacobson is the Assistant Interviews Editor at Asymptote. A writer and translator from Arabic based in Iowa City, Iowa, she studies Francophone literature at the University of Iowa and works as a research assistant at the International Writing Program.

Keep your eyes peeled for the Summer 2018 issue of Asymptote that features multilingual writing! In the meantime, read more on the subject from the blog: