Co-Translation Across Borders: An Interview with Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe

As in all good tales and legends, Jarawan’s own narrative style is full of recurring motifs, imagery, and phrases.

How did the co-translators of Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller work together to craft a polished final draft—while living in two different countries? In this interview, Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe, the translators of this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, tell us about the ups and downs of their long-distance collaboration.

They also discuss how The Storyteller, a novel about a young man born in Germany to Lebanese parents, blends twenty-first century issues of migration and displacement with the ancient Arabic tradition of oral storytelling. Read on for more about the novel’s “central themes of rootlessness, the search for a sense of home and identity, family secrets, and the relationship between fathers and sons.”

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the experience of collaborating on the translation of a novel. You’ve said in a previous interview that you translated The Storyteller in alternating sections and then underwent an intensive revision process to come to a seamless final draft. Were there any passages that you interpreted differently?

Rachel McNicholl (RMcN): As with most translations, there were some details and nuances that we needed to check with the author. Occasionally, when reviewing each other’s chapters, Sinéad and I realised that we were visualising something slightly differently, even though we’d read the same German text. For example, how exactly the river Berdawni carves up the city of Zahle (in Part II, ch. 5). We consulted online maps and satellite images, of course, but being able to check with the author is even better!

Another little example: In Part II, ch. 15, the narrator, Samir, and his driver, Nabil, overtake a man struggling up the hill on a rickety bicycle. In the German, he was struggling (er mühte sich) up the hill with the bicycle. The verbal structure and preposition mit (with) in German left it open whether the man was pushing the bike up the hill or pedalling with great effort. In the end, we asked Pierre what he had in mind (he meant the man was on the bicycle). Incidentally, I had “bockety bicycle” first—apart from being apt, it alliterated nicely. Sinéad and I had debated whether “bockety” might be too Irish for US readers (though it’s in the OED). We decided to leave the decision to our copy-editor (Florian Duijsens), and we ended up with “rickety”. Florian was great to work with, picking up on little things Sinéad and I might not have noticed about our own writing.

LS: What were the biggest surprises and the greatest challenges of working in collaboration?

RMcN: Like all adventures, co-translation offered excitement and risks. Sinéad and I were leaping into the unknown to some extent, but we both had a gut feeling that we’d work well together. We’d met a couple of times earlier and had translation colleagues in common. There weren’t any big surprises, but it definitely proved to be a huge benefit to have a translation partner who had read both original and translation as closely as I had. The translation community is very generous about sharing knowledge and acting as a collective sounding board, but co-translation definitely allows a deeper level of textual and contextual collaboration. You try not to bother your co-translator unnecessarily, but once you’ve established a modus operandi, the giving and taking of feedback becomes very focused and efficient. I found that really productive.

Sinéad Crowe (SC): The main challenge for me was time management. As this was my first co-translation project, I didn’t quite appreciate that a collaboration doesn’t halve the work! I quickly realised that I would need to factor in a lot more time for revising each other’s drafts, checking for consistency, Skype calls to discuss tricky passages, etc. It was well worth investing this time in the collaboration—it was a very enjoyable learning experience, and hopefully it resulted in a more polished manuscript—but I must admit it caused a few moments of deadline anxiety for me!

A second challenge was the fact that Rachel and I don’t live in the same country; I’m based in Hamburg, while Rachel lives in Dublin. Of course, technology like Skype, email, and Google Docs makes this manageable, but there were still several moments where it would have been so much more efficient if we could have sat down with a big pot of coffee and put our heads together to solve some of the novel’s translation conundrums!

LS: The novel explores the issue of identity formation in the children of Germany’s refugeesthe generation that was either born in Germany or raised there from a very young age. As the novel reminds us, Germany (like many nations) has been integrating waves of refugees from various crises for decades. German readers will likely have familiarity with, and perhaps emotions about, characters and themes in the novel that might strike a different chord for English-language readers. How do you grapple with issues of reader reception in your translation process?

SC: It’s probably true that the novel’s depiction of the experiences of various generations of refugees—from the Lebanese families who sought asylum in Germany in the 1980s to the millions of displaced Syrians today—has a special urgency in Germany. Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders to one million refugees continues to dominate headlines there, and indeed Merkel continues to pay a political price for that decision, with the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland now the country’s third-largest party. But we weren’t concerned that Jarawan’s themes would lack relevance for readers in the US, the UK, or other English-speaking countries. After all, according to the UNHCR, the number of displaced persons across the world is at a record high, and anxieties about managing influxes (whether real or imagined) of refugees now dominate the political agenda in the US, the UK, and beyond.

It might also be worth asking here what we mean by “English-speaking readers”. After all, Jarawan’s themes are likely to have an entirely different resonance for a second-generation Asian American, for example, than they do for a White British reader. It would be almost impossible to anticipate the diverse experiences, expectations, and emotions that English-language readers might bring to The Storyteller. Even if this were possible, it would not be our job as translators to somehow tweak the novel to tap into these. That would involve taking far too many liberties with Jarawan’s writing. In any case, we felt that the central themes of rootlessness, the search for a sense of home and identity, family secrets, and the relationship between fathers and sons have a universal appeal, whether or not you have had direct experience of displacement or the current refugee crisis.

LS: Both oral storytelling and written representations of oral storytelling occupy a revered place in the Arab literary tradition. As the title of the novel itself begins to suggest, Samir connects himself and his father, as storytellers, to that tradition. What relevance do the novel’s title and the theme of storytelling have within the Germany literary tradition?

RMcN: I’d have all sorts of clever answers to this question if I could beam myself to Berlin to see an exhibition on this summer in the Neues Museum: Cinderella, Sindbad & Sinuhe: Arab-German Storytelling Traditions. The exhibition celebrates thousands of years of cultural exchange and explores the commonalities in stories that have transcended time and linguistic barriers. The theme of storytelling is certainly central to Pierre’s novel, from the bedtime stories Samir’s father makes up, to the way Samir follows a trail of crumbs—the clues contained in those stories, in a diary, and in a photograph—in his quest to find his father. As in all good tales and legends, Jarawan’s own narrative style is full of recurring motifs, imagery, and phrases. There’s a clue relatively early in the novel to the centrality of the Arabic storytelling tradition: In Part I, ch. 8, Samir hides the slide that becomes the key to his father’s disappearance in the fattest book on his shelf, his copy of Tales from 1,0001 Nights, and he tells us: “Of all the treasures on my shelf, this was the most precious.”

Folk tales and legends have also undoubtedly been hijacked for political purposes (notably by the Nazis), but we don’t have enough scope in this interview to broach that subject, nor to fully explore storytelling’s critical role in resistance and remembrance. As regards oral storytelling, that tradition may well have lasted longer in the Middle East than in the West. Pierre could probably answer that question better than we can! Perhaps the storytelling tradition in his Lebanese heritage influenced his development as a spoken word author: Pierre was well known in the spoken word scene in Germany before this debut novel was published in German or in translation. In a 2017 slam appearance, he reflected on the links between his own biography, his novel, the current plight of refugees, and the Pegida anti-immigrant demonstrations. You can hear him in German on YouTube, and the Irish Times recently published my English translation of the same piece.

As for the title, the German original, Am Ende bleiben die Zedern, is actually quite different to the English title. It’s a quotation from the Epilogue that means “In the end, the cedars will be there.” In the passage, Samir is leaning against a cedar and reflecting on the many transformations likely to sweep through Lebanon in the future: “But many waves will lap the shore between this and then. Many aeons will go by. And in the end? In the end, the cedars will be there, standing close together, looking down on Lebanon.” The cedar is highly symbolic in the book and in Lebanese history and legend, and the German title reflects that sense of the cedars witnessing everything, being a repository of history and stories. World Editions decided to go with “The Storyteller” for the English edition (with Pierre’s approval). This may have been influenced by the fact that the Dutch translation came out before the English and was titled De zoon van de verhalenverteller, which translates as “The Son of the Storyteller” or “The Storyteller’s Son. I like that it became simply The Storyteller, because both father and son have the storytelling gift.

LS: While reading the novel, I was often struck by just how contemporary the subject matter is. I felt almost taken aback, as if some things happened too recently for a novel to have already been written, published, and translated about them. By the end, Syrian refugees already occupy the sports hall where Samir’s family lived when they first came to Germany. Can you contextualize this novel in terms of the contemporary German literary scene? Does Jarawan’s treatment of this topic differ from other contemporary writers?

SC: Themes of displacement and identity are by no means new to German literature. Germany has a strong tradition of “migrant literature” going back decades; I’m thinking here of well-known writers like Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Ilija Trojanow, and Feridun Zaimoğlu. In the past couple of years, novelists such as Maik Siegel, Robert Prosser, Maxi Obexer, and Joachim Lottmann have published novels addressing the current refugee crisis. At the moment, I’m reading (and loving) Saša Stanišić’s Herkunft (Origin), one of the most acclaimed books published in Germany so far this year. It’s a memoir of sorts, in which Stanišić reflects on his childhood in the former Yugoslavia, his teens as a refugee in 1990s Germany, and his attempts to reconcile his (possibly invented) memories of his homeland with the current reality. Like Jarawan’s narrator, Samir, Stanišić draws parallels between his own family’s experience as refugees and the situation currently facing those who have fled the Syrian civil war, and he explores the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of who we are and where we come from. But while Herkunft and The Storyteller share some striking similarities on the thematic level, they could hardly be more different when it comes to form and style. Stanišić’s book is far more fragmentary, digressive, elliptical, and ironic; indeed, from the very outset, Stanišić deflates any pathos that his book’s title might suggest: our origin, he writes, is simply “the first coincidence in our biography: being born somewhere”. This is obviously in stark contrast to Samir’s emotional search for meaning, identity, and belonging in Lebanon.

Sinéad Crowe is a native of Dublin, Ireland, and currently works as a freelance translator in Hamburg, Germany. Her short-story translations have appeared in The Short Story Project, and her translation of Ronen Steinke’s Fritz Bauer: Auschwitz vor Gericht is forthcoming from Indiana University Press.

Rachel McNicholl is a freelance translator and editor based in Dublin, Ireland. Her translations have appeared in journals and anthologies including The Stinging Fly, Manoa, No Man’s Land, Best European Fiction, and The Short Story Project. Her translation of Nadja Spiegel’s short-story collection sometimes i lie and sometimes i don’t was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has been the recipient of a PEN America PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant (2016) and a Literature Bursary from the Irish Arts Council (2014).

Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.


Read more interviews with translators on the Asymptote blog: