In this week’s Translation Tuesday, join Georgian writer Ruska Jorjoliani as she tells the stories of her grandfather and their people. Becoming a refugee as a result of war, Jorjoliani’s first-person narrator gradually finds new words, before finding the need to use those words—telling the story of family, dear yet far away.
Among us, epic tales were like wedges to keep the workbench of daily life from wobbling, benches with cheap tools on top, all of us dragging ours behind us the way we did our long, grueling winters. When I was a girl, the first creatures that roused my imagination were horses—starving, weary beasts, but still horses. Every morning I used to watch our neighbor Ciko saddle his bay, settle a rough woolly hat on his head, let out a shout, and gallop off, disappearing into the mountains. Ciko’s horse and Ciko, bent low over the halter, were the only beings who could travel beyond, exceed those limits set down by the laws of nature first and then by men, the only ones who could taste another air, other worlds hidden to the common gaze. After about twenty km, the rider had to dismount and walk up so that the horse didn’t fall into a gorge, then you’d arrive at a lake, green in spring and blue in summer—what it looked like in fall or winter you didn’t know, since no one had ever dared try the climb in those seasons—and then finally the mountain would begin to shrink like the tail of a hibernating dragon and you could make out the first houses of the others in the distance, those strangers, children of another god, the Kabards.
Whether this March the leaves are falling or only starting to grow, new books in translation continue to push through borders and languages. This month, our editors review new translations from Germany and Lebanon, whose stories span diverse regions and explore complex notions of belonging.
Pearls on a Branch by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq, Archipelago Books
Reviewed by Anaka Allen, Social Media Manager
“It happened or maybe no.
If it did, it was long ago
If not, it could still be so.”
For twenty years, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990, the traveling theater company Sandouk el Fergeh (the Box of Wonders) traversed the Levant searching for inspiration for their live shows. The actors and their marionettes would travel from shelters to refugee camps, villages to towns, performing the oral tales painstakingly collected by their founder Najla Jraissaty Khoury. It was no small feat trying to find and record stories during wartime when suspicion and fear were particularly acute, not to mention the difficulty in assembling complete narratives from a depleting cache of collective cultural memory.
Oral tales are one of the most fragile cultural legacies, and too often die with their storytellers. So, what happens to the oral history of a region suffering through war and displacement? That’s what Khoury hoped to find out, and the question is what inspired her to embark on a rescue mission in search of these unwritten remnants of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian culture. She collected dozens of folktales, writing them down exactly as they were told (repetitive phrases and all), culled one hundred from that catalog, and published them in Arabic. English speakers now have the opportunity to read a selection of thirty stories in Pearls on a Branch.