In the first of a series of occasional posts, Transnational Reflections, novelist and Professor of Creative Writing Niall Griffiths considers the politics of translation in the lead up to the Arab Spring.
Now this should be interesting . . .
I was in Cairo a few years ago, at the book fair, shortly before Mohamed Bouazizi set himself, and much of the Arab world, alight, and when Tamarod was just beginning to form; I remember looking out over downtown Cairo from the top floor of my publishers’ offices, and also from most of the way up the Great Pyramid, and feeling the crackle of discontent, the thickening air of anger rising up out of the vast and chaotic city. Something big was about to happen – that was undeniable, a fact felt at the base of the skull.
Anyway; I signed over the translation rights to my novel Runt, while I was in Cairo, did my readings and panel discussions, and went off to Alexandria to fulfil my duties in that city. Whilst there, I was presented with a few pages of translation, and told how the language of my novel had been transliterated, and how courageous it was, in that culture and at that time, to use a vernacular Arabic, full of neologisms and oaths; I found this fascinating, and was eager to say so during the radio interview scheduled for early the following morning.
The translated pages were posted online overnight and I woke into an uproar. Arabic cannot be used in that way, I was told. It is a pure, unmalleable language, its beauties rigid and functional; to twist it in the ways I had done, and to sully it with swearing, was profoundly offensive to serious scholarship. My objection concerned the fact that no-one had been forced to translate my work and in fact I had nothing at all to do with that translation; I knew not one word of Arabic, and the written form of it resembled, to me, merely squiggles. Obviously I’d be intrigued to be told of its structures and rules and the like but no, no – I’d betrayed it, somehow. I’d set myself up as its enemy, an accusation a little aggrieving to hear.
My defence was, thankfully, leapt to; one of the translators was present at the interview, as was the publisher, both young, and it quickly became apparent that this was a generational clash, between reactionary forces on one side and iconoclastic forces on the other; the argument – no, the row – swiftly became hot and moved away from me and my work and into a more general confrontation (conducted in Arabic) about power, and oppression, and liberatory linguistic politics. It spread to cyberspace, and it flamed across the telephone lines.
Constantine P. Cavafy street sign in his city Alexandria, 24 January 2014. Photo By: Ahmed Hamed
After leaving the studio I was taken to one of Alexandria’s secret bars in order to relax and de-pressurise. The beer was lovely and the conversation was gripping and the anchovies were suitably salty but they kept me awake and on the toilet all night. In the morning, ill and hungover, I decided that I could not leave Alexandria without at least a quick visit to Cavafy’s café, the place where beauty walked among the coffee cups and spoons. I ordered a coffee the strength of a class A drug and a brandy and knocked them both back and then promptly brought them back up again, loudly, and with great force. A symbol in that, some might say; and I knew who, too.
This was some years ago. Shortly after my return, Cairo, and Egypt, and many of the surrounding countries blew up (some of them are still exploding); I heard, unsurprisingly, nothing about the Runt translation, until very recently when I received, through a third party, an invitation to the book fair in Abu Dhabi, to discuss the Arabic version of my novel Runt; apparently it had been published, surreptitiously, and sold through discreet and secretive channels, samizdat-style, and has taken on the flavour of contraband, of illegality.
Somewhat wary of accepting the invitation – I had, after all, accepted an invite to the university of Marrakesh, to speak to the modern British literature students about my novel Sheepshagger, only to receive death threats, so I didn’t go (call me old-fashioned) – I made some enquiries; what would I be required to do over there? Why was my physical (and softly susceptible) presence desired? Well, I was told, the book is very divisive; on one side, there are those who strongly believe that Arabic has been polluted by the book, and opposing them are those who think that the book has enriched the language (yes, I’d heard this before). No different, in many ways, to the critical reception of my work in Britain, except that here, such debates are conducted over the cafetiere in the conservatory, and over there, well, let’s just say that I haven’t been back to Egypt. And I was told by one of the Abu Dhabi organisers to doctor my promotional CV a little; to omit, say, the titles of certain of my books and articles. But will they know?, I asked; will they be familiar enough with the nuances of British culture to be aware of what, for example, a ‘sheepshagger’ is? I was told that one of the UAE-based organisers is half-Welsh. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, contextually, I don’t yet know. Don’t worry, I was told; it’ll be a trip.
‘A trip’. . . now where have I heard that before? Oh yes; it’s what Keith Richards said The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont was going to be. I’ve accepted the invitation. So watch this space. To be – hopefully and Inshallah – continued.