Wednesday, October 28, 2015

author and translator speak on translating Selma Dabbagh's novel Out of It into Arabic


When Palestinian-British writer and lawyer Selma Dabbagh's debut novel Out of It was published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2011, it received much praise from reviewers and was hailed as breaking new ground in Palestinian literature. Now Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) has published the Arabic translation, by Kholoud Amr, under the title Ghaza Taht al-Jild (Gaza Under the Skin).

The Tanjara spoke to both the author and the translator about the translation process.

Interview with Selma Dabbagh

How were you and your translator "paired up" for the purposes of translating Out of It into Arabic? 

I knew very little about Kholoud. I understood that she was Palestinian, had worked in journalism as well as a translator and that she was highly regarded. Apart from that, I had very little information about her. BQFP  identified her as someone suitable to translate the book. They sent a sample of her work to my [Palestinian] father, who thought it was of a good standard, and so we started to work together.

How much were you as the author involved in the translation process? Did you meet the translator, were you in touch by email, Skype etc over points in the text? Were the facts of your own background and knowledge of at least spoken Arabic helpful?

We had minimal e-mail communication. It didn’t seem necessary. Some of the texts of the Arabic verse etc. I had provided previously. I had also given explanatory notes, so there was little need to communicate directly with me. My father was in communication with Kholoud more than I was with regards to the text itself. My reading of Arabic is very weak now and I could not review the translation of the text myself. I am not sure that my knowledge of spoken Arabic was helpful although it may have made some of the translation of dialogue easier for Kholoud, as I would often think of the sentence in Arabic, but write it in English. In some ways it is as though the book has been translated back into its original language, as many of the conversations that take place in the book were visualized as having been spoken in Arabic.

What, if any, were the main difficulties in the translation process?

There were many difficulties in the translation process, but most of these were before Khuloud Amr came on board. Hers was not the first translation of Out of It, which was initially due to come out at the same time as the English edition (in December 2011). But the publication date was set back again and again. BQFP was a new company, and underwent several significant management changes between 2011-2015, and the translation of Out of It was one project that bore the brunt of many of these changes. The first translation of was by a well established translator and it was completed in early 2012. I gave it to my father and some friends to read, and they thought it was strong. My father just queried some sections, feeling that they were too literal and lacked the style of the original English. These comments were submitted in hard copy, then everything went silent. I had had good communications with this original translator, whom I liked enormously and found very professional in my dealings with him. However for some reason between 2013-2014 the whole project stalled, my father’s comments on a hard copy manuscript temporarily got lost, everyone seemed to be blaming everyone else and I was losing the will to live when it came to the Arabic translation. Then Fakhri Nawadha was appointed as the Arabic language editor, Bianca Saporti, who was also at BQFP at the time stepped in, a fuss was made, Kholoud was found (as was the marked up manuscript) and everything started to come together again. I am delighted with the end result.

 Selma Dabbagh

Given that the book was first written for readers of English, some of whom may not know much about Palestine, Gaza and so on, did you feel any need to rework or edit any sentences or section for the new Arabic-reading audience?

No, this wasn’t necessary with Out of It, partly because I had deliberately written it for ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ I believe there are references or, if you like, subliminal messages, in the novel that only a Palestinian readership might pick up on, but they were only included if I felt that they would not distract for any other kind of reader. 

How did you arrive at the final title in Arabic? There seems to have been a different Arabic title initially.

The title was a really hard one to translate. At a British Council translation workshop in Qatar in 2012 we wrangled over the title for ages in a bar after one of the sessions with Marilyn Booth and others. The English title Out of It is tough to translate. ‘It’ refers to three things (a) being out of Gaza (b) being out of the struggle and (c) being out of your mind (i.e. stoned). I liked it because it is contemporary and did not refer specifically to Gaza or Palestine, as I felt the issues being dealt with were not just Palestinian issues. Initially we had working titles of 'Khurooj min Hunaak', then 'Khurooj min Ghaza' (the publisher insisted that Gaza was in the title), then management changed and I pushed for ‘Barra’ as in outside, but some people thought this was too colloquial and would not be understood in every dialect and that it was too vague. The novelist Sahar Khalifeh, who gave a wonderful endorsement to the Arabic edition. suggested ‘Gazan Skies,’ based on the name of the first section, which I liked due to the sense of openness and possibilities, but then Fakhri Nawadha suggested, ‘Gaza Under The Skin,’ which captured perfectly the idea of a place being with you even when you are out of it etc which is one of the main ideas the novel deals with. Most Arabs have their own Gaza now. Even if they are not Palestinian at all, so Ghaza Taht al-Jild it was.

How have Arabic readers - including your father - responded to the translation?
 My father thought it was great. He was very impressed by Kholoud Amr’s work and the way that the novel read. It is too early to know how others will receive the work. Sahar Khalifeh considered it a good translation too and was excited about its introduction to Arabic language readers.

Have you had reviews of the Arabic translation in any Arabic newspapers or other media yet, and if so, what were some of the main points?
There have been some reviews, but these have stayed quite close to Bloomsbury Qatar’s press release. It is early days, but I would love to read more considered reviews by an Arabic readership.

Has Out of It been translated into any other languages besides Arabic? 
Not yet, but we are in negotiations with an Italian publishing house. Some of my other short stories and other pieces have been translated into Mandarin, Spanish, French and Dutch, but there was little interest in the translation rights for Out of It, I am not sure why that was the case.

Will the fact that you are now published in Arabic translation lead you to keep in mind readers of Arabic as well as readers of English in your future writing?
 It is half of me. I could not forget Arab or Palestinian readerships even if I chose to do so

What you are working on now, in fiction or non-fiction?
I am currently finalizing my second novel, We Are Here Now, which is set in a gated community in a Gulf-like state. I am also planning my third, notionally entitled, Things Are Not All As They Appear To Be, that is set in Jerusalem. I fly up and down in terms of my enthusiasm for my own work, but I am growing prouder of it. There is also a tentative plan to work on a film script, which would be wonderful. I love dialogue. Writing is always a challenge and I hope to continue to develop, to improve and to push back boundaries as I go along.

Interview with Kholoud Amr

How did your own background help you in the translating of  Out of It?
There was a crucial factor for the smooth translation of this novel. It is the fact that both the writer and translator have a similar background. Selma is British with Palestinian roots; I am  also a British Palestinian. As a Palestinian, and as a journalist and broadcaster who has worked for BBC and various media, I had  deep knowledge about the subject matter of the novel. Many of the historical events of the novel were lived and covered by me in my capacity as a reporter, news producer and filmmaker. Also, the fact that I lived half of her life in the Arab World and the other half in Britain helped a lot in my being familiar with the novel’s type of characters and with the physical characteristics of different places where the events of the novel were unfolding. I was even familiar with the Arab Gulf and its culture- the third area after Gaza and Britain where the events of the novel take place- as I had also worked in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The familiarity with the British environment and the Palestinian/ Arab environment made the translation process smooth. It greatly helped me in imagining the scenes of the novel, the characters, and the different objects…etc. This was crucial for parts of the novel where there were cultural differences or where the novel was talking about something in the British context that does not exist in the Arab’s. I have had more than twenty years of experience in translation, journalism, broadcasting and film criticism, and have worked with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper and the BBC in London, and Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya TV stations in the Gulf. In addition to my degree in history I have two masters degrees, one in translation and another in filmmaking. I have translated into Arabic books by Noam Chomsky and Anthony Giddens, and numerous New York Times and Washington Post op-eds.

What for you were the main difficulties in the translation process?

One main difficulty was the lack of Arabic equivalents for some British cultural references pertaining to clothing, gardening, music and singing. I  had to use explanatory and descriptive language, rather than an exact wordy equivalent, to convey the meaning. For example, while it is easy for a British reader to imagine what brogues are as a type of shoes, the average Arab reader won’t have a clue. Also, there were what might be called the classical translation difficulties; the translation of proverbs, idioms, puns and jokes.

Given that the book was first written for an English-reading audience, did you find difficulty in translating for an Arabic readership? 

When Bloomsbury approached me to do the translation I had a little worry. It was whether this novel would appeal to an Arab audience or not. I told Bloomsbury that I needed to read the novel before deciding whether to do the translation. Before even finishing the novel my worries were ended:  I liked the novel a lot and decided to go for the translation. What motivated me was my belief that Out of It is actually very relevant to Arab readers, as much as it is for the English-speaking ones. It represents the Palestinian as a human being with all its faculties and pitfalls; dares to tackle with honesty and openness the psychological impact of the occupation on the people, even if they were extremely shameful. This is unlike much of the Arabic literature that shies away from taking that task and keeps depicting the Palestinian as a perfect hero who has no doubts or emotional troubles. Selma’s depiction of the Palestinian is more rounded and realistic. It does more justice to the Palestinians who I think have become tired of being depicted as either perfect heroes or perfect victims. Selma deserves all the credit for being able to write a novel for English- reading audience that is also translatable to Arabic without any major rework. The novel’s text functioned brilliantly both ways, in English and Arabic. For example, when the text explains the ‘preventive detention’ commonly practiced by Israeli military it is very informative for the English reader as well as to most of the Arab readers. Even references to the events of the Intifada and peace process are informative for English-readers while the way they were presented, Intifada communiqu├ęs, made them interesting and emotionally charging for the Arab readers.

interviews conducted by Susannah Tarbush, London

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