Book Review: Never lost in translation!


Keeping up with the growing demand for translated literature, several publishing houses put out a wide range of translations for this year’s Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF).

Some were titles translated from English and French, but many were from languages that are less familiar to the wider Egyptian audience that consumes foreign languages.

Portuguese and Spanish, as the case has been during the past 10 years, were perhaps the highest on offer, given the very high demand.

There were also translations from Italian, German, Russian, and some Chinese, among other languages.

On its shelves at the CIBF, the National Centre for Translation (NCT) had the most interesting title to offer as a perfect prelude to the story of translated literature in Egypt: a title of around 450 pages by no other than prominent Egyptian novelist Latifa El-Zayyat that reviews the path of literary translation from English to Arabic from 1882 to 1925.

El-Zayyat’s book sheds light on the inevitable association between social development, translation, and political awareness — at least historically. The book also shows the relatively delayed start in Egypt of translating literary titles from English.

According to El-Zayyat’s book ‘Harkat Al-Targama Al-Adabiyah Min Al-Ingliziyah Ila Al-Arabiyah fi Masr’ (1882-1925), the early literary translations started in Egypt in the beginning of the 19th century, basedon the interest shown by then ruler Mohamed Ali in promoting education and learning foreign languages in order to build a modern and strong army.

However, translations from English started in earnest after the British occupation of Egypt in 1982.

Prior to this, according to El-Zayyat, the vast majority of translations were done from French, the dominant foreign language among Egyptians and foreign communities in Egypt at the time.

The first play that was translated from English into Arabic in Egypt was in 1885 while the first novel also translated from English to Arabic came out in 1886.

For years, most translations were of orientalist works before translators ventured into romance, historical novels, and more.

At this point in time, when Egyptians focused mostly on reading translations from French and English, translations from English to Arabic of works in other languages allowed the Egyptian audience to read the great works of Russian authors like Leo Tolstoy, whose ‘Resurrection’ came out in 1907.

Then, El-Zayyat wrote, translation became a successful business, with plays being adapted for the newly launched Egyptian theatre, and novels serialised in the thriving newspapers and magazines.

By 1925, translations for very popular detective stories started to roll, she wrote.

In this year’s CIBF, most of the translated literature on offer was not of English or French texts. According to the representatives of the publishing houses in the CIBF,  the audience of today is interested to learn about far and remote cultures, especially in Asia and Latin America, or about the history of European countries that have gone through democratic change.

A selection of Chinese short stories that Al-Kotob Khan published in Arabic in 2017 was in demand.

Another favourite was ‘Azhar Al-Barkouk’ (‘Plum Blossoms’) is a selection of some 30 short stories by modern Chinese and Taiwanese writers, which were  translated beautifully by May Ashour.

Most of these now-sought-after translations have appeared during the past decade in several literary magazines in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Overall, the selections on offer show an eastern culture that took its time to open up to the norms of western modernity. This is especially the case in the titles of authors of the early years of the 20th century — and of people struggling with making ends meet along with struggling with expressing sentiments of love and affection.

In ‘Sentiments of Endearment’, a shorty story by Wu Niam Zhen, the reader meets a traditional Chinese father whose ability to speak of his love for his wife and children is so limited to the extent that they are not sure whether he really loved them. “I would think he lost his mind if he came to tell me loving words,” the mother once told the inquisitive son.

However, this son knows that his father holds strong “sentiments of endearment” for him. He knows it when the father sacrifices the two small fish balls in the soup can for the son and watches with profound contentment as the son eats, or when the father goes way beyond his limited financial means to buy his son an expensive fountain ink pen when he gets high grades at school — although the gift comes with a strict warning of severe punishment if the expensive pen is lost.

In ‘Buying Hope for 40 Years,’ Bi Shumin, a psychologist-turned-novelist, tells the story of a poor man who saves from his very limited income to buy a lottery ticket that carries the birth date of his first love. He does this every week of every month for 40 years in the hope that one day he would win, and his name and the date will be published in the papers for his former lover to see and to know that he still keeps the memory of their love.

Odd paths of love and compassion also figure prominently in Ingo Schulze’s ‘Simple Stories’, a German text that tells the layered and complex story of the reunification of Germany in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The novel starts months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 when a couple from East Germany, which was still waiting for the merger with its Western sister in October 1990, decides to go on a dream trip to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their wedding in Italy.

The couple has to first go through West Germany to get documents necessary for travel into Italy, and they come face-to-face both with their past as a couple who lived in the east under communism and now struggling to manage with a liberal future about which they are not so sure.

'Simple Stories' is about the parallel stories of this and another couple and of families and individuals separated and reunited, more by the force of people’s own choices than that of politics, and the disappointed dreams of young people who had hoped for a better day after the unity, but their dreams of welfare were poorly met.

Schulze himself was born in Dresden, previously East Germany, in 1962. In 1989, he was part of the students protest movement that brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The translation available at this year’s CIBF, and also in bookstores, is a publication of Al-Arabi Publishing that came out in 2018 by Samir Grace. In 2004, the NTC had  put out a translation of this widely acclaimed novel of Schulze that has been read widely.

Another novel that recalls the uneasy lives of young people under the rule of communism comes from Georgian novelist David Turashvili. Turashvili was born in Georgia in 1966 under the rule of the Soviet Union.

Turashvili’s ‘A flight from the USSR’ is based on the true story of an attempt by a group of young Georgian students to hijack an Aeroflot in 1983. As the novel shows, the story of the hijack starts with the anger and frustration of a group of university students, and it ends in a drama.

The novel starts with the ending scene of the hijack but smoothly travels through the lives of each of the young men and women involved in the failed attempt and into the lives of Georgian people at the time. It captures some of the famous images of the risk some people would take only to buy and keep a smuggled pair of original Wrangler jeans or a disk of Mick Jagger.

However, ‘A flight from the USSR’ also offers a very insightful take on how “the violation of the right of property got people to be so keen on beautifying their tombs, given that it is the only thing they could own — provided that they died naturally, unlike those who ended up being eliminated by the security services for violating political orders, like the young men and women whose parents had to go through one ordeal after the other to try to find the graves where they were buried with no tombstones."

Al-Kotob Khan offers its 2015 publication of Samar Gaafar’s skillful translation of ‘A flight from the USSR’, quite a passionate narration that gives politics a human face.

Then, in a 2019 publication of Ibiidi Books, there is another translation of another novel of another group of perplexed students. Those, however, are not suffering the agonies of communist dictatorship but rather the bewildering questions of liberal times.

They are a group of students, all Italians and one American, Heddi, who live and study oriental languages, fine arts and geology in Naples. They share food, philosophic arguments, and a passion for American rock stars.

‘Lost in the Spanish Quarter’ is an Italian text of American novelist Heddi Goodrich, who was born in 1971. It came out in 2019, exactly the same year when its translation by Amira Badawie came out in Egypt. Goodrich herself had translated her own novel from Italian into English.

On the face of it, the novel comes across as a romance of Heddi, l’americana, and Peitro, l’italiano. However, it is a lot deeper text that reflects on the meaning of love, attraction, friendship, belonging, and life that could at times be like “a short and bitter sip from a cup of espresso."

The start of Goodrich’s novel carries a reference to one of Naples’ oldest and most passionate and intense neighbourhoods: the Spanish Quarter. It, however, starts in New Zealand, where Heddi had moved to after leaving Italy, when she receives an email from Pietro, who himself had went up north of the European content. As of then, the search for the past starts through full beautifully translated 400 pages plus.

‘Salvatierra’ is yet another novel that starts with the search for the past. Two sons are hard at search for a missing roll of drawing from a set of painting canvas that their father used to document every year of his life through drawing his thoughts after having lost his ability to speak following a horse accident at the age of nine. At a storage of the family house in a village off Buenos Aires, the sons found a roll missing — that of 1961 — and the search starts.

‘The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra’ is actually the title of the English translation of Mairal’s novel. This was the first text of this 1970-born Argentinian novelist to be translated into English and to attract international attention to this atypical voice of contemporary Latin America writers.

In 2016, Al-Karma Books put out a smooth Arabic translation, by Gamal Marc, of this very witty and sensitive novel. The book is a perfect walk through a segment of the history of Argentina.

‘The Hour of the Star’ is yet another walk through yet another segment of the world of another Latin city: Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil.

Rodrigo takes the reader on a walk through the sad and harsh-living reality of the slums of Rio de Janeiro — if only to tell the story of Macabea, a 19-year-old woman who is so oppressed by her own reality.

The reality of Macabea as the narrator is often describing to the reader is perhaps that of those who are so pushed aside by life to the extent that even when they walk on the streets to smile to passers-by, those smiles go unnoticed.

‘The Hour of the Star’ is considered one of the finest works of Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian author who was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in Ukraine. Her family had immigrated to Brazil where she eventually died in 1977 after having travelled the world.

The novel came out shortly after her death. Lispector had given her manuscript 13 alternative titles, including ‘The Right to Scream’; ‘Singing the Blues’; ‘A Sense of Loss’; and ‘A Discreet Exit from the Backdoor’.

This line of 13 titles that Lispector had put one after the other sums up the entire essence of this under 200-page text that talks not just of poverty and aimlessness but also of the acceptance of the inevitable unfairness that the world has chosen for some people who are not at all trying to change their luck but simply to live around it.

Maged El-Gebali is the translator of the novel in the edition that was put out by Al-Kotob Khan in 2018.