Home Does Not Exist: A Conversation with English PEN

[The following is from English PEN's series of conversations with translators of their award-winning books. Here, I am speaking with Grace Hetherington about my translation of Raba’i Al-Madhoun’s novel The Lady from Tel Aviv, which won an award in 2013.]

Grace Hetherington: The protagonist’s mother uses highly idiomatic, insulting – and often entertaining – language. How did you go about translating this into English, capturing the same effect?

Elliott Colla: This was not so easy. Walid’s mother is a strong character with a sharp tongue. What she says in Arabic is funny and also heartbreaking. It also sometimes rhymes or trips lightly across the lips. She only appears in a few scenes, so I needed to get this aspect right if I wanted to get her character right, and I needed to do it with economy and grace. The author and I went over and over these passages many times, with him telling me other stories about his mother in the process. It helped in that I have met Palestinian mothers like her. The most loving people, but strong and fierce like no one else I know. The most loving and affectionate women, but you don’t want to cross them. Each time I sat down to translate these passages I had very particular images in my mind. I imagined different friends’ mothers. More than once I felt like I had these mothers looking over my shoulder at what I was writing on the page. I knew if I got it wrong, they’d hit my hand and scowl. But if I got it right, they’d hug me and cook me the most delicious dinner I’d ever tasted.

The protagonist Walid’s story has many similarities to that of the author. Did you feel you were taking on a big responsibility translating Rabai’s personal story? Did you discuss the autobiographical elements during the translation process?

The novel overlaps significantly with the author’s own story. There’s nothing remarkable about that – but it did lead to fascinating conversations with Rabai about his life. It was not always easy to guess which aspects of the novel were autobiographical and which were fictional. The author’s own life is fantastical – if you were to read it in a novel, you would swear it was not true or not realistic. The same is true for many, many other Palestinians I have met.

The English translation of the book is subject to a noticeable editing process from the original Arabic. Is there a different approach to editing in English and Arabic publishing houses? As the translator did you help decide which bits to keep and which to omit?

There used to be a strong editorial culture in the Arab world. You read the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and it’s hard to miss. It’s there in stories of Yusuf Idris or Yusuf Sharouni. The stories are lean: almost every word or sentence is exactly where it needs to be. Unmotivated repetitions or infelicities are not to be found. At some point, this practice fell by the wayside. Nowadays, publishers usually edit for typos or grammar, but even this is not universal. Many publishing houses produce books that we would consider self-published. That does not make them bad, but it does have an impact. It’s rare that you pick up a novel in Arabic and think, every single word and sentence is there for a purpose. There are exceptions to this, and there are authors who know how to edit themselves. Ibrahim Al-Koni comes to mind – he is a perfectionist, and whatever you think about his work, you will not find mistakes in his books. But the overall impact is that a novel commercially published in Arabic is a different literary beast than a novel that has been commercially published in English. As a translator working between these two literary worlds I am very much aware of this, but I am a translator, not an editor. I had long conversations with the authors and the publisher about the editorial changes that were made to The Lady from Tel Aviv, but I was not directly involved. My job was to produce an accurate, compelling and complete translation of the novel, and that’s what I did.

Some critics have said the book’s title is misleading. Do you agree with this? Did you consider other titles? 

There were many editorial changes made after I submitted the translation, which entailed about 30% of the text being removed. The publisher had, I think, perfectly justifiable reasons for making these changes, but this meant that one character and story – that of Dana Ahova – was relegated to the background. In the Arabic, the story is really almost as much about her as it is about Walid.

Describe The Lady from Tel Aviv in three words.

Home doesn’t exist.

(Original interview can be found here.)