‘The Common’ Editor Jennifer Acker with Advice on Bringing Arabic Literature into English

We would not stay there for long. Just as setting off naively for “the West” or “the Far East”—destinations that are grand notions rather than findable locations—is romantic in inspiration,   but in reality involves a lot of getting lost and stuck in the mud. At the time, I banged my head on the desk trying to figure out why I was so confused about what happened when. In the process, Acker learned a good deal about the movement of Arabic literature into English, some of which she shared in an interview with   Amherst   magazine:
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk. Many reflected what Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha calls “the increasingly dangerous business of living in this part of the world.” A family housebound by street fighting is halted midstep by sniper bullets. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Friday Finds: Khaled Khalifa’s ‘Living in a Void’Categories: translation Read stories from the issue at thecommononline.org. This question was doubly vexed because we experienced the texts in different languages. Arabic sentences are often long and complex in structure. We laughed at that—being in the comfort zone. We were bushwhacking an unfamiliar and uncommon literary path, while also bringing Arabic writers into an often unwelcoming country and culture—and to a literary public skeptical of works in translation. From   Amherst   magazine
“Tell me the story of your romance with the Arabic written word.” The journalist asking was from The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper. Over lunch one afternoon, Hisham’s friend Rami asked, “What’s next?” I had been thinking of this visit as a culmination. Most important: Would we agree on the literary merit of the writing? Hisham and I found ample literary common ground. I understand some of these issues now. An arrested man is deprived of not only his possessions but also his internal organs. A young woman recalls the dangerous advice of a beloved grandmother. Along with Hisham Bustani, Acker brought together 26 authors, five visual artists, and 18 translators from a total of 17 countries. Another revelation was that publishers in the Arab world serve more often as printers than as editors. Hisham could judge the originals, but I had to rely on translations. Still, we did not know how well we would work together over a long and improvised journey. Mention to translators the different “time paradigms” of Arabic and English and they throw up their hands. It was also an opportunity to meet Hisham Bustani, my co-editor, who lives in Amman, Jordan. Now we could plot future routes with more confidence. Translating Arabic to English is notoriously challenging. Last year, editor Jennifer Acker co-drove an all-Arabic-literature issue of   The Common. Editing Tajdeed: Contemporary Arabic Stories had been a labor of love, but it had not been romantic. Of all books published in the United States in any given year, only 3 percent are works in translation; of those, only 1 percent are from Arabic. Each story he secured contained its own surprises, elegance and terrors. The authors learned to trust us just as Hisham and I grew to trust each other. Authors unfamiliar with the editing process sometimes read suggestions as criticisms and were reluctant to engage, but diplomacy and explanation eventually erased their skepticism. This article originally appeared in   Amherst   magazine. The inspiration to create Tajdeed came while my husband, Amherst philosophy professor Nishi Shah, and I were teaching for a year in Abu Dhabi in 2012–13, and my return this past April was cause for celebration and reflection. Superficially, we were an excellent team, with complementary skills and contacts. As Hisham often says, an excellent translator must be both bilingual and bicultural. She wanted to know why we’d devoted an issue of The Common, Amherst’s literary magazine, to Arabic fiction. After publishing his short story “Freefall in a Shattered Mirror,” The Common’s first piece of literature translated from Arabic, Hisham and I discovered a shared idea for an English-language compendium of new Arabic writing. But beyond understanding culturally specific references, regional dialects and local idioms (complicated enough in a language spoken by 422 million people in 22 countries), there are fundamental grammatical differences between Arabic and English that require careful attention. Add to this a standard Arabic literary construction that describes action in a way that English speakers read as backwards: “So-and-so did such-and-such after doing such-and-such.”
English is not meant to be understood by reading what happens first at the end of the sentence. But our first journey had seasoned us, taught us the lay of the land. We shared meals, saw contemporary art and a Flamenco performance and drove the desert streets. In Arabic literary writing, a past-tense verb at the beginning of a paragraph can create a kind of “past-tense container” that allows all subsequent verbs in that paragraph to be written in present tense but understood as past action. Video: Watch excerpts from Tajdeed read aloud. This last story is in fact deadpan hilarious. For four years, we had worked together electronically to conceptualize, edit, publish and promote Tajdeed, coordinating 26 authors, five visual artists and 18 translators from 17 countries. Rami pointed out that our lunch spot happened to be on an island called Al Raha, which means comfort in Arabic. We could not reverse this trend, but we could make a mark. By April 2017, Hisham and I were ready to toast our long, rewarding, messy process, and to get to know each other as friends. A word-by-word approach to translation—simply “documenting” the original writing, as our translations editor, Alice Guthrie, puts it—is ultimately less faithful to the original than one in which the word order is changed but the meaning and ease preserved. Translated incorrectly, such passages can display a sudden, bewildering shift in time. Rendering the original verb-subject-object order into English requires a deft hand to avoid a baroque and belabored feel absent in the original.