Drake Stutesman: Yalo is interesting for the various different voices that it employs, and the ways in which it combines vernaculars, languages and perspectives into a single narrative. What do you think this multitude of elements points to, and how did you work to incorporate them into the English text?
Peter Theroux: Yalo is remarkable among Arabic novels for the way Khoury lets his characters speak naturally. He definitely belongs to a new wave of Arab novelists who treat Arabic as a living language rather than rendering dialogue in formal Arabic. His characters speak Lebanese dialect, sing songs in dialect, throw in French and English words, and of course the grandfather, the priest or cohno, speaks whole passages in Syriac, which in the book is frequently not even called Syriac but Suryoyo, which is the Syriac word for Syriac. Khoury blithely makes his characters reveal themselves through their speech, which in the complex and very multilingual setting of Beirut (readers even find a Russian-Lebanese soldier in this novel!) means showing off the layers of their social class, their pretensions, and their deep history, as well, of course, as their feelings, moods, and so on.
For me, that involved just the usual new challenges you find in a new book by a fearless author. I don't know Syriac but my knowledge of Hebrew helped, because the two languages are close. Of course, I didn't leave it to chance just because so many of the words were familiar—I located a wonderful friend of a friend, Tony Badran, who helped me get the Syriac one hundred percent right. As to the colloquial Lebanese speech, sometimes it looked unusual on the page, but I have spent lots of time in Lebanon, so I just read it out loud and it made sense.
Lebanese Arabic is a riptide of Arabic and other languages. French words are common, and some Lebanese virtually make it their first language. English words are common, and some native Lebanese communities have other first languages—Syriac, Armenian, even Kurdish. The influence is mostly in the form of a multitude of loan words.
DS: The book is full of the theme of "not being able to speak." How does Khoury convey that in the writing itself? Did this pose any problems or present any highlights for you as a translator?
PT: This presented no real problems or highlights for me as a translator. Yalo is frequently mute, or coerced to speak as he is interrogated or tortured; his grandfather resorts to a dead language; Yalo cannot make a young Arab woman appreciate the Egyptian songs of Abd al-Halim Hafiz because she is deaf to Arabic culture and he isn't good at explaining it.
Think about the opening scene of the book, with Yalo standing in front of the interrogator. Shirin's presence there leads to several flashbacks where they interact, and that can take your attention away from the fact that ten pages go by with Yalo scarcely speaking at all. His constant tendency to close his eyes seems to be another aspect of the same alienation. When it comes to his inability to convey to Shirin his feelings about the poetry of Qabbani or the songs of Hafiz, that is as much a cultural as linguistic issue.
DS: The novel has a very strong sense of rhythm. Is this something that was difficult to transmit from the Arabic?
PT: The novel is very rhythmic, but not in a way that makes it hard for a translator to convey the rhythms of Khoury's Arabic. For example, the speech of the cohno, the grandfather, is always very rhythmical, not surprisingly, since he speaks several languages and has had a long life of giving sermons and chanting the liturgy. And Yalo may be mute and inarticulate, but he is capable of thoughts that are rhythmically rendered, for example, "in this city called Beirut, which was sinking toward its death, he could smell an aroma of sea, salt, and incense …" It is typical of him to be challenged, and to give an inadequate verbal response, but then to have thoughts that are extremely articulate, and rhythmically rendered by Khoury. It makes sense—Yalo is his grandfather's grandson, and has grown up listening to his eloquence. But he can't express himself (except through violence, which is his downfall).
DS: Does the complexity of Lebanon's long history of war and all its interweaving make translating a book like Yalo difficult, since it so crucially is trying to portray the effect of war, more than the literal details?
PT: For my purposes, the main issue here was in how much less evocative the literal details would be to my audience than to Elias's readers in Arabic. The Lebanese Civil War lasted about fifteen years, and the slightest mention of place names—the Museum or Galerie Semaan checkpoints in central Beirut—summon up vivid images of the scarred state of landmarks in that beautiful city. Even without the backdrop of the war, place names and locations convey drama and visual images to Arab readers that, for the most part, Americans will miss—the village of Ballouna in Mount Lebanon, the beach at Ramlet al-Beida (which means White Sand) in West Beirut, and many more.
DS: Did you ever worry that you weren't conveying some element of Khoury's style in your translation? Could you speak a little bit about some of the devices or nuances that operate in the original Arabic, and what you did to preserve them?
PT: Khoury is more of a storyteller than a stylist. He is evocative and detail-oriented in presenting the various characters' points of view, but he is not an innovator in style despite the various shifts in format—for example, Yalo's confessional writing exercises. Yalo's spoken voice is quite different from the exposition in the book, even though so much of the novel is told from his point of view. Khoury has a very deft storytelling style, where Yalo is inarticulate. He sings songs, he argues about the Arabic songs and singers that Shirin doesn't care about, and yet despite all his efforts to be articulate and loving, he is still a damaged person who expresses himself most clearly in violence. He undergoes a certain evolution as he tries to keep telling his story in prison He digs deeper into himself and manages to get more truthful. However, his real breakthrough comes with the torture inflicted on him.
The skill of the narrative voice of the novel is especially deft because it tackles both the everyday and so much that is shocking—rape, torture, the frightful massacre at Tur Abdin, scatology, degradation, and religious rituals that will be familiar to practically none of Khoury's readers. To me, that really expresses the modern Lebanon of the novel—people who like you or me, are intermittently exposed to such horrors, or indeed commit those horrors, and the ancient world that keeps intruding on their lives in the oddest ways.
Peter Theroux is the translator of a dozen books from Arabic, including Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt trilogy and other works by Egyptian, Iraqi, Israeli, Lebanese, and Nubian authors, and is the author of Sandstorms, Translating LA, and The Strange Disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr. He was educated at Harvard and the American University in Cairo and lives in New York.
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