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From the Translator: On “A Red Lighter in the Heart of M.”

By Chris Clarke

Collusion in French Watermelon Sugar. Collaboration through a Common Denominator.


Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Lagrasse, a Benedictine abbey rebuilt in the late eight century, and the location of the translation residency where Chris Clarke met Mohammed El Khadiri, whose story A Red Lighter in the Heart of M. Chris translated for the March 2016 Words without Borders issue on Moroccan literature. (Photo: Chris Clarke)

In the summer of 2012, I attended a weeklong translation residency in the Corbières, a relatively quiet region in the southwest of France. We were nestled away in a very small town called Lagrasse a short ways north and west of Perpignan. There were about forty translators and writers from various spots on the globe. At the end of most every day’s work, after dinner, a good number of us would go and sit by the river well into the night, some enjoying the local rosé wine, some strumming on guitars, most just talking, exchanging, getting to know new people from countries we had never been to who all shared a common passion: language.

We all had another thing in common—each one of us had a command of at least two of the three target languages: French, Arabic, and English. Very few of us had a solid grounding in all three. This two-of-three requirement made for some fascinating workshops, discussions, and presentations, and it impacted the way we communicated with each other socially. The dynamic of a group conversation becomes very different when everyone can communicate, but not all at the same time or with the same people. For instance, I would say something in French to the woman next to me, who spoke French and Arabic. She would include the girl sitting next to her, who spoke English and Arabic, by speaking to her in Arabic. That girl would respond to her in Arabic, excluding me, but then would add something new to the conversation in English, which I would then discuss with the first woman in French. And so on. The more people involved, the more sub-conversations cropped up, and these weren’t acts of simultaneous interpreting: casual conversations move much too quickly for that. More often, it would be a case of a steadily-moving conversation of which you could only understand two-thirds, and rarely the same two-thirds as your neighbor.

I met many exceptional people at that summer residency, including Mohammed El Khadiri. Mo is a writer and a journalist, and he also translates from French to Arabic. At the time, he was just putting the finishing touches on his translation of Ahmed Bouanani’s L’Hôpital, and he gave a fascinating talk on the challenges of translating a chaotic novel full of French slang into Arabic, a language that in some ways wasn’t equipped to deal with it. Mohammed and I hit it off right away, getting briefly lost in a riverside conversation about the inexplicable feeling we still carry with us from the time we first read the opening lines of Richard Brautigan’s “Sucre de Pastèque” (what Marc Chénetier called “In Watermelon Sugar” when he translated it). Mohammed was just starting to read a bit of English around that time, although he had been devouring the American writers of the 60s and 70s for some time in French. So, technically, Mo and I were sharing our love for a passage from two different books—one by Brautigan, and one by Brautigan filtered through Chénetier’s French—by meeting halfway in between, in a language that wasn’t technically maternal to either of us.

When Emma Ramadan and I got talking about the issue of Words without Borders that she was guest-editing, it was decided that I would be meeting Mo in the middle once again to translate his story, “A Red Lighter in the Heart of M.” Mohammed is a very talented translator, but it is a fact (unknown to some) that most literary translators only tend to work in one direction: toward their “native” tongue. I’ve done some work from English toward French, and while it does offer up certain freedoms that working in my usual direction does not, I’ll be the first to admit that I find it much more difficult, and I’m not nearly as good at it. Since Mohammed works from the French and not the other way around, and I don’t know any Arabic at all, the only way we could attempt this translation was together, and via French.

Often a translation of a translation is looked down upon by both translators and critics, and sometimes with good reason. It basically means that the translator is only able to provide a reading—and that’s what a translation is, above all—of another translator’s reading of the original text. Certain choices are lost to him, new choices open up that aren’t perhaps even there in the original. There are definitely dangers. But I don’t think that’s always the case, and I don’t believe it was a problem with this short project. In fact, I think that in this situation, it provided a touch of something that perhaps a direct Arabic to English translation wouldn’t have.

Noted French writer and translation theorist Antoine Berman called for a method of translation that would not only preserve the foreignness of the original, but communicate it. He saw this as a way of stretching the possibilities of the target language, and as one of the key ways a language can continue to evolve and offer new possibilities, both stylistically and lexically. This often comes to the forefront through syntax. I frequently run into this translating from the French. The French language—especially in the hands of contemporary French authors trying to push the boundaries of style by making use of the more forgiving fluidity of French syntax—often leaves the translator scrambling to reconstruct a sentence that has a dozen commas, a few ellipses, a smattering of semi- and full-colons, and clauses flying off in every direction. However, sometimes, and in less extreme cases, some of this can be preserved, and it results in a stylistic element that works well in English, even if it seems slightly unconventional. What’s more, this “preservation and communication of the foreign” can also help a translator to retain (or at least emulate) some of the rhythm in the original text. Not necessarily on a word-to-word level, but on a larger scale involving sentences and paragraphs.

This is what I find so intriguing about the results of translating Mohammed’s text after he had brought it over to French from Arabic in what he called a rather flat and literal translation. I found the rhythm of the French text Mo provided me with to be very interesting, and I did my best to preserve and communicate it, but it also made me wonder just what it was that was causing the effect I was noticing. Especially if Mo had, as he had suggested, effected a fairly straight-across rendering that he wasn’t overly happy with, with the idea that he and I would talk through the stiffer points once I had set to work on it. Here’s what I think happened, and accordingly, why I see a little of Berman’s “foreignness” poking through from the original.

Arabic, I have recently discovered, is what Chomsky referred to as a “pro-drop” language (or “null-subject”), meaning that like Spanish and Italian, but unlike French and English, it has the option of dropping subject pronouns, thus allowing subjectless sentences. English allows this in certain circumstances, particularly imperative sentences (“Go over there!”), but also in certain types of informal spoken language. What’s more, Arabic allows for verbless (or “nominal”) sentences in the present tense, which are quite uncommon grammatical features in English. (You know, those sentences that Microsoft Word will underline in green and tell you: “Fragment—consider revising.”) When verbless-ness occurs in English, it usually comes in the form of an interjection—something like “My goodness!”—which isn’t technically what we’re looking at here. In its more concrete form, a nominal sentence is usually directly related to the sentence that precedes it, such as following “Daniel won the limbo competition.” with “A wonderful achievement.” Alternatively, the verbless sentence is used as a segue, such as Monty Python’s go-to, “And now for something completely different.” We also see nominal sentences in enumerative descriptions, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Village: “A white hat. A white embroidered parasol. Black shoes with buckles glistening like the dust in the blacksmith’s shop. A silver mesh bag. A silver calling-card case on a little chain […]” and so on.

These differences in syntax could explain why I ended up with a number of these subjectless or verbless sentences in my translation of “A Red Light in the Heart of M.,” sentences I chose to preserve and communicate: “Moves clumsily up and down.”; “On a muted television screen.”; “A body soft like a piece of silk.”; “About the statuette of the winged woman with the cold, unfeeling eyes.” A seasoned Arabic-to-English translator would have undoubtedly compensated for these differences when he brought the text across from Arabic to English, much in the way I compensate for syntactic incompatibilities coming from French to English. After all, this is one of the most common duties of the translator: reworking syntax that isn’t always compatible from one language to another. For example, “In German, the verb must at the end of the sentence come,” which in English would either be evidence of a word-for-word translation, or a line spoken by Yoda.

The Arabic-to-English translator would have made the appropriate adjustments to compensate for these syntactic differences. However, because of our stopover in French, our lingua franca, that wasn’t the case with my translation of “A Red Lighter in the Heart of M.” What I saw in the French I took to be purely stylistic choices by Mohammed, because this type of syntax is as uncommon in French as it is in English—perhaps even more so. To me, then, this was intentional, internal rhythm in the French text, brought about by bending the rules of French grammar. And I was more than happy to follow suit in English where I could. I found that the few subjectless sentences and the occasional nominal, verbless sentence added a charming rhythm of reluctance to Mohammed’s story, bringing out the detachedness M. is clearly feeling, helping to choke the fluidity of emotional moments that, for M., are in no way going smoothly. This hesitant, punctuated rhythm greatly complements Mohammed’s use of repetition, lending a somewhat unique tone to this short piece that I greatly appreciated.

Now, what I have just described is one possibility. The other, of course, is that Mohammed intentionally stretched the syntax on his way into French, in which case I was just preserving and communicating some of his playful, stylistic deviation. This is entirely possible. However, what interests me is simply the possibility that, thanks to our meeting in a lingua franca—our recourse to this common sucre de pastèque—some of the rhythm and shape of Mo’s Arabic was left behind, stuck in the watermelon sugar of a mediated crossing. I’m fascinated by the possibility that, because of the way we went about this little project, there are perhaps more vestiges of Mohammed’s language poking through in this short text, traces of his rhythm and footprints of his original writing that may have otherwise been covered over in their passing from his language to mine. While there are risks to this method, the translation of a translation, I don’t believe they were as problematic here as they can sometimes be, because I had the luxury of communicating with Mohammed when it came to ambiguous passages, nuance, and above all, intention. That isn’t always the case, but when it is—when a common language is a possibility—perhaps by meeting in the middle we might be lucky enough to end up with a bit more of the original in the translated text, a bit more of the foreign in our familiar.


Published Mar 28, 2016   Copyright 2016 Chris Clarke

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