May 31, 2016
Anatomy of a (Translated) Page: Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue
by Elisabeth Jaquette
Much of a translator’s work boils down to being a mediator. In the larger sense, we’re mediators between languages, of course. But translating an entire novel also means mediating between cultures, histories, and readerships in ways that can present daunting — and thrilling — challenges.
On page 107 of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, available this week from Melville House in my translation, you’ll find this passage:
A warm breeze blew on their faces from the direction of the coffee shop, but it carried the pungent gas that still lingered in the streets, making their noses run and their eyes sting. The world looked like it had the day they went to see Amani: the ground was crushed, and deep fissures ran through the asphalt, as if creating new streets. Their eyes fell on a scattering of strange, large, multicolored munitions. They didn’t look like anything Yehya and Nagy had ever seen before, and offered no trace of where they might have been manufactured.
There were empty tear-gas canisters strewn in the stretches between the munitions all the way to the coffee shop. Nothing they remembered was as it had been, except for the beggar lady, whom they knew well from their university days.
I loved this passage when I first read it in Arabic because of how it evoked my own experiences walking the streets of downtown Cairo. Recognizing personal experiences in literature is a powerful thing, and I’d lived right around the corner from the street Basma imagines, spent countless nights at that coffee shop, and knew exactly which beggar lady on which street corner had made the leap from reality into the pages of fiction. The scene really hit home.
I also knew exactly what the author had meant by some telltale phrases in Arabic, which alluded to something beyond what lay on the page. Take, for example, the first sentence from the passage. A rather literal translation might read:
The warm breeze blowing on their faces from the direction of the coffee shop was suffused with an acrid smell that summoned runny mucus to their noses.
I lived in Cairo in 2011, when protesters and security forces were clashing in the streets there, and had come to recognize — alongside many Egyptians — the particular acrid smell (in Arabic, nakha lath‘a) that made one’s nose run (taglub ila el-unoof mukhatan sa’ilan). In reality, as on the page, it points to the lingering presence of one thing: tear gas. The Arabic doesn’t make the presence of the gas explicit (to borrow the parlance of writing workshops, its emphasis is on showing, rather than telling, what is happening), and the subtlety with which it hints at the ever-looming threat of state violence is a crucial stylistic aspect of the novel. On the other hand, if my English too studiously reproduced that subtlety, the average English reader, presumably less acquainted with tear gas than the average Cairene who had lived through the Egyptian revolution, might miss the point entirely.
I decided to strike a balance: rather than the more literal “acrid smell,” I translated the relevant phrase as “pungent gas,” filling in the blanks for English readers who might have little chance of decoding the smell’s significance. This was, of course, a compromise: I said explicitly some of what the Arabic left implicit, and sacrificed the deliciousness of the Arabic word nakha, which means both “smell” and “taste” (so approaching the English aroma without being quite the same); on the other hand, by finding some appropriately delicate English, I was able to transpose some of the indeterminacy of the original by not spelling out exactly what gas was being described; that was reserved to the reader’s imagination of the scene. Finally, lest readers fortunate enough to have little experience with tear gas fail to grasp the identity of the substance, I added the words “tear gas” in the following paragraph. I find that translation is often made of exactly such compromises, that it involves bridging shared histories as well as languages.
A few sentences later, the characters find more evidence of street conflict, with the Arabic once again leaving many details and conclusions to the reader’s imagination. A literal translation might read:
Their eyes fell on lots of rocks, in carnival colors; they didn’t seem to belong here, but offered no trace of their origin.
These “rocks in carnival colors” (in Arabic, ahjaar bi-alwaaniha el-karnifaaleya) are not actually rocks at all: they’re meant to suggest the ominous possibility that government forces have gotten their hands on some new types of weaponry. I knew there were rumors in Egypt at the time that the government was deploying chemicals more toxic than tear gas against protesters, perhaps sold to them by other nations. So here, again, I had to find a way of carrying across the implications of the Arabic to an English-language readership that might not understand a sidewalk littered with colorful rocks as implying the possible presence of weapons.
For starters, I had do away with the word “carnival,” even though it’s basically the same word in Arabic (karnifaaleya) as in English, because “carnival” conjures images of joy and festivity, while these “rocks” needed to sound ominous. And while a hajar is a rock in Arabic, the word’s English equivalent doesn’t really work to indicate weaponry. I also knew that the protagonists didn’t recognize these objects, so the word had to suggest an indeterminate type of weapon. I thought through some more possibilities, but none of them seemed right: “Metal shells” might suggest sculptures of seashells. “Artillery shells” presented a level of specificity pointedly withheld in the Arabic, as did “shell casings.” Finally, a family member suggested “munitions.” The word seemed specific enough to mean weaponry, but vague enough to connote any kind of weapon the authorities might possess. Munitions it was.
So there you have it. After hours of puzzlement and careful consideration, six sentences on the page.
One of many things that drew me to The Queue is how it is filled with specific references that resonate for someone who knows recent Egyptian history, while at the same time, it stands firmly on its own as a critique of authoritarianism at large.
I also love how elusive its reality can be: the authorities overtly re-write history in the pages of their government newspaper, The Truth. Characters start out believing one version of events, and then convince themselves of a different one when it suits them. The narration enacts a similar kind of uncertainty, often not directly stating that there have recently been clashes between protesters and security forces. Instead, the reader must hunt for reality, choosing which characters and which documents to believe, and when.
Yet both of these things that I found so compelling when I read the novel in Arabic turned out to be a challenge to recreate for an English-language audience that might not have tear gas on their minds, or readily imagine a government testing new types of weapons against its people. Translation is a tricky balancing act: between the original language and the language in translation; between the author’s intention in the margins and their words on the page; and between a reader familiar with the context and one who isn’t. But that’s what makes it such a delightful puzzle.
Elisabeth Jaquette is the translator of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue and other books. She is the recipient of an English PEN Translates Award and a PEN/Heim Translation Grant, and is also managing director of the American Literary Translators Association. She lived in Cairo from 2007-2013.