TRANSLATING MULTIVOCALITY – on Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus

Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel (eds.) Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus translated by Robert Moger and Georgina Collins (I.B. Tauris, 2013)

by Anikó Szilágyi

The importance of translation to this book strikes you the moment you open it, or possibly even before, when you read the subtitle. Although the translators’ names don’t appear on the front cover, there is a note before the copyright page explaining that the project was supported by English PEN, and the translators, Robin Moger (Arabic to English, five chapters) and Georgina Collins (French to English, one chapter), are named on the opposite page. They are listed as contributors, and their biographies appear straight after those of the authors. Reading these fills me with confidence. A friend once suggested that the question we should all ask when we start reading a piece is: “Who is this bastard, and why is he lying to me?” While I agree that this is an excellent approach to take to fiction, when it comes to history or biography I like to start off with at least a degree of confidence in the writer. I trust the authors of Writing Revolution because they speak from experience, and I trust the translators because they are experts in their respective fields. Moger worked in Egypt as a journalist, translator and interpreter for six years. Collins published the first anthology of Francophone African women’s poetry, The Other Half of History (Heaventree Press, 2007). They are not new to translating marginalised voices.

There are two main reasons why this volume is particularly interesting from a translation perspective. The first one is the connection with English PEN, whose motto is “Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read.” They are committed to defending and promoting free expression through literature worldwide and translation is integral to their work. They “celebrate writing of merit and courage through introducing UK audiences to new and acclaimed authors and awarding prizes for achievement.” Just as English PEN’s agenda is not exclusively literary, the issue of translation – of this book in particular – is not merely an aesthetic concern. It is clear from the beginning of Writing Revolution that problems of translation inform how it was written and how it is read. The editors mention in the preface that for most of the contributors “it is the first time their work has been published in English translation.” So in a sense translation is not merely a tool that has been used to produce this volume, it is the core of the whole project. This book has not been written because what the authors say has not been said before. It has: on websites and blogs, in journal articles, political leaflets, speeches. This is not the first time the authors have spoken, but what they have said needs to be made available to an English audience. Scepticism of mainstream media reportage is a recurring theme throughout the book, and issues of representation and the possibility of misrepresentation are moral concerns that have also been central to literary criticism and translation theory for a long time. In the editors’ words, “[a]t times there was a clear effort made to engage people on the ground, but the dominant voices discussing the uprisings in most English-language media came from an elite group of professional ”experts,” often commenting far from the battles taking place in the streets. This book aims to correct that.”

In the introduction Samar Yazbek talks about how social media and other online platforms have changed the media: “In this new environment, priority is given to the rapid reporting and assimilation of unfolding events; what is important is then filtered out, and a space for debate is created, in which public opinion might take form.” What is interesting is that the process of news reporting described here mirrors the process of translation that has produced these very words. The nuances and multiple possible interpretations of Yazbek’s Arabic were carefully considered by Moger in the process of searching for an English rendition, which highlights the similarities between news and translated texts as the results of selection. There is much at stake in this selection process in political terms, including the strictest sense of the term “political,” as related to the running of a state. Engagement is a moral imperative, and Ali Aldairy, one of the contributors who is both a theorist and an activist, “explains his rage against the intellectuals who pretend neutrality but show no empathy with the pain and injustice suffered by the people.“ Yazbek introduces Aldairy’s account of the Bahraini uprising with these words, but they can also be seen to implicitly demand engagement from the translator during the very political act of translating. This is a book of memoirs, which, despite having much in common with fiction, differ from it significantly in that they make explicit assertions: “this is what happened.” The authors of this volume act through writing: they speak from the heart of the revolutions, and they want to make a very specific difference through their work, which includes exposing historical injustices. It is the translators’ ethical duty to respect their goals, and they do. Collins is not afraid to add footnotes to her translation from the French, including a footnote explaining who Jean-Paul Sartre was. It might be an aesthetically objectionable solution, inelegant, patronising even, but in spite of their lyricism these pieces are non-fiction, understanding is paramount, and mistaking truth for art dangerous.

The relationship of fiction and reality is another persistent idea that runs through the book, with statements like ”now, after a civil war of 30 years, a hundred years, as though in a Greek tragedy we’re forbidden from talking about our misfortune,“ and ”it was the  experience of prison literature, the literature of human tragedy.“ But Khawla Dunia points out that the resemblance is illusory when she talks about “scenes which remind us of the republic of fear in George Orwell’s 1984, the difference being that the Syrian Republic is real and its rulers unleash still greater terror within its borders.”

However, paradoxically, not understanding is also important to this volume, not understanding who “they” are in Ghania Mouffok’s essay on Algeria, searching for answers in vain: “Even the CIA doesn’t understand a thing. Tell me, who’s in charge of Algeria, this tired country, tired, exhausted and exhausting? I swear no one knows anything about it, anything at all.” Translation serves communication, but sometimes what it needs to communicate is the lack of understanding itself.

The second point of interest is the subtitle, The Voices from Tunis to Damascus. The definite article makes the subtitle even more problematic for the translation theorist, as it implies a totality of voices, the full range, if you will, whereas Voices from Tunis to Damascus could refer to just a few. This book exists to give silenced people voices who “are used to enduring their fears in secret, fearful of giving voice to them; they are used to letting their hearts speak without moving their lips.” But how can we speak of a plurality of voices in a volume where five out of the eight chapters were translated from the Arabic by the same person? This voice might represent different perspectives, but doesn’t it belong to the translator, who chooses the words to be printed, rather than to the authors? Theorists love problems like this; when they see one they sink their teeth into it and refuse to let go. Let’s look at the question from a more practical perspective, and view the plurality of source voices (expression coined by myself) not as a problem but as an opportunity for the translator to shine. It doesn’t matter whose voice the target text is in, as long as the multiplicity is preserved.[1] The question then becomes, ”Do we hear different voices in the translated chapters?”

The volume opens with Malek Sghiri’s gripping account of his participation in the Tunisian revolution as an activist and student leader. The English is smooth but contains some reminders that the text was originally in Arabic, such as “the sad Tunisia whose sufferings we bore in our palms each morning.” The phrase is foreign-sounding but perfectly understandable, as if it was a metaphor that just happens to be missing from English, an “accidental gap,” to borrow a term from linguistics. Bilingual chants fulfil a similar function: “Ya shahid irtah irtah, sanuwassil al-kifah! Sleep easy, martyr, we will continue the fight!” The tone is honest and personal, and yet composed and down-to-earth. Emotions are explained rationally, coolly; the fact of physical suffering is stated but not dwelled on. Sghiri doesn’t play on the reader’s sympathy, which is why it is sometimes hard to keep up a sympathetic attitude, to remind ourselves that there is a difference between this and the countless films involving torture we’ve seen, that this is real.

Ghania Mouffok’s piece about Algeria has none of the composed chronological rigour of Sghiri’s story. There is less action and more reflection. “It’s my head that rebels, weary of writing the same old story, the story of all this miserable conflict and resistance,” Mouffok explains. The English is full of contractions, which we tend to associate with the spoken word rather than a carefully crafted piece of writing. This must have been a conscious decision on the part of the translator, as contractions in French are stylistically neutral. But this isn’t at odds with the seriousness of the subject, because Mouffok’s is a passionate voice, and just as moving as Sghiri’s. It could be argued that, much like Plato’s beds and tables, the target text is twice removed from reality: the French is already translation, the lingua franca of Algeria, whose official language is Arabic. But language is not reality, and it is often insufficient to express experience. Mouffok struggles with words when she receives good news:

“Mabrouk alef mabrouk,” I said to him stupidly, “Congratulations,” as if he was celebrating his marriage. “Yau, yau, yau!” […]  I don’t have the words in Arabic to celebrate political victories.”

Mouffok also writes for the West, addressing the Western reader specifically, which makes the translation from French to English less ideologically problematic than an English translation of a text originally aimed at a non-Western readership.

Sghiri’s account is action-packed and his voice is that of the intelligent thinker and the activist, while Mouffok responds to events emotionally, and expresses her anger and confusion. This may sound like the gender stereotypes of the rational male and the emotional female, but not all voices fit into this scheme. Khawla Dunia’s language is less exciting, perhaps because she wants to let the facts speak for themselves. After a slightly formally experimental beginning (short sections of one paragraph each) she presents ideas and describes events in a rather dry manner. She analyses, but the analysis is not as comprehensive, clear and enlightening as Sghiri’s. It is difficult to determine the level of engagement, except when she recounts the detention of her husband. Emotions, where present, are reported objectively, and they are rarely the emotions of an individual. “I was a stranger in a strange city, standing in the middle of a strange street, at a demonstration surrounded by strangers. Fear brought us together.” There is little of Dunia in the text; she refuses to get personal. “Today I took a photograph of one of the dead. He took a bullet in the head. I didn’t know his name.” Occasionally the moderation becomes almost offensive, in phrases like “the situation as it stands is deeply worrying, “ and “the situation is sad, depressing even.” This makes me want to shout:  Children are dying and you can’t think of a better adjective than “sad”? How about “tragic”? “heart-breaking”? “unbearable”? Her words make up coherent sentences, and yet make less sense than Mouffok’s confusion. The optimistic note on which the piece ends is hardly convincing, but I understand why the editors would choose something like this to round up the volume.

I could go on, but the above is sufficient to show that uniformisation, which is one of the potential dangers of a single translator translating most of an edited collection, has been successfully avoided in Writing Revolution. It is an interesting book for the translator and the translation theorist, but the target audience is of course much broader, and includes everyone who distrusts media representations of the Arab Spring, and is interested in hearing the other side (or, rather, sides) of the story.


[1] I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t speak Arabic and can’t compare source and target – I suppose in theory it would be possible to reproduce multivocality by consistently falsifying each voice, but let’s give the translator the benefit of the doubt.

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