By Ashraf El-Ashmawi
It was in the spring of 1927 that Cairo’s attention was captured by the shocking murder of prominent…Read more
Peter Daniel, a long-term resident of Egypt, has worked as a teacher of Arabic as a foreign language and an Arabic-to-English translator for many years. In this interview, he looks at the challenges he faced translating Ashraf El–Ashmawi’s The Lady of Zamalek (Hoopoe, 2021), explains the different narrator voices and the use of glossaries, and tells why Zeinab is his favorite character in the book.
How challenging was the translation of The Lady of Zamalek, in terms of the style, the plot, and the characters?
The Lady of Zamalek is unique in that it alternates five first-person narrators. I’ve read novels that come in three or four parts or books, each devoted to a different narrator. Examples in Arabic literature are al-Rajul alladhi faqad zillihi (The Man Who Lost His Shadow) by Fathy Ghanem and, more popularly, Ihsan Abdel Kouddous’s Anf wa thalath ‘uyun (A Nose and Three Eyes). I’ve also read novels that alternate two narrators. But I’ve never come across five narrators taking turns chapter by chapter, relating events from their own perspective and voicing their own (quite strong and sometimes conflicting) opinions about other characters. El-Ashmawi plays them off against each other in ways that develop the plot like jigsaw puzzle pieces coming together, building the characters and making them vivid, drawing readers into their world, and generating intrigue and suspense. My mission was to make all that happen in English.
Above all, that meant ensuring that each of the narrators had a distinct voice in English. And not just a single voice. These were also voices that evolved as they aged, grew more sophisticated or, perhaps, disillusioned. Nadia the child is not the same as Nadia the romantic “aristocratic” teen or the twice-divorced Nadia who has a shattering revelation about her origins and has to summon the courage to take certain fateful decisions.
The Abbas who is set on making his fortune in 1930s Cairo and will let nothing stand in his way is not the same as Abbas in the 1980s who is worrying about his legacy.
Zeinab quickly loses her rural innocence when she becomes Abbas’s accomplice as Madam Cicurel’s “femme de compagnie” and proceeds to climb the social ladder, though her rural roots will come out no matter how hard she tries to fit in with the Gezira Club elite. But the translator has certain limitations here. I had to make sure that my English renditions of Zeinab’s countrified sayings didn’t transplant her from Egypt’s northern Delta to America’s rural south, and as streetwise as Abbas was and as fluent as he was in Italian, US mobster slang was out of bounds. Sadly, there was never no room for “ain’t” or double negatives. Not that any of this is written in stone.
Did you work closely with the author? How often did you consult with him and what was the process like?
I did consult with the author. This being the Covid era, it mostly involved email communications. After my third draft, I began sending him batches of questions. I think I must have asked around a hundred questions, and he kindly answered them all. They ranged from something about the layout of the basement in the Heart of Palm villa to questions about what exactly was going on in a particular character’s mind at such and such a point. I needed to have these things clear in my mind in order to be able to choose the right words in English for those passages. I found these exchanges very rewarding. El-Ashmawi’s clear and thorough answers opened my eyes to some of the many considerations he bore in mind when crafting his text.
Did you make any suggestions for additions or changes for the English version, for example to elaborate on culturally specific details, whether to the author or the editor working with you on the novel?
Often translators have to “gloss”—to provide a brief explanation or interpretation of a word that doesn’t translate literally or at all. I don’t think they have to consult with the author or editor for such things as long as they don’t change the meaning or spirit of the work.
In literature, glosses have to be as unobtrusive as possible so as not to break the narrative flow. Often this means making a choice: “To gloss or not to gloss.” For example, in The Lady of Zamalek, the characters’ names have literal meanings and the author clearly chose them for their meaning. An example is Adel Ramzy, Tareq’s leftwing cellmate. “Adel” means “just” or “fair,” and “Ramzy” means “symbolic” or “token.” They almost come together as “token justice,” which is interesting given that Adel is behind bars when we first encounter him. But would knowing this make a significant difference to how the reader experiences the novel? I don’t think so. Readers of the novel in Arabic would probably not have stopped to think about Adel’s name because native speakers rarely think about the literal meaning of their names. In English, we usually don’t think of the literal meaning of Mr. Smith, Ms. Carpenter, or Justin for that matter.
But there was a name that I had to deal with because of how it fits in with the plot: Harb. It’s not an uncommon family name. It literally means “war.” It appears in a scene in which Nadia and her husband, Murad, who is rapidly ascending the ranks in military intelligence, are at home watching a soccer match. Suddenly the “red phone” rings. Murad answers and speaks very deferentially to a higher ranking. Then he picks up the normal phone and starts barking orders—to the National team coach, we learn. He tells the coach to make sure the team fought as though their lives depended on it. “The Field Marshal wants to see ‘war’ in the field!” Murad says. When he returns to the TV, Nadia, who only heard his end of the conversation, asks him anxiously whether there really was going to be a war with Israel. He roars with laughter and mocks her for being so naive. Some minutes later, a stunned sportscaster announces that a third string footballer, called Harb, had been called off the bench to replace one of the National team’s star players. It was the first time Harb had ever played in a live match. The National team lost that day.
The incident captures a lot in terms of power relations, including the relations between Murad and Nadia, who is relating the scene. Here I put the gloss in the narrative: “Only later did it click that Harb’s name literally means war.” Ironically, a few weeks later, in June 1967, Egypt would lose in a real war with Israel.
But there were some cases where I did make some changes with the author’s approval. One had to do with how Nadia’s name was spelled on her “birth certificate.” There are two ways to spell it. Using different spellings in English, like Nadya or Nadja, would have meant nothing to an English reader. A gloss in the text to explain the difference and its cultural/class implications would have ended up too long and probably done more to confuse than to clarify. But because of how that document fitted into the plot, I had to come up with a solution. It was to give Nadia a second “middle name,” one that only appeared on that certificate and that no one else knew, including Nadia herself. There’s nothing unusual with Egyptians (and Arabs in general) having long four- or five-word names, even if only three are used on a credit card, for example. I suggested a couple of alternatives. Both were Sephardic Jewish women’s names that drew from the Cicurel family tree and the family’s origin in Ottoman era Turkey in a way that I thought was consistent with a certain mischievous aspect of the novel. The author chose one of them.
Do you have a favorite character in the book?
Zeinab. She’s a very complex and colorful character. She’s also a driving force in the novel. Translating her countrified sayings was a challenge but sort of fun.
When you were working on the translation, would you read your drafts out loud? Is that necessary or important to do?
Not consciously, using my vocal cords. But I think I would read a voice aloud in my head sometimes.
How long did you work on the translation? And did you start translating right away after reading the novel or did you let the story sink in for a while before getting started?
I can’t even begin to estimate how long I waited before I started translating, mostly because I have other things going on at the same time. But it was a long process that required several drafts before I submitted one to AUC Press. This was followed by more revision based on feedback from the editor(s).
In general, however, I just plunge right in and start translating. The first draft is more like a process of discovery anyway. With the subsequent drafts comes what for me is the hard part: making choices. Do I use this synonym or that? Direct speech or indirect speech? To gloss or not to gloss? Should I split the sentence into two? Flip it around?
How different is translating fiction from translating nonfiction?
There’s quite a bit of a difference. Basically, literary translation is a creative process.
What in your opinion makes a good translation?
I read somewhere that a good editor will turn a text into “the best possible version of itself.” I think the same applies to a good translation: it will turn a text in one language into the best possible version of itself in the target language.
Is translation difficult?
“Difficult” may be sort of off-putting at a time when translation should be encouraged, but it’s definitely a challenge. So much is involved, especially when you think how linguistics, communications, sociology, and other disciplines converge. When it comes to literary translation, you might liken it to a pianist interpreting a composition by Bach or Chopin. S/he has so many considerations to bear in mind beyond the notes on the page and technique. Their playing style, phrasing, speed, and so on, would be influenced by the Baroque or Romantic traditions, the composer’s other works, the mood of the period it was written in or, conversely, by the character of their intended audience. No two pianists would interpret the same piece the same way. With literary translation, beyond the mechanics of the languages, there’s context, register, cultural factors, and other non-linguistic considerations, not least the target audience. All these things influence one’s choices of vocabulary and structure. In general, it’s an ongoing learning process.