Court Jesters and Black Mirrors: Translator Alex Elinson on Bringing Moroccan Literature into English

Episode 6 of the Bulaq podcast was built — among other things — on a talk by Moroccan novelist Youssef Fadel and conversations with translator Alex Elinson:In that episode, ArabLit’s M. Lynx Qualey & Arabist’s Ursula Lindsey discuss Moroccan literature about the country’s “years of lead” and its formidable and ruthless former king Hassan II; and about the relationship between humour, fear and power. Here, a longer discussion with Elinson, who has translated Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Meand is at work on his A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me, as well as Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc.

How did you discover Youssef Fadel?

Youssef Fadel and Alex Elinson, speaking in Rabat.

Alex Elinson: I first encountered Youssef’s writing through a research project I was working on that dealt with the use of darija, or Moroccan Arabic, in writing. While digging around for information, a name that kept coming up was Youssef Fadel. People said he was very keen on experimenting with darija in writing. So, I started to look at his works through that lens.

I started with the novel Hashish, and after that Metro Muhal and Hadiqet al-Haywanat. I was told that those works in particular contained large amounts of darija, so I checked them out, and, beyond the language issue, I was really taken by both the creativity and the experimental aspect of them, as well as the writing style. I started to read more and more of his works, including the book that I eventually translated, A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, and the subsequent book, A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me. I fell in love with his style, and I decided—whether consciously or not—to start translating his work.

I’m now devoting most of my time, when I’m not teaching, to translating.

What made you want to shift toward translation, and particularly why did you want to bring Youssef Fadel’s books into English?

AE: First and foremost, I think Youssef’s a wonderful writer. I could say it’s because he’s one of the most important writers in Morocco today—in the writing community, he’s very well established and respected, described at a recent event by a fellow Moroccan writer as ‘a national treasure.’ So even before talking about bringing his novels into English, I wish Youssef’s novels were read more in their original Arabic inside Morocco. There is always a lot of complaining among writers and intellectuals about how Moroccans don’t read, especially young ones. Although I do think this can be overstated at times (the complaint sometimes takes on a “young people these days” tone), it is true that writers feel like no one’s buying or reading their work, except for other writers, and that non-writers have never heard of them.They complain that bookstores don’t work hard enough at promotion, editors aren’t working hard enough with authors and bookstores, etc. Youssef Fadel is a well-established writer in Morocco who, in my opinion, as well as in the opinion of critics and others, is one of the most important writers working in Morocco today. As far as why I want to bring his books into English? I think they’re great novels. It’s great writing. As I’ve said before, while his writing is very ‘local’ dealing with local places, issues, concerns, and challenges, many of these hyper local concerns are universal – finding love in a loveless world, trying to make sense of illogical and capricious social, economic, and political systems, trying to laugh in the face of tragedy, the sometimes very difficult task of asserting one’s humanity. Aren’t these all issues and themes we, as people, face? They’re not specific to Morocco.

As perhaps the closest reader White Cat’s had, what do you think is special about it?

Photo credit: Mustapha Ait Ouadi, The Moroccan- American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange

AE: What’s special about that work is what I think is special about Youssef’s style in general. He’s a very theatrical writer, and I can’t remember if I had a chance to ask him at our event the other day in Rabat, whether he thinks that he writes novels the way he does because he’s written for cinema, for television, for the theatre. But I feel that, when I’m reading his works, that I’m watching something.

When the book starts out, it’s as if we’re watching a play. He presents each character one by one, as if each one is walking out onto a stage, spotlight fixed on them. That’s something that really appeals to me. His writing is also very descriptive, very precise. I think those aspects come through in all of his writings.

What sets A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me apart from the other books in the trilogy is how funny it is. And it’s totally logical that this should be a funny novel. There are two narrators: one is a political satirist and the other is a clown, or jester. The other two novels in the series are not funny in the least, and that would make sense too, because one of them is about political prison and forced disappearance, and the other is a doomed love story. Not too much room for laughter there.

Is there anything different about how you’re translating the third one, Farah (Joy), which is being translated, as you said at the event Monday, as A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me?

AE: I don’t think that I’m translating it any differently—obviously I’m not making much of an effort to be funny in it. But I’m using the same process.

What I’m noticing, though, now that I’ve already translated a novel, I’m feeling more comfortable and confident. And having read a number of Youssef’s works, but especially having translated one of them, I really feel that I’m getting to know how his style works—and what he does and how he does it structurally, stylistically, and linguistically.

Now that I’ve closely engaged with his writing, I’ve think I’ve developed a much keener sensitivity to his style and its different uses of voice and tone—sometimes using short, simple, clipped sentences in certain passages where characters are in emotionally challenging situations, where honest or deeply reflective expression is difficult, and other times providing long, luscious, descriptive passages when called for. Having lived with Youssef’s writing now for some years, I’m finding it much easier to recognize those shifts and express them appropriately in English.

Can we talk about translating humor? Often, humor can be very context-specific and difficult to move from one language to another. Jonathan Wright, for instance, has talked about how he removed a joke from Khaled Khamissi’s Taxi that he just couldn’t replicate in English. How did you work with the humor? Did you try it out on people? How did you know if you were being funny?

Photo credit: Mustapha Ait Ouadi, The Moroccan- American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange

AE: The words that I fear more than anything when I’m talking to someone in Arabic is, ‘I have a joke.’ They’ll tell the joke, I’ll understand all the words, and I won’t react. Then they’ll tell it again. I’ll understand it, but I still won’t laugh. Humor is a minefield! So much is contextual.

I just find Youssef’s writing funny. It’s inherently funny, and he actually makes me laugh like not many people do, in his writing, and in person. It’s not obscure humor. It’s not very locally contextualized humor, I think. If I had to characterize his type of humor, I’d call it ‘situational’ (for a lack of a better word; I’m a big fan of comedy, but don’t possess a specialized vocabulary to talk about it). What’s funny are the situations his characters find themselves in and the ways they react to those situations, and to one another. There’s a wit and a sarcasm that I understand, that I think is universal. I did have multiple people read various drafts of the translation, people who don’t know Arabic, and are not too familiar with the Moroccan context, and if there was something that didn’t read well, humorous or otherwise, I’d tweak it. To be honest, most of the time it wasn’t the humor that posed the greatest challenges. Perhaps it’s a combination of Fadel’s innate humor and my appreciation of it, that allowed me to translate it. I wasn’t that worried about that aspect of the translation. I’m glad you found it funny, too!

And have you read Mahi Binebine’s Le fou de roi (2017), which also focuses around the same court-jester figure?

AE: I have it in hand, and I would love to read it. It would be wonderful, just for fun, to read it alongside A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, because they both deal with the king’s jester, the king’s personal comedian. Binebine’s novel is based on a true story, which is his father, who was indeed the king’s jester.

In A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, which was written first, and is entirely a work of fiction, we have a father-son team—or rather not a team, they’re estranged. The son is doing his military service, and the father’s in the palace. In Binebine’s book, we have a father-son relationship where the son, in this case, was imprisoned in Tazmamart for eighteen years.
It would be interesting to see how each of these writers did it—one based on personal family experience and the other based on his imagination.

I don’t know if Youssef Fadel had Binebine’s story in mind as he wrote the novel. I have asked him—and he says, No, not really. He says it’s totally from his imagination. It’s based on things Moroccans have heard, but he didn’t take it directly from the Binebine story. The parallels are interesting nonetheless. Both are about a father and son. Both talk about the father and his role as the king’s jester/buffoon. Both include a father-son drama and in both, the father and son are estranged – in Fadel because the father had left the family years before whereas in Binebine because the son had taken part in a failed coup against the king and ended up in Tazmamart prison, father had to cut all ties.

Did you ever think Youssef Fadel doesn’t have the right to tell this story—this isn’t his story, it’s Binebine’s story?

AE: No, that never occurred to me.

A writer writes what he or she knows and is most familiar with. For many Moroccans of a certain age (over 55?), the story of Hassan the conscript in the Saharan conflict and certain aspects of palace life under King Hassan II would be familiar. As we’ve talked about before, these three latest novels (A Beautiful White Cat, A Rare Blue Bird, and Farah) focus mainly on Morocco during the 1980s, using different lenses that Moroccans are intimately familiar with to examine Moroccan society during that period (Sahara/the palace, prison and disappearance, the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca). These are all symbols that belong to all Moroccans.

In asking the question, I don’t know if you’re thinking about Tahar Ben Jelloun, where there was a lot of criticism about whether or not he should have written This Blinding Absence of Light based on Aziz Binebine, a real person’s experience. I’m not going to weigh in on that, but I think that’s different. That debate had its roots, I think, in many other issues including Ben Jelloun’s writing in French, living in French, discussions of a writer’s responsibility to engage in politics, what that engagement should look like, etc.

In A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me, that’s all about forced disappearance, and I think in that book, he was trying to convey a general Moroccan history through one character in one prison cell—probably drawing on all the things he had read and heard (in memoirs, testimonials, hearings, from friends and colleagues)—and I don’t think it’s improper for a writer to draw from any wells they need to draw from. Not only did Youssef spend some time in prison, but his story drew from what I would consider to be the ‘public record’ – his own experience, his memories, countless tales and testimonies that came out during and after the Lead Years.

Help me understand the censorship context. My understanding is that we’re not meant to talk about the king or the Sahara. Yet White Cat does both.

AE: I’m not sure one isn’t allowed to talk about them, but there are certain things you don’t really question or criticize. Everyone talks about the king, but you can’t talk about him in a certain context. And the Sahara, I’m not 100 percent clear on where the lines are with that issue, but there’s a lot of leeway, I think. In fact, I’m not sure anyone knows where those lines are, and that’s a deliberate government strategy that encourages much self-censorship.

I asked Youssef that direct question, Did you face any problems on publication, and his answer was a simple, No.

He spent some time in prison in the seventies for a play that he wrote, that the regime felt was arrest-worthy, and he said, very clearly, I’ve done my time in prison—what are they going to do with me?

You were also talking about translating Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc.

AE: I’m fully at work translating Hot Maroc.

I think that this novel, Hot Maroc, is one of the few successful works by younger Moroccan novelists. Most well-known novelists in Morocco are over 60 years old and write about a Morocco that might seem quite distant and unfamiliar to younger readers. Yassin Adnan is a younger voice who depicts a Morocco and a generation that we haven’t heard about, or from, too much.

What do you like about it?

AE: Maybe I’m drawn to books that are funny, but it’s humorous throughout. What I’m very impressed with is how much is in that novel. It takes place in Marrakesh—and he infuses it with a lot of Marrakshi cultural and political history, nods to folklore, current popular culture, political commentary, discussions of the social pressures that young people today face. It’s laugh out loud funny and heart-wrenching at the same time.

I think what makes it so unique is that it is a young, fresh voice, and it’s talking about the dawning of the internet age, and the way that the internet comes into people’s lives and changes their lives.

It’s almost like a historical document of very recent history, of how the internet is affecting human society and interactions. It literally changed the way I was clicking, day to day. Quite frankly, I’ve not read a book like it in Arabic or otherwise. There are certain aspects of it that made me think of Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but it really is quite unique.

Who do you think the novel will appeal to in an English readership? A Black Mirroraudience?

AE: I do hope this reaches beyond the “Arabic literature in translation” crowd—people who are interested not just in what’s happening in Morocco, but what’s happening everywhere around the world. Yes, the Black Mirror crowd.

It’s not just about Morocco, or Marrakech, or Moroccan politics, or Arab cultural and literary history. It’s about the disconnect between political discourse and life on the ground; how young people interact in a world where spaces to interact are limited; where participation in democratic processes is both encouraged and controlled by political parties.

What stage are you at?

AE: I’ve got a chunk of it done. I’m working on it very differently than I did A Beautiful White Cat, or that I did Farah or Joy

—The Shimmering Red Fish.

AE: Yes, The Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me. Yassin Adnan’s English is very good, and it’s more his initiative than my own, to really be involved in the translation. It’s a different process. What I’ve been doing with Youssef’s books is—I read the novel, I like the novel, and then I go back to the beginning and I start translating.

With Yassin’s book, I read the novel, I liked the novel, then started to translate it in parts. I will translate something as accurately and cleanly as I can, and then I’ll send him a chunk, he’ll look through it, and he’ll make comments and criticisms and suggestions.

You don’t find that more difficult? With the author involved?

AE: I wouldn’t say we’ve had arguments, but we’ve had discussions about certain things. Generally, I trust him. Working with Youssef Fadel has been a wonderful experience, and I’m lucky that he is always available to answer questions of context or meaning when necessary. Working with Yassin has been a very different wonderful experience, and I’m learning a great deal from it. There are things he knows much better than I do linguistically and contextually (for example words or phrases that relate to the classical literary or religious tradition, very local references to places and history), and there are things in English, and in an English-language reading context that I know much better. We hash these things out as we go along, always keeping in mind and respecting where the other is more of the expert.

I have mostly found it enriching, rather than difficult.

I’ve heard from several authors that Hot Maroc was a book they enjoyed last year.

AE: It may be difficult to impossible to get sales figures in Morocco, but, according to Yassin it’s done quite well. It went through an unprecedented two printings in its first six months in Morocco with Dar Fennec, and two printings in Egypt in a year with Dar El Ain. Yes, it’s caused some buzz, obviously outside of Morocco as well, and for that reason I’m hopeful that it will find similar success in English. If it can reach beyond the borders of Morocco in Arabic, and it is such a localized novel in many ways, then I don’t see why it can’t also be successful with a wider audience in English.

Alexander Elinson is a literary translator and an associate professor of Arabic at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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