Interview on Translation with André Naffis-Sahely

André Naffis-Sahely

A.  How did you first get into translation?

A.N.S Translation never really existed for me until I had to make a living; I dropped out of secondary school at fifteen, then spent my early twenties in and out of universities until I started to work as a literary translator, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Three or four novels a year. Yet before all that, I simply read books in the languages I was fluent in and I didn’t think it worth considering whether a text had to be read in its original language or not.I grew up in Abu Dhabi, where unless you liked pulp sci-fi and Milss & Boon novels, you were in trouble. Still, there was always an odd stack of cheaply-bound Rupa classics stashed away somewhere: Balzac, Tolstoy, Zola. The annual book fair brought a few regional publishers to town, and so I’d walk out of the big white tents with an armful of AUC Press titles: Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Tawfiq al-Hakim. When I couldn’t find anything decent to read, my mother usually found a solution. Thanks to her, I happily read Isaac Bashevis Singer in Italian and Natalia Ginzburg in English. Macaronic confusion perhaps, but I never minded it. I was lucky, my mother had excellent taste.

A. What is the most challenging aspect of translating literature?

A.N.S Getting people to care. The politics of trying to get a translation commissioned and the politics of getting it reviewed once it has been miraculously printed. Translating canonized writers like Balzac and Zola proved fairly straightforward: they’re solid ‘brands’ and authors like them have been translated by dozens of very competent people. When it comes to writers of colour, or politically uncomfortable ones – or, god forbid, both – the situation changes dramatically. I spend most of my time convincing editors to take a chance on books that shouldn’t really require much championing. Publishers should help, but they largely don’t. Generally risk-averse, specialist translation imprints have hollowed out a fairly comfortable niche for themselves: they get 90% of the profits for 10% of the work, often largely funding their operations – and their salaries – through grants that they don’t even personally apply for. If it wasn’t for publicly-funded arts bodies and organizations such as PEN, I wouldn’t have been able to work on most of the books I’ve translated. That’s a fact. Everyone wants to be open and inclusive, but nobody wants to pay for it. It’s the biggest roadblock to translating living, non-canonized, non-Western writers, especially poets. Let’s not even get started with the gender imbalance. When it comes to the challenges of the actual translation process itself, I’ve never been partial to any of the theory built around translation: much of the process, I find, is intuitive. That said, regardless of whether the authors I’ve translated have been ‘dead and canonized’, or ‘living and established’, or even simply ‘emerging’, I must put myself to the same test: ‘can I do their texts justice?’. I’ve translated twenty-one books, and except for three commissions, I ‘hand-picked’ all my authors on the basis of whether my own peculiar idiosyncrasies would complement their own. I’ve probably failed miserably.

A. Are there differences between translating fiction, non- fiction and poetry?

A.N.S If there are, they don’t interest me. As Robert Lowell said: ‘one life, one writing’. I probably enjoy translating poetry more than fiction or non-fiction, but that’s got nothing to do with the process itself. Just my personal inclinations. That said, if I’d only translated poetry, I would have starved. I do believe translators should also be writers, and they should also be very informed about the specific genre they are working within. I’ve translated fiction, non-fiction and poetry, but I wouldn’t try my hand at a play. While I love the theatre, I feel I can only appreciate it as a spectator, and thus feel I would lack the requisite insights to translate a play as effectively as I should. One can always learn, of course.

A. What translated work are you most proud of?

A.N.S I’m proud of all of them – albeit for wholly different reasons – but each book or author certainly left an indelible impression. Nobody made me laugh like Balzac (The Physiology of the Employee), while Zola made me melancholy and morose (Money). Rashid Boudjedra (The Barbary Figs) dragged me down the rabbit hole of European colonialism in North Africa and Abdellatif Laâbi (Beyond The Barbed Wire) lifted me out of it. I learned a great deal from all the others too, but Alessandro Spina was perhaps the author I most wanted to meet, but he died the same week I signed a contract to translate him, meaning I’m probably most proud of The Confines of the Shadow.

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