Chip Rossetti on Translating "Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers" by Bahaa Abdelmegid

In our ongoing effort to both make translators more visible, and to provide as much interesting information about international literature as possible, we’re launching a new semi-regular series in which translators talk about something they recently worked on. This could take a few different forms—why they chose to champion this particular work, what interesting translation conundrum they ran into, etc.

The first piece in this series is by Arabic scholar and translator Chip Rossetti and his recent translation of Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers by Bahaa Abdelmegid, which was recently publishing by American University in Cairo Press.

Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers by Bahaa Abdelmedig. Translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti. (Egypt, AUC Press)

When Chad asked me if I’d like to write about why I chose to translate two short novels, Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers, by the Egyptian author Bahaa Abdelmegid, I had to think for a minute. To be honest, I didn’t initially set out to translate either book in its entirety. In the fall of 2008, I was taking a graduate school seminar on literary translation, and was looking for a final project—a chunk of a novel or some short stories I could sink my teeth into. I approached my former colleagues at the AUC Press to ask if they had any novels on their “wish list” of Arabic fiction that still needed a translator. As it turned out, Bahaa Abdelmegid’s novel Saint Theresa was at the top of their list.

I found it an engaging story about the interlocking lives of four characters during the Sadat era in Egypt, particularly the coming of age of two young women who were childhood friends. One of the characters is a sympathetically portrayed Egyptian Jew, who had turned down the Mossad’s overtures to him to spy for Israel, but who finds himself under suspicion by the authorities after the Six Day War. It also touches on the emergence of radical Islam in the 1970s and relations between Copts and Muslims. The anchoring image in the book is the church of Saint Theresa in the lower-class neighborhood of Shubra where the characters grow up. (Saint Theresa’s is an actual church—in fact, there’s a Cairo Metro station named after it.) The novel ends with a violent death and a miraculous pregnancy, the latter perhaps caused by an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the church steeple, which draws neighborhood crowds. The author is clearly alluding to a famous apparition of the Virgin that occurred nightly at the top of another Cairo church for a few years during the late 1960s. Thousands of Egyptians—both Muslims and Copts—claimed to have seen it, including then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

After I had translated the opening chapters for the course, AUC Press asked me if I would be interested in translating the rest of the novel. And if so, would I also be interested in translating another short novel by the same author? The second novel turned out to be Sleeping with Strangers, which was set partly in present-day Egypt, and partly in Boston. As a native Bostonian who lived for a few years in post-September-11th Cairo, I was immediately hooked.

But despite (or rather because of) the familiar terrain, Sleeping with Strangers posed its own translation problems. The protagonist of the novel is Basim, an Egyptian ne’er-do-well and womanizer who comes to the U.S. to study, but drops out of college and is eventually imprisoned and deported back to Egypt. I liked the novel, but it had some descriptions of American society and culture that struck me as a bit off-key—details that wouldn’t register for a non-American reader, but would raise an eyebrow in English translation. For example, at one point Basim is imprisoned for failure to pay alimony to his American ex-wife, and is only released when a family friend pays money to “the American authorities.” That plot point struck me as a little implausible, and sent me looking up the current state of divorce law in the U.S.. (Although debtor’s prisons are long gone, Basim’s failure to pay alimony could conceivably be ruled contempt of court, which could explain his jail time. So no harm done, I thought.)

When translating fiction, you’re usually wrestling over “domestication” versus “foreignization”—about how exotic you want to keep a story set in a different cultural and historical milieu. Do you go out of your way to make a text seem familiar and domestic, or do you err on the side of letting undigestible Arabic terms remain in the text? As the amazing blog “Arabic Literature (in English)”:http://arablit.wordpress.com/ “asked recently”:http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/how-do-you-translate-inshaallah-foreignizing-vs-exoticizing-the-text/#comments, how do you translate insh’allah into English? When Arabic speakers drop insh’allah into daily conversation, they are rarely using it in a religious sense, so translating it as “God willing” in English may make your characters seem more pious than they really are. In this case, however, the foreign elements were mixed up with a setting—downtown Boston, Harvard Square—that was distinctly domestic.

I didn’t want to turn myself into a cultural gatekeeper, telling the author that he needed to tweak plot points for the English translation, but I did want to make sure the American elements in the novel were at least plausible for American readers. Early in the novel, for example, Basim takes his more naïve Egyptian cousin, Nadir—who is also visiting the U.S. as an exchange student—to a sauna, where both sexes steam themselves fully unclothed, and Nadir is shocked to find a couple fondling each other across from him. The scene highlights Nadir’s culture shock as a modest young Egyptian (and emphasizes how American Basim has become during his time in the States), but it struck me as very unrealistic. (Although my hometown has plenty of local color, I’m almost certain that Boston has no co-ed naked saunas.)

Similarly vexing issues involved one of the most interesting characters in the novel: Basim’s cell-mate, a radical black nationalist named Mado who preaches about the Black Messiah (although he is portrayed as surprisingly uninformed about Islam.) Offended by images of Jesus as a white man, Mado had made a name for himself by going into museums and flinging mud at European religious paintings. He was eventually arrested, Mado tells Basim, for insulting Christianity. While it’s certainly possible to take someone to court for “insulting Christianity”: http://news.egypt.com/en/2010050610665/news/-egypt-news/egypt-christians-want-action-on-insulting-novel.html or “Islam”: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/07/the_nights_tale in Egypt, the conviction seemed bizarre in an American context. I suggested to Abdelmegid that an easy fix was to simply say that Mado was arrested for defacing artwork—hurling mud at a painting in a museum would certainly qualify for a stint in prison. For all my concerns about believability, though, the author reminded me that much of what Mado was telling Basim about himself was to be taken with a grain of salt: perhaps he was exaggerating to impress his cellmate, or was mentally unstable. It is a work of fiction, after all. Although there were other places where the author was happy to correct minor issues of “fact” about the American setting, there were some instances—such as Mado’s unreliable version of events—that needed no interference from me. It was a useful reminder of the limits of my role as translator, and of course, the fact that fictional characters are entitled to their own skewed views of the world.

It was exactly that kind of back-and-forth with the author that made translating these novels so enjoyable. Translating literature, I’ve found, is like trying to construct a replica of a building using very different material, like remaking a sandcastle out of two-by-fours: you hope to get the basic structure and architectural features right, but inevitably the material won’t curve the way the original did, or have the same seamless texture. There’s always a fine line between the task of reconstructing a text in another language so that it can speak for itself, and imposing your own views on it. I hope I veered closer to the former than to the latter with Bahaa Abdelmegid’s novels.

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