Wiam El-Tamami | Interview

Wiam El-Tamami & Ted Hodgkinson

TH: The winning story depicts a world plagued with isolation and foreboding. We are introduced to a moving carousel of characters who are locked into their own private realities, some of them darker than others. One features a blind giant roaming a city blighted by perpetual daylight. I couldn’t help reading the story as an allegory for totalitarian suppression, specifically the way that subjects of such systems rely on imaginative inner worlds to sustain themselves. Do you see a comment on tyranny in this story?

WET: Interesting that you read it in that way – I didn’t, personally. For me the story was a mood to savour and sink into, rather than something that required exhaustive analysis. It’s a rich and evocative piece – I just let it roll around inside of me and set off whatever resonances it may, without coming to a conclusion about ‘what it means’. I preferred to leave it open, and I wanted to make sure my translation did too. It might be tempting to associate any art coming out of an Arab country nowadays with the extraordinary chain of events that’s ricocheting across the Arab world. I think there’s a danger in doing that too much: to reduce people to mere products of a political system, rather than seeing them in the full splendour and squalor of their humanity!

Arabic is a language with a very different flow to English. Are there particular challenges for translating between these two languages, do you think?

Oh yes, plenty! In Arabic writing there’s a tendency towards long, rambling sentences that can run on for a whole paragraph. A common stylistic device is to string together lists of synonyms, ‘She was stunning and dazzling and ravishing’ and, in general, to repeat the same information multiple times in different ways. This is seen to lend power to the writing, but in English it’s just tiresome. A translator has to be bold and creative: take this mass of meaning, whittle away all the redundancy, and transpose it into different structures – shorter, more digestible units with a rhythm and flow that works in English. Arabic writing is usually far more florid than contemporary English-language writing, so that too that needs to be pared down in order for it not to come off sounding stilted. But there’s a twist: individual Arabic words are jam-packed with a range of nuances that is often impossible to convey with a single word equivalent in English. Herein lies the tension – you need to prune and streamline the text in order for it to be readable, but you have to add more words to keep it faithful! So you see, translators tread a tricky tightrope between capturing the full implications of the Arabic while creating an English text that flows smoothly and doesn’t sound overwrought, dated, or downright melodramatic. That’s just the introductory acrobatics. Now you have to make it actually enjoyable to read . . .

Have you detected a sea change in the writing you have seen since the Arab Spring? Do you think it is likely to create a new freedom of expression in the countries that have overcome dictatorship? Is writing still a place where anti-government sentiment can be expressed effectively?

I think it’s too soon to tell. One thing that’s definitely been noticeable in Egypt, particularly Cairo, is the outburst of public art in a country that used to have precious little. Now there’s street art popping up all over the city, a monthly art & music festival held simultaneously in public squares across Egypt, a mobile open-mic event that travels around Egyptian towns, etc. Having said that, we are slowly realizing that the overthrow of Mubarak was not the end of the revolution, dust hands off, mission accomplished – but just the beginning of a long and complex struggle. The interim military council is acting in ways that smack of the old regime. Since February, 12,000 civilians have been thrown in jail, many tortured, thousands sentenced before military tribunals that make a mockery out of the justice system. A law has been passed criminalizing protests and strikes. A blogger, Michael Nabil Sanad, was handed a three-year jail sentence for writing a post critical of the military, and is now dying on hunger strike. There’s a long road ahead.

Do you feel an added responsibility or urgency, given the changes occurring in the Arab world, to transmit the work of writers that might carry a comment on what is going on at the moment?

I have to say, not particularly: for the reasons mentioned above – we’re in this for the long haul – but also because I don’t see literature as a vehicle for transmitting commentary on a socio-political situation. That, to my mind, is the task of journalism. When it comes to literature, my preferences tend towards the humanist and universal rather than overtly political and temporal.

Do you write yourself? What are you working on at the moment?

‘I grew up in a yellow place where nothing grows, and I’ve been travelling slowly since.’ That’s a line from a story I wrote some years ago and I apologise profusely for quoting myself, very bad form I know, but it’s a handy shortcut that explains a little about how I see the world and myself in it. I’ve lived in several countries and wandered through quite a few others, and I’m working on a collection of short stories based on these ‘slow travels’. It’s about encounters: a truck driver I hitched a ride with in the mountains of north Lebanon; an old woman with a cleaver and a painted face dishing up chao ga at a street food stall in Danang, Vietnam; a red velvet chair in a hotel in Toulouse called ‘Le Grand Voyageur’. . .

What does winning the Harvill Secker Translation Prize mean to you?

At the moment I’m primarily an editor of novels in translation. I think this award will encourage me to focus more on translating myself. It’s already been very interesting for the tables to be turned, to suddenly be at the mercy of others wielding that dreaded red pen – feels like my karmic reckoning! In all seriousness though, I’m just excited to meet and chat, to collaborate and create – to do more and more of the kind of work I love, the kind that keeps the fire going.

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