In this Meet the World event, four writers and translators of recently published graphic novels from the Arab world discuss the translation process as well as identity, language and representation.
In this wide-ranging discussion, Amy Chiniara (Inside the Giant Fish by Rawand Issa), Deena Mohamed (Your Wish is My Command), Emma Ramadan (My Port of Beirut by Lamia Ziadé) and Nadiyah Abdullatif (Yoghurt and Jam (or how my mother became Lebanese) by Lena Merhej, co-translation with Anam Zafar) explore the similarities and differences in their experiences of routes into translation, collaborating with authors, getting work published, working with illustrations, and handling different source languages and multilingualism.
Yoghurt and Jam (or how my mother became Lebanese) is now available for preorder. Pick up your copy >>
Discover Amy, Deena, Emma and Nadiyah’s conversation and transcript below.
Translating Arab graphic novels transcript
With Amy Chiniara, Deena Mohamed, Emma Ramadan and Nadiyah Abdullatif
NADIYAH: Hello and welcome to the National Centre for Writing’s Meet the World event on graphic novels from the Arab world. My name is Nadiyah Abdullatif and I am a translator in residence with the National Centre for Writing as part of their Visible Communities programme. I’ve done some work on comics and graphic novels myself, including the co-translation of a Lebanese graphic novel called Yogurt and Jam or How My Mother Became Lebanese by Lena Merhej, and that book is being published this year by Balestier Press.
I’m delighted to be joined today by a wonderful panel of three talented translators of recently published graphic novels. I’ll invite them to introduce themselves and tell us a little bit about their work on graphic novels and how they got into translating them. So perhaps we can start with Emma?
EMMA: Hi, my name is Emma Ramadan and these two books that I’ve been translating by Lamia Ziadé, My Port of Beirut and My Very Great Arab Melancholy, are actually my first two illustrated books. I don’t think they quite qualify as graphic novels but maybe they do. They are illustrated, it’s text accompanied by illustrations, and I think I kind of came into this genre just because I was so taken with her writings, specifically with Lamia Ziadé’s writing and the way she’s able to pair these images, her own illustrations, with her text and bring her reader more deeply into the scenes she’s describing, and in many cases the traumatic events and the urgency of what she’s describing and how those illustrations – sometimes they’re recreations of newspaper articles and images from Instagram – really made it a lot more alive in her telling. So I brought myself into this genre for her books, specifically.
NADIYAH: That’s lovely, thank you Emma. I definitely see what you mean about how the images bring the reader deeper into the text. Maybe Amy could go next?
AMY: Yeah, sure. So, I’m Amy Chiniara. I work as a graphic designer and illustrator in Beirut. I would never call myself a translator, so Rawand Issa’s book is the first time I’ve tried translating something from Arabic to English. It was a very big learning experience for me. I guess it’s an amateur thing at this point and of course I’d like to go into it more and that’s basically it.
NADIYAH: I totally relate to everything you’re saying there, Amy. The co-translation I did with Anam Zafar on Yogurt and Jam was my first literary translation project. So yeah, I know exactly what you mean. And Deena?
DEENA: Yes. Hi, I’m Deena Mohamed. I also don’t consider myself a translator. I am a translator really by necessity because I am a graphic novelist. But I work primarily in Arabic and so in order to fund my Arabic work I have to translate it and sell it in English. So my experience in translation is all in self-translation. I’ve been publishing my work in English and in Arabic for a long time and I’ve had many different experiences in translating my work. Sometimes I will work in Arabic first, sometimes I’ll work in English first. I usually think of myself as a bilingual comics artist. But specifically, I think today I’ll probably be talking mainly about Shubeik Lubeik, which was my biggest official translation undertaking. It was originally my Arabic graphic novel trilogy. It was published in Egypt by Dar El Mahrousa and recently the English translation was published by Pantheon Books as a collected volume. So it’s a 520-page graphic novel, which is a very big graphic novel in English. That’s definitely been my most recent translation and publishing experience. And that’s primarily what I’m known for, I think.
NADIYAH: I just want to say, because I know a couple of you mentioned that you’re not primarily translators, that one of the aims of the Visible Communities programme I’m participating in as a translator in residence is to diversify access routes to literary translation. I also have a very non-traditional background in terms of my route into translation and I always wanted to be a translator but I did something else completely for a few years and it’s only very recently that I got into translation and I’m finally enjoying what I always hoped I would do one day. I think there’s a lot of translators out there who are in the same boat and so I totally relate to all of this. So thank you all for being here with us today. I think the people watching will already realise that we’re going to be discussing four or even five very different graphic novels and I thought what we could discuss today is looking at the translation process, our personal connection to these works and also identity, language and representation. So maybe we could start with process, image and personal connection. The process of translating a graphic novel can really differ from translating other genres, and while I was preparing for this event I noticed that one really interesting thing about this panel is that between us we cover a lot of different translation models: co-translation – myself and Anam, self-translation with Deena and solo translation, but I imagine with a degree of collaboration with the author, for Emma and Amy. I’m going to put my first question to Deena because you’ve spoken a little bit about the experience of self-translation and you did this really wonderful piece for Arab Lit about that. I know that before Your Wish Is My Command you had also written and illustrated and also translated your webcomic, Qahera, so this is a few questions in one. I’d love to hear a bit more about your experience, anything that you found particularly challenging when self-translating and also how that experience differed once you started working with a publishing house.
DEENA: That is a very big question, so let me try. You will have to stop me if I go on too long because that’s essentially my entire comics career. So I will try to keep it brief. I did start originally making comics of the webcomic, and actually that webcomic was originally in English because I was posting it online and on Tumblr for my English-speaking Internet friends. It just didn’t occur to me to post it in Arabic and the entire comic was conceptualised for English-speaking readers. So even the content and the purpose of it was really not intended for Arabic-speaking readers. I talked a lot about the process of translating Qahera because even the conceptualisation of a Muslim Egyptian superhero, it really only subverts expectations if you have a specific understanding of superheroes and it’s a very westernised understanding of it. It’s not really as relevant to an Egyptian audience. I feel like Egyptian superheroes are usually either corny or satirical and I was more or less continuing in this tradition of satire. And so I did a couple of these online comics that were sort of social commentary. I was commenting about things I was encountering online, things relating to Islamophobia or misogyny. I was having the conversation in the online sphere as a response to other things I was seeing posted by other people. And then when I did the third comic, which was about sexual harassment, that comic was based much more in Egypt because that was where I experienced sexual harassment, and at the time I was making these comics based just on whatever I was thinking about. When I did the third comic, the sexual harassment comic, a few people asked me to translate it into Arabic and so I translated it and it also went viral in the Egyptian Internet sphere, so it was very popular on Facebook and so on at the time, which surprised me because I didn’t think people would like it. But then I understood what they liked about it, that it was discussing a certain issue but also in a way that they understood and agreed with. And from there I started to think about it in English and in Arabic. I made the strip much more Egyptian because I felt like I could. I just hadn’t realised it was something I could do. Sometimes I would think of a comic in English first, sometimes I would think of it in Arabic, but eventually that grew too tiresome for me. I was starting to think of the audience too much, I was starting to think of who would be reading it too much. It was also more difficult to address issues with the knowledge that they were going to so many different areas, especially because it was quite consistently going viral and I was only eighteen or nineteen.
So at the time I was learning a lot and one of the things I learned was that I really liked comics and enjoyed the learning process of a webcomic because it is conversational, but I also wanted to try working on a comic in Arabic. So because of Qahera I ended up doing my undergraduate research on the history of Egyptian comics and I got much more inspired by Arabic comics and Egyptian comics, specifically, and I wanted to do something that was a little more spread out, that wouldn’t be just a webcomic, that was in Arabic first for an Egyptian audience. I really wanted to see it in a bookstore. I was aiming for a very specific Egyptian publishing experience, even though I knew publishing Egyptian comics is not really successful. From my research, I know it’s not possible to publish multiple graphic novels in Arabic and so I was mainly just doing it because this was the kind of creation I was comfortable with and it took me a few years to be able to get the book out because I was working other jobs, so comics wasn’t my main focus until I took it to CairoComix. And so when I took it to CairoComix I self-published it. It was in Arabic and then it won the prize at CairoComix. And after it won the prize, someone who had heard about Qahera previously, an Egyptian American professor, asked me if I would be interested in showing it to her agent. And so I translated the version that had won the prize at CairoComix. It was around eighty pages. I translated the PDF, sent it to the agent and the agent was really excited about it and she was happy to represent me. But she told me, if you have plans for more parts it would be better, if you want to get a bigger publisher, to have a bigger book. I’ve always had plans for parts two and three. I just didn’t think I would actually do them within the next five, six years. And so when we pitched it, we pitched all three books as one and then I sold the English translation and the advance from the English translation let me stay at home to work on the Arabic versions because it’s very difficult to have the money to be a full-time comics artist. But if you live in Egypt and you’re getting paid abroad, then it’s much more doable. So for Shubeik Lubeik, specifically, it was selling the English translation that helped me work on it in Arabic. But I was always thinking of it in Arabic first. So I had streamlined the issue. I had Qahera and I said, ‘Okay, I will work on it in Arabic, I’ll focus on the Arabic. Only once it’s out in Arabic, then I’ll start thinking about the translation’, which is essentially what I did. I finished all three parts in Arabic and sent them to my American publishers and then I started the process of translation. So I was deliberately trying not to work on it bilingually. I was working on it purely in Arabic and as I was working on it I knew I was making problems for myself because I would be like, ‘How am I going to translate this? This is a problem for Future Deena.’ And Future Deena had a lot of issues. That’s the entire journey. I think I should stop now because it’s getting quite long. But that’s essentially how I ended up translating Shubeik Lubeik.
NADIYAH: That’s super interesting. I do feel like the work of a translator is endlessly about problems and translation dilemmas and it’s really interesting that sometimes, as a translator, you’re frustrated with your author: ‘Oh, why did they have to do something that’s so difficult for me to translate?’ Did you have a bit of frustration with yourself at times?
DEENA: Oh yes. I actually knew as I was writing it, because I was writing it specifically for an Egyptian audience and I was choosing things that I knew really wouldn’t translate. When I was writing I was like, ‘This is never going to translate’ and to an extent I was right. But I think it was worth it because what wasn’t translatable is still what made the novel good. And so, even communicating that much in the English version still makes it better than it would have been if it had just been, not a wishy-washy novel, but if it had been less based in its setting. It is a fantasy novel but the realism is what makes it work. And so, for me at least, I also had the advantage of being the author. Whenever I faced a translation issue or, for example, if I had feedback that something wasn’t clear because it was too culturally Egyptian or something that the editors didn’t understand, I would just add pages. And I remember, because I asked a lot of translators at the time that I knew because I knew people from ArabLit and I knew a lot of professional translators, that I would say, ‘Is this right? Am I allowed to do this?’ And they would say, ‘You are allowed to do it because you’re the author.’ But if someone else was translating for you, they wouldn’t be allowed to do that. And so it really only worked because I was self-translating. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. So the English edition ended up being expanded because of so many things. They would say, ‘We don’t understand this’ so I would just add four pages. But that was on me. I didn’t need to do it. I just felt like I had the time and I wanted to.
I don’t know if we’re going to get into process right now because I feel like that is maybe for the second half but, essentially, I approached it the way I like reading translated things. Like the way I read manga, for example, that’s translated by fans or things that are subtitled by fans, unofficial translations. I tend to enjoy those more than professional translations because I can see the translator’s hand in it and it feels like a translation. And so to me, the only thing that really made this book work was if it felt like a translation. I really was scared, not scared, but I had this feeling that if it came off as an Egyptian American novel, it would lose so much of what it is. So I wanted people to know that it was translated. For example, I got to keep it from right to left, which was kind of a big deal, to me at least, because it was something I hadn’t been thinking about while I was working on it. As I was working, I thought eventually I would have to flip it because I had been doing that with Qahera. And then when I asked Pantheon, ‘Can I just keep it right to left?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘Oh!’ So that alone made a huge difference because it really contextualised the novel. And then I treated it just like a translation. I was able to adapt the role of the narrator. So in Arabic, the narrator is a tour guide for the magic system of the world and in English, the narrator is a tour guide for the metro system and also a tour guide for Egypt. So the narrator is also a translator. And again, this is something that another translator wouldn’t have been able to do. It’s something I was able to do because I’m the author and so I can be like, ‘Well, the narrator says something different now and that’s fine.’ But I realised how evil it was because now it’s being translated into French and Italian and the French and Italian translators can read both English and Arabic and they know both versions are different, and so they come back to me and they’re like, ‘Which one do we use for the translation?’ And I’m like, ‘Honestly, I don’t know.’ They are two slightly different books in a way. The story is unchanged but there is a significant difference and so I don’t envy the third language, their job, at all. But yeah, that was the process for me at least.
NADIYAH: So interesting to hear how non-linear it was as well, and some of those things are things I was definitely going to ask about later on and I definitely want to come back to things like the right to left direction. But I also want to go to Emma and Amy and just ask, how would you say Deena’s experience compared with your own and your collaboration with the author? Maybe starting with Amy. I understand you’re quite close friends with the author, Rawand Issa, so I’m interested to hear how that affected your collaboration, but also, because you’re based in Lebanon, I’m wondering about your own personal connection to the story as well.
AMY: We started translating around May, June 2021, so it was quite a while ago and a lot has changed since then. But at the time we were still sort of in the COVID time, it was full-on economic collapse and it was still not so long after the port explosion. So there was so much chaos around how we got into doing this project together. There was chaos but we were stuck at home. So of course it helped that it was a very easy process to do in terms of like, I would text her, send her a WhatsApp, ‘What do you need here? How exactly do you think…? Okay, there’s this word, maybe it won’t work so much, maybe it’s too heavy in English. Maybe it doesn’t have the same weight that it would have in Arabic.’ So it was really a lot of back and forth and it just makes it so much easier when you know the person you’re working with, especially when it’s not your field. And okay, I have a very different background, I guess, and our upbringing in Lebanon is quite different, but this issue, this story of hers about privatisation, the loss of public life and of public space is so common and so ongoing.
The issue of the beaches being privatised is something that started happening during the civil war in Lebanon because it was just very laissez-faire. Everyone was doing whatever they wanted to do and things were being built completely randomly. Resorts were coming up in areas that were previously just beaches and after the war ended and the economic boom of the Nineties continued, this thing just spiralled out of control. Most of our public beaches are now closed off and there are still campaigns happening in areas that have always been public spaces and people are building villas, building resorts and privatising, even though there are actually laws against this. But of course they’re not applied. So the story just hits on all of these levels and on the theme of immigration, which is something that is so prevalent, and on Lebanese society. And especially in the last few years, where everyone’s like, Okay, we need to live a better life and all of that, but it’s very difficult to completely detach yourself. And I think the way she talks about that is so on point, not because she’s my friend, but because of the very on point way it just hits on all of these themes and brings them together and that’s the thing I was hoping to do in the English translation. I wanted to make these themes accessible. And they are themes that are universal but I was hoping the English version would also make that more relatable to a wider audience.
NADIYAH: That’s so interesting. I definitely noticed these very strong themes of loss of public space, even of a way of life. I actually read your translation and Emma’s translation of My Port of Beirut in very close succession and from both of them I just got this really overwhelming feeling of loss. So, with Emma’s translation, more loss of life, loss of limbs, loss of buildings, loss of hope to some extent, although I think it ends on a slightly more optimistic note. Just going back to the original question because I’m digressing a bit. I think you’re already working on another translation for Lamia Ziadé. It would be really interesting to hear about your work as a solo translator and to what extent you had input from her as well.
EMMA: My first translation was My Port of Beirut, which just came out from Pluto Press a few weeks ago. I don’t have a finished copy yet but it’s out there somewhere. It sounds like I have had a different journey with translation than the rest of you. I’ve been translating for about ten years but I think I first saw translation as this intellectual literary exercise and it’s only in the last three or four years, maybe even less, that I’ve started to see translation as something for yourself, or for myself, and something to get to know myself better or to access different parts of myself. I’m half-Lebanese but my dad left during the civil war and never went back, didn’t teach me Arabic, didn’t talk to me about Lebanon, never wanted me to go, had really separated himself. I felt like this imposter and somebody who claimed to be half-Lebanese but knew very little about Lebanon. I became obsessed with this idea of translating as a way to get to know Lebanon better. I translate from French, I don’t speak Arabic yet. I’m working on that. But the kinds of books I’m really interested in seem to be written mainly in Arabic or English and to find a Lebanese writer writing in French who was doing something I was really interested in, when that happened with Lamia Ziadé’s books it felt like this really urgent thing that I had to do. She lives in Paris and we talked briefly over the phone once and over WhatsApp messaging a little bit just so she could get to know why I was even interested in her books. And then when I translated My Port of Beirut she read over the translation and I think her English was quite good but not maybe at the level where we were really collaborating. She was just reading over my translation and if I had missed something here or there or some kind of reference that I didn’t grasp, she pointed that out, which was really helpful. I just finished a draft of My Great Arab Melancholy, which is a very different kind of book. It’s much more expansive. My Port of Beirut is about the port explosion and also about her family history growing up in Lebanon during the civil war and comparing those two events and the trauma of those events to give a sense of the scale and scope. But My Great Arab Melancholy is an expansive look at the wider Arab world and the major events she sees as being pivotal moments in that region. I just finished a draft of that and she looked it over and gave me some feedback and we’re still in the editing process. So it hasn’t been a totally collaborative effort, though she’s been a vital resource for me. But surprisingly, there’s been this other translation partner that has emerged, which is my father, which has been a really special experience because, like I said, he’s had this sort of block with me about Lebanon and in translating these books I’ve been going to him frequently to say, ‘Can you talk to me more about this thing because I can Google it but I’d rather hear about it from you?’ And some of the illustrations have Arabic text in them that I can’t read but I have to translate for the captions. And so going to my father and saying, ‘Help me translate the Arabic text’ has been this really lovely and surprising way of us connecting over that together. I’m about to go visit him in a few weeks and I want to bring him the book and talk to him more about it. That’s been a lovely alternate form, I wouldn’t call it a translation but a kind of collaboration that has been born out of these books, in addition to the author’s help.
NADIYAH: That’s such a lovely story. And again, I’m relating to so many things that you’re saying because I would say that for me, as well, translation is a journey of self-discovery. Not so much with the translations from Arabic because I’m not Arab, although people often think I am, I’m told I have a very Arab name, but I’m actually Mauritian. I was born in Mauritius and to be very specific, Indo-Mauritian, so my ancestors are from India and my work on Mauritian literature is primarily what I’ve been doing with the National Centre for Writing. And I also call my dad all the time when I’m working because I grew up in the UK and I feel like I missed out on so much. So I feel like I’m always like, ‘Oh, can you explain this historical thing to me or this cultural thing to me or this word that I don’t really hear people using anymore nowadays?’ So I feel like I’m relating to a lot of that. When it comes to Arabic and graphic novels, I just love Arabic, I love languages and I love graphic novels, so I think that’s how I came to all of that myself. And my experience of co-translation with Anam Zafar, who was just such a brilliant person to work with. I imagine, Amy and Emma, you must have had this experience as well. I felt like we kind of brainstormed a lot, so we just bounced a lot of ideas off each other and that was so wonderful. And then we also had the author, Lena Merhej, looking over our translation, giving input and telling us when there was something that we may have missed. So yeah, there’s always an extent to which I feel you try to bring in the author as much as possible. So the next thing, I think you spoke a little bit about this, Emma. You mentioned a bit about how the illustration work in My Port of Beirut, how that’s a little different from other graphic novels, and one thing that I noticed was that all of these graphic novels have a very different style and when I was working on Yogurt and Jam I attended this workshop led by another translator. Her name is Sarah Ardizzone and she has translated loads of graphic novels and she talked quite a lot about how you take the images, the illustrations into account, the style, the colour palette and things like that, and how that can inform your translation. So I wanted to ask Amy about this because I found that Inside the Giant Fish had this very distinctive style and very distinctive colours. It has this bright colour palette of pinks, blues, reds, especially for the bits in Lebanon, and I think more greys for the bits in Canada. And then there’s also this playful, defiant feel, the way that everything is drawn. There’s a lot of rolled eyes pulling faces, hairy legs and things like that, I really loved those details, and I just wonder did that influence your wording choice or tone or anything like that at times?
AMY: Well, like I told you, unfortunately I didn’t have the full layout in Arabic to work with, I was working from the Word document. I am very familiar with Rawand’s work and the way she writes and the way she draws. So it’s not like I wasn’t seeing anything at all. I knew more or less how it was going to look and for me it was more about matching the way she talks. Sometimes there would be these Lebanese colloquialisms that would play in and that would be like, How do we make that in English? How does that work in English? It’s going to sound so weird. It was more the focus on that than on the style because her style, the way she writes is so direct and so on point. So I just wanted to make sure that was the primary thing I was getting. And because there isn’t a lot of dialogue, it’s mostly the narrator talking, there was more focus on that. One question I have for all of you, just on format, is when Anam and I were looking into how you translate a graphic novel, because I’ve worked with prose before, so you’re just using a Word document, and I think we had some recommendations where some translators used a Word document with a numbering system where all of the illustrations and captions and all the little speech bubbles were all numbered. And we actually did something quite different. We used text boxes over the original in the PDF, and it was a bit fiddly, but the advantage is that we always had the text alongside the image. We knew how much space we had in each box, so we knew what was going to be too long or too short. But I’d be really curious to hear if anyone has any other tips or tricks for how they went about that.
DEENA: I can talk about this because I actually think this is the correct approach. If you’re doing it from a script, you have to bear in mind that it is going to take up space on a page. And so sometimes you might just be limited by the space you have in the bubble. It is partly that thing you do when you’re writing comics as well, making sure you have the space in the drawing to put it in the text. And so once you’re translating, that’s the secondary aspect of it. It is a visual translation at the end of the day. And honestly, for me, again I had the added benefit of I’m also doing the layout, I’m delivering the final PDF, I’m doing the lettering. Actually, in English it’s much easier to edit because in English I use a font. In Arabic, I was handwriting everything. And so I would say I did sometimes just make the speech bubbles bigger or smaller, as I needed to, but I wonder for you guys, who might not necessarily be in charge of the final PDF, how that works. Especially for Amy, because you didn’t even have the layout. But I also know Rawand leaves a lot of space for her text, so I think it probably just worked out very luckily in that sense.
AMY: I tried to match the word count, to be very honest. I tried to be as exact, not the exact same number of words but at least as close to the sentence as possible, and knowing that it was going to be a font meant it’s not lettering and everything gets messed up and you’re making someone repeat a ton of work. It was knowing that there is the ability to resize and, like you said, she does have areas where if you need an extra five millimetres or something, it’s doable. But it was really just trying to match the word count. And the thing that makes it easier – you were translating five hundred pages – is that this is a short graphic novel and the word count was short enough for me not to feel as intimidated. Honestly, this type of work is intimidating, as someone who’s not a professional. So when I saw the final word count she told me how many pages the graphic novel was and then I was like, ‘Oh, wow, okay, I don’t know’ and then when I saw the final word count I said, ‘Okay.’ I think, as a first attempt, this is feasible.
NADIYAH: It was definitely successful and a wonderful read.
AMY: Thank you.
NADIYAH: I really enjoyed it.
DEENA: It’s only been in Arabic, so I’m really excited to read the English version.
AMY: Let me know what you think!
NADIYAH: I’ve only read the English, but later on I want to ask you a question about languages. But I just want to see if Emma wants to say anything about that.
EMMA: I had it so easy compared to all of you because Lamia’s book is mainly text, and then the images, her illustrations, typically, will be on their own page or they’ll be in the middle of the text. But my translation of a caption or of the text itself wasn’t really affected by the spacing of the images. I was screenshotting and then putting them into my document so I knew what the captions were going with. But I had it very easy. If anything, her illustrations were helping me with my translation because then I had what she was describing in front of me and I knew what words to use. It didn’t feel like a constraint, it felt more like an aid.
NADIYAH: You say that you had that part very easy, but one thing I did want to ask is when I was reading My Port of Beirut I found that it was a very difficult read, not because it was translated in wonderful flowing English but it was such a harrowing read. And I found that I was having to take a deep breath almost every page and recompose myself before turning the page. Even the text was very graphic, the descriptions of the damage and the injuries, and I can only imagine that all of that must be magnified when you are translating and rereading those same passages. So what was your experience of that?
EMMA: Yeah, it’s really complicated because I think I was very aware as I was reading it, or as I was reading and translating it, that this was not my trauma, this is a lot of other people’s trauma and my job is to convey that as urgently and as vividly and descriptively as the author did. So it was really heavy to translate. I have a full-time job, so I was often translating it at night by myself in this dark room and I would emerge and be in this big funk and then have to actually realise it’s because I’m sitting with this violence and this death and this frustration of how avoidable this tragedy should have been, could have been, and that it was impacting me in this way to be translating it and to be so close to it all the time, but then also feeling this imposter syndrome of this is my father’s country but this tragedy is not his tragedy. The civil war was his tragedy but what I’m translating is not his tragedy, it’s not my tragedy. And so how to absorb that and sit with it without taking it on. I don’t know if anything I’m saying makes sense, but because it’s not my tragedy I think I’m able to step back in order to translate it in the way that I needed to translate it. But of course it’s not easy to translate something like this and to have those illustrations depicting the victims’ faces. For most of My Port of Beirut the illustrations are the victims. So it’s hard to sit with and also it takes somebody maybe who can say ‘It’s not my tragedy’ to be able to have enough remove to translate it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s complicated.
NADIYAH: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In Yogurt and Jam, war and conflicts crops up a lot and I feel like I definitely had those thoughts of ‘Well, I didn’t go through this’. Sometimes that can help when you’re translating.
EMMA: And I do think, in the case of graphic novels about heavy, violent tragedy, the author wants you to feel the things they’re portraying. Otherwise they wouldn’t put it on the page and the illustrations are also meant to help you feel that. So I think graphic novels and illustrated memoirs and all of these genres are meant to bring you in and impact you in this very urgent way, even if it’s not your tragedy, especially if it’s not your tragedy. It’s supposed to make that tragedy alive for everyone.
NADIYAH: Yeah, absolutely. I’m wondering if we can now move on to the second set of themes that I thought about, which are identity, language and representation. I mentioned a little bit about the Visible Communities programme and its aims. Alongside diversifying access routes to literary translation, it also aims to contribute to the debate around decolonising literary translation and to expand the range of literature published in translation. So I suggested this topic because Arabic, Arab culture and graphic novels are underrepresented in literary translation and despite that, I feel that there’s this very vibrant Arab graphic novel, comics, satire, webcomics scene and there’s so much there that needs to be translated and I really wanted to spend some time focusing on these aspects. So for my first question, I thought we could maybe reflect on source language, dialects and multilingualism because I feel like we all encountered those to a degree in the graphic novels that we were working on. Emma, you were translating from French but some of the images included Arabic and you did retain some Arabic words. And Deena, you used chevrons for the bits that were said in English and Arabic and you retained that and that was something I really liked and I think it fits in with what you said earlier, almost a reminder that this is a translation. What you were reading, the majority of it was in Arabic and so that was really interesting. I’ll go to Emma first. Is there anything you want to say about that or your rationale or how you approached all of that?
EMMA: I think the words that were left in Arabic were where the author had put the Arabic text in her French text, and so she was situating Arabic in her French text in a way that felt really intentional, so I wanted to make sure I did the same. And with the images, calling in the help of a native Arabic speaker became necessary for me in translating those parts.
NADIYAH: Interesting. Amy, I didn’t read the original Arabic of the text you translated. I’m just wondering, was it written in dialect, was it written in standard Arabic?
AMY: It was standard Arabic but there were things that would make you think, Oh, this is very Lebanese. And the thing is – Emma was saying that she doesn’t speak Arabic – for the better part of my life my Arabic has been extremely weak for someone who lived and grew up in Lebanon. I was educated at an English language school and I have a very foreign name for the place I live in. And also for me, it’s been part of the process of improving my Arabic. It’s come a long way in the last ten years for sure, but it’s also part of that. You asked about identity and culture and all of these things at the beginning of your question and it’s very interesting because I have different backgrounds and different experiences of growing up in Lebanon. She grew up by the beach, I grew up in the mountains. She grew up in a primarily Arabic-speaking area, I grew up in a Franco-English environment. So it does play a role, at least how I was viewing the translation and how the process is going because I have these terminologies in English but I’ve never thought about their equivalent in Arabic. So this was part of the learning curve for me.
NADIYAH: Yeah, very interesting. You mentioning this kind of mixture of languages in Lebanon and in Beirut is really interesting because this is something that cropped up a lot for Anam and I when we were translating Yogurt and Jam. There was this mixture of Arabic, French, English and German. And some of that was originally written for a Lebanese audience, so having that mixture is not necessarily a problem. That would have been easily understood and when we were translating we had to think hard about what to keep and also how to keep it. So we made this decision not to use italics at all and all of the languages sit alongside each other on an equal standing, and it’s really interesting to hear you talk about your experience of growing up with all these different languages as well. Deena, do you want to say anything on the language aspect?
DEENA: There is a lot to say. For me, the English flattened out a lot of the language that was in the Arabic because the Arabic has many dialects of Egyptian Arabic, some of which I don’t speak. So I didn’t have a translator, I guess, but a friend who speaks Upper Egyptian dialect and I would write the story with him. I would ask him, ‘If this character wants to say this, how would they say it in your dialect?’ And he would be like, ‘Well, they would say this or that’ and he would correct me because I know how they speak but I would never be able to write it accurately, especially because it varies from region to region. And so I wanted this sort of accurate representation. So in the Arabic itself, I did have a kind of translation process and a process of writing about identities that are not my own. The number one question I get about the Arabic version is from Egyptian readers and other Arabic-speaking readers. They’ll say, ‘How did you capture this?’ because they look at me and they know this is not my background. So they’d be like, ‘How did you write that?’ And so I just asked, I did research, I had help. To me, it’s not too complicated. But for the English, all of that is kind of lost because essentially all you get is an asterisk that says this character is speaking in an Upper Egyptian dialect. And so part of the frustration of translating into English is that you do have characters who are already speaking a mix of English and Arabic and that already says so much about that character. Just from reading the Arabic, you already know what kind of character they are, what kind of education they have, what kind of background they have. And so in English, you just have to make do with the fact that this will be lost, there is no way to keep that the same as it is. But that’s the process of translation, it is what it is. So I really just had to make use of the narrator to explain who these characters are. I used extra pages and things like that. But I do think there was already some translation involved in writing it in Arabic that a lot of people might not have realised.
NADIYAH: That’s really interesting, the way that a translator researches how to translate a specific dialect. You were researching how to write that. That’s super interesting. Linked to that, I want to ask two big questions. I’m not very good at asking just one question. Did anything big change in translation or did anything big not change in translation? Deena, you already mentioned keeping the right to left direction. For people watching who don’t have the book, I have it here. When you open what for an English speaker would naturally be the back of the book it says, ‘This book was once in Arabic so it is read from right to left. You are now at the beginning’ and then if you turn to where many would naturally turn to, ‘This book was once in Arabic so it is read from right to left. You are now at the end.’ So that was one big thing that changed. Anam and I actually did the opposite of that and we changed the order and we even had to horizontally flip some of the images, and even then you have to be really careful because sometimes if you horizontally flip an image of a place, it’s suddenly geographically wrong, so it doesn’t always work. Was there anything else? This is for anyone to jump in.
DEENA: The UK version you have has a different title. The US version kept the same title in Arabic, just transliterated, so it was Shubeik Lubeik in English. But the UK version, they changed it to Your Wish Is My Command. Pretty much the only difference between them is the cover. But that was a pretty significant difference to me. But other than that, that’s all I have. Anyone else like to take it?
AMY: For Rawand’s book, I think maybe the format changed. I’m not one hundred per cent sure, but I think there was a slight difference in format between the original Arabic book and the English book. I think that has to do with publishing standards and stuff. But also, like I said already, we have the advantage that it’s a short book. So the workload for flipping, rearranging, it makes it easier, especially if you’re not going to keep the original orientation of the book, the workload is reduced. So it was mostly following what Maamoul might have asked her to do in terms of changes and stuff.
DEENA: I have a question about Rawand’s book. What was the decision-making process behind translating the title as Inside the Giant Fish instead of Inside the Whale?
AMY: We talked about that several times. Inside the Belly of the Whale, which would be the exact, very literal biblical translation, just sounds heavy in English to be very honest. Inside the Giant Fish is nice and it kind of matches her drawing style.
DEENA: It’s more whimsical.
AMY: It’s more whimsical, it gives you a different kind of imagery because otherwise you’re literally going to be thinking of the biblical story, which she does talk about in the book but that’s not necessarily the point she’s trying to make with the book. It’s not just about that or the shrine of, what’s his name, John. Oh my God, I forgot! I got all the biblical characters mixed up. Inside the Giant Fish is more whimsical. It lets your imagination go. What kind of fish is it? Who is inside? What’s going on? So it was more about that. It was her idea, actually.
DEENA: I like it because I thought it would be called Inside the Whale or something. So it was unexpected.
AMY: I think it works really well. It’s a bit intriguing as well.
DEENA: It’s more fun to see.
NADIYAH: Emma, did you have anything to add to that?
EMMA: Both of the books stayed pretty much the same. I think she had written them to be pretty accessible. She wants people to have this ‘in’ into the Arab world that they might not have through a history book or something like that. So, mostly the same. The one thing that changed was that we put in more footnotes in both books. She already had footnotes in her French text, so it didn’t feel like this violation of the literary project to put in a few more. But there were some debates we had with the editor at the publishing house about what really needs to be explained and what doesn’t need to be explained. The average French reader probably knows more about Lebanon than the average American reader. Maybe that’s not true, I don’t know. But we added in some more historical context and that kind of thing.
NADIYAH: That’s interesting. This is a question I really wanted to ask you when it comes to representation, because I know that both of the graphic novels that you’re translating for Lamia Ziadé, they received Pen Translates awards, so did Yogurt and Jam, and I just wanted to ask to what extent you noticed any differences pitching a graphic novel, one from the Arab world, sorry, this is a very unstructured question. I know that Pen Translates has these aims of promoting bibliodiversity and I know it has offered such valuable support for me and for Anam, for getting this work out there. I just wanted to hear a bit about how that has supported you as well.
EMMA: Yeah. So, full disclosure. I already had the publisher, Pluto, and Pluto applied for the Pen Translates grant on my behalf. So I would say I was in a very fortunate position but pre Pluto coming around, I did have an experience that maybe some of you also had, which was that even though Arab writers are so underrepresented in translation in the United States, it’s become this thing where publishers would read my pitch and say, ‘Oh, this sounds great but we already have something by an Arab writer coming out next year’, as if they’re all the same and as if checking one box means you’re doing the Lord’s work. But I got the response a few times, ‘We actually have this Iranian woman’s book coming out next year and they’re too similar.’ And of course they were nothing alike, nothing alike. But I think publishers are still in that mindset. So I was very grateful to Pluto for being better than that and for doing such a wonderful job taking care of these books and making sure they reached people and that they were applying for funding. And I did get NEA funding in the US, which means that I’ll be able to go to Lebanon this year and take some Arabic lessons with that funding. And so that has felt like a very powerful source of funding to have alongside these books, in addition to the PEN funding.
NADIYAH: That’s so exciting. Who did you say that’s from?
EMMA: From the National Endowment of the Arts.
NADIYAH: Oh yes. Brilliant. It’s interesting you mention that. I haven’t done much pitching, so I think Anam and I almost fell off our chairs, actually, because the first publisher we pitched to responded to us very quickly saying, ‘Yes, they want it’ and this is Balestier Press. I think it is actually their first translation from Arabic. We had heard so much about how difficult it can be and we were just really pleasantly surprised. So I was curious to hear from a more experienced literary translator what your experience had been with that. I feel like we’re running over a little bit but I’ve just really been enjoying chatting to you all. Before we close this discussion, I want to see whether you have any questions for each other or any final key takeaways or bits of advice for translators or anything like that.
DEENA: Again, I feel like I’m not really a translator in this sense, so I don’t really know what I would even begin to ask people. I’m usually just asking them to read the English version and then the Arabic version and tell me if I did a good job. I think that’s been my experience so far in three months of official translation experience. But I do have a newfound appreciation for how difficult translating is because I feel like I am constantly translating myself but it is quite different to translate yourself in print or to be a translator in print. I think it’s a very different experience. And so, I find it interesting to think of it as a career. I think it’s very, very transformative. So I don’t know if I necessarily have questions. I just really want to know about the title for Inside the Giant Fish.
AMY: Now you know! In a country like Lebanon, where they like to pride themselves on trilingualism in a lot of areas and always speak Arabic, English and French, and if someone who has, let’s say, a Russian mother or any other nationality, Austrian, whatever, that’s an added language. You’ll find people who speak five, six languages but the actual practical application of it when it comes to translating is so different. At some point, especially when people like foreigners or something say, ‘Oh, you’re Lebanese, you speak three languages. That’s amazing.’ I’m like, ‘No, I can speak three languages badly.’ There’s so much to learn about how we relate to these languages, especially as someone who mixes them so randomly all the time. It’s very difficult to stick to one. So you just apply yourself in your relationship to each of these languages, especially since English is my first language. French is something I didn’t learn formally, I learned it from speaking with my aunts, even though I didn’t go to a French school, and Arabic was just left alone in the corner to cry. And so I really feel you can turn that into a quest to speak these three languages and that’s the best way maybe to approach it. It’s learning, it’s pure learning all the time.
NADIYAH: Do you think you will both continue with translation in the future?
DEENA: I have to! I still haven’t figured out how to get paid in Arabic. There is no money in making comics in Arabic only, unfortunately. I’m trying to think of it as an advantage because I do think that even if I didn’t have to rely on publishing in English to publish in Arabic, I would still have been happy to publish in English. But I do think it’s a lot more loaded than it is otherwise. I think the difficulty for me is that I want to see Arabic comics prosper but I also haven’t figured out how to do it yet, because even if Shubeik Lubeik is a relatively successful Arabic publishing experience and it’s selling out or selling well, that’s still not enough to be able to publish in Arabic. Arabic comics artists still have to rely on grants. They still have to rely on translations.
AMY: I almost feel like what you’re saying is that even the ones who are reading in Arabic, a lot of them are from the diaspora. They’re the ones that maybe have a bigger interest, at least in Lebanon. That’s my experience of Lebanon.
DEENA: In Egypt, not necessarily. In Egypt the readership is pretty diverse. Egyptians aren’t really the main purchasers of Shubeik Lubeik, it’s selling in Saudi or in other Arab countries. So, just as an Arabic-speaking market, it’s there. It’s just not enough to sustain the amount of work that making a graphic comic needs. So, no matter how I look at it, translation to me, it’s not really a matter of communication or a matter of adaptation. It’s not something I do because I’m thinking of how to send it to different people. With Qahera I was translating because I was looking to communicate with different people. I wanted to share with my English-speaking diaspora friends, specifically, so it was very much a diaspora experience. But with Shubeik Lubeik, it’s not. It’s just a matter of me not knowing how else to make comics and I’m also very lucky to even have an agent, to have access to big American publishers, to be in multiple comics markets at once. So it is a privilege but it’s kind of a necessity also. One would not exist without the other. I still haven’t figured out what the future of comics is going to look like. But I do know that in order for me to work in Egypt I need to be translating myself constantly. And this is true of most jobs in Egypt now, anyway.
NADIYAH: It is super interesting, though, because I feel like there are parallels. A lot of literary translators find that translating literature is a labour of love. That’s what they always call it because we can’t get paid enough. I do a lot of commercial work alongside literary translation. It is the only way I can do any literary translation because the time required, the time it demands isn’t always reflected financially. Emma, is there anything you wanted to say?
EMMA: Just as a last note, advice to translators sort of thing? As I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of time thinking that translation was supposed to be an invisible, selfless act and I’m really happy I don’t see it that way anymore. I think I’ve never felt so excited about translation as when I’m translating something that feels like it’s a selfish act. In addition to being in service of the author, it can also bring me closer to something in myself. As you said, because it can feel like a labour of love and we don’t feel like we get fair wages here, I think in the UK it might be slightly better, but in both the UK and the US, I think it’s not a sustainable profession unless you find the thing that makes you really love it and really excited about doing it. So I think making that shift for me has been really important.
NADIYAH: I think that is definitely what I’m finding as well. Okay. Well, thank you all so much. I think we are well over time now but can you just briefly say where we can buy your book or your translation? Maybe we can start with Deena.
DEENA: Shubeik Lubeik is available in America and I think it’s on Amazon, Penguin Random House, all of their websites. And in the UK it’s available as Your Wish Is My Command, also from all the mainstream outlets, I think. I don’t know because I don’t buy it there! In Egypt it’s available from Diwan and the Arabic versions are also available from Diwan and also all the other bookstores. So, available where books are sold.
EMMA: Pluto Press just published My Port of Beirut in the UK. I think eventually it will be distributed in the US, but for the UK it will be available wherever books are sold, hopefully in all the independent bookstores. And My Great Arab Melancholy will be out in 2024.
NADIYAH: Is that also with Pluto Press?
EMMA: Yeah, also with Pluto.
NADIYAH: And Amy?
AMY: So far it’s in the US. I’m not sure if they do international shipping, I’m not a hundred percent sure.
DEENA: They do. It’s also available in many Arabic-speaking outlets.
NADIYAH: And that was Maamoul Press in the US, right?
AMY: In English, yes.
DEENA: You can also get Shubeik Lubeik in Arabic from Maamoul Press in North America.
NADIYAH: Oh, that’s good to know as well.
DEENA: And in the UK. I also forgot to mention the UK publishers.
EMMA: Nadiyah, what about Yogurt and Jam?
NADIYAH: That is not yet published, at the time of recording, but hopefully published by the time this goes out. That’s being published by Balestier Press and I assume it will also be sold everywhere where books are sold. So yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see where exactly in due course. Hopefully by the time this goes out we’ll be able to add a little bit more information on that. But thank you all so much. I have really loved chatting to all of you and getting to meet all of you. I also want to say thank you to everyone for watching and to the National Centre for Writing for supporting our work and hosting us today. The other Meet the World events, this is a series of events, are all available as recordings on the National Centre for Writing’s website. So thank you very much.
AMY: Thank you so much.
EMMA: Thanks so much.
DEENA: Nice to meet you all.
Yoghurt and Jam (or how my mother became Lebanese) is now available for preorder. Pick up your copy >>
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