On Translating a Novel of ‘Profound Gentleness in a Violent Milieu’ – ARABLIT & ARABLIT QUARTERLY

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By Olivia Snaije 

Libyan novelist Mohammed Alnaas recently visited France for the launch of his award-winning debut novel’s French translation: Du pain sur la table d’oncle Milad (خبز على طاولة الخال ميلاد). He was joined by his translator, Sarah Rolfo, who talks here about the challenges of weaving both Libyan Arabic and Italian into the text, translation and gender, and the why she left the proverbs as literal as she could. 

As you read, listen to this playlist of songs that weave through Bread for Uncle Milad’s Table, forthcoming in Sawad Hussain’s English translation next year.

Editor’s note: Next week, we’ll have a conversation with author Mohammed Alnaas.

Author and translator pointing to Libya on the map at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Photo: Olivia Snaije.

You have previously translated work by Palestinian (Sadek Abou Hamed), Yemeni (Wajdi al-Ahdal), and Egyptian (Khaled Al-Khamissi) authors. When translating Du pain sur la table d’oncle Milad (Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table), how was this Libyan reality and language different for you?

Sarah Rolfo: When one translates literature, and certainly in this case, first of all there’s the encounter with the text, which transports you somewhere, the emotion of reading in a certain linguistic universe that you don’t want to keep for yourself, that you want to share with others and to become the conduit.

I didn’t really know Libya (and still don’t consider that I know it, but perhaps much better thanks to this book) and its particular Arabic. But this novel, its scope, its poetry, and its profound gentleness in a violent milieu resonated deeply with me. Milad’s story allowed me to discover an entire linguistic, cultural, culinary and even musical universe, because of course I knew Cheb Khaled, Fairouz, and Abdhelhalim, but I had never listened to Ahmed Fakroun, Gamal Abdelkader, or Mahmoud Al-Sherif. I immersed myself in their melodies throughout my work.

From a linguistic point of view, the text is full of Libyan words and expressions andthis is also what makes it interesting, anchoring it geographically and historically. This made for some lively exchanges with Mohammed, who was also mindful in the original version to guide his non-Libyan Arabic readers with explanatory notes when the context wasn’t enough. I really appreciated his use of notes in the novel, which I used and adapted for Francophone readers. I kept some words in Libyan Arabic (or other Arabic languages, because Mohammed also describes many of his Arab neighbors in his novel, and these passages in the text are suffused with humor that I tried to convey) which can be understood because of the context or else they appear in a brief glossary.

The choice of which words to keep in transliterated Arabic was made in several steps. At first, there were many more, but choices needed to be made in order not to inundate the reader, giving them the impression that this was a work for linguists. The exercise was to keep a certain balance in the text.

I also discovered the extent to which Libyan Arabic was full of Italian words, a legacy of the country’s colonial history. I tried to relay this in the translation by keeping Italian words such as baracca, gelato, perfetta, cazzo, and so on in the text. In order to translate, I need music and words more than at any other time, because a translator also needs to nourish themselves during the translation process and to enrich their thoughts. During the translation of Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, it was the poetry of Erri De Luca which accompanied me in the very beautiful translation by Danièle Valin, of his novel Montedidio, which tells the coming of age of a young boy in a working-class neighborhood of Naples. I was particularly inspired by the way in which Danièle Valin’s translation makes Italian words—and sometimes even entire sentences—coexist with the French. I found that this brought an essential depth to the text in French, enriching it, whether or not we understand Italian. And when I got hold of the very beautiful collection of short stories Things that Happen by Salah Badis, an Algerian author of Mohammed Alnaas’ generation, brilliantly translated by Lotfi Nia, I found myself reflecting on how languages mingle, and how I wanted to reproduce this in the translation. The translator’s note which accompanies the collection is particularly inspiring on this point, as Lotfi Nia speaks of “restoring the polyphony” that fills Salah Badis’s short stories. Moreover, these short stories, like Mohammed Alnaas in his novel, reflect the social and political constraints to which their respective characters are subjected.

Did you have to do a lot of research for this translation?

SR: All translations require a lot of research—it’s one of the features of being a translator, but it’s true that here I had much to discover and learn. Mohammed made my research easier by guiding me toward sources that he had used himself, which gave me explanations for certain cultural practices such as the meaning of the henna decorations for a “khuttifa” wedding, which in the novel made Milad fearful about his Libyan compatriots recognizing his wife Zeinab’s decorations when she wanted to go swimming in a bikini in Tunisia.

Then there was the specific architecture of the houses surrounded by high walls, which led me to keep certain words that reflected these architectural specificities.  Since I couldn’t roam around the streets of Tripoli, I spent a lot of time on Google Maps, so I could understand the geography of the places in the book. I also watched a lot of videos and used photographs of Tripoli from different eras to absorb as much as possible the atmosphere described in the novel. It was a virtual voyage that was a little frustrating but necessary.

The universe of bread, its preparation, and the bakery also required research to find the correct terminology while remaining poetic, with metaphors for the female world. I was confronted with the difficulty of translating the word “خميرة”, for example, which sometimes designates a sourdough starter and at other times yeast.  In the novel, Milad’s sourdough starters have women’s names –Valentina, Khaddouja—and Alnaas used the word “خميرة” in the feminine form. How, then, to use the word sourdough in French, which is masculine? I made the choice, at the risk of upsetting bakers, to use the word yeast [which in French is feminine]. But then isn’t translation precisely an infinite series of choices?  The translation of the extracts from songs which punctuate the text, and which are not simple ornaments in the novel but benefit the narration, also needed specific work. These passages required transcribing both the meaning necessary for understanding the subject, but also the rhythm and musicality. To complete this work, in the French translation, a list of the main songs was added to give readers the opportunity to listen to them while reading. (Find the playlist here.)

Can you talk a little more about collaborating with Alnaas?

SR: We had many exchanges all along. I relied heavily on his help for explanations for certain words and their specific meaning within the Libyan context, for recipes for bread—in particular Libyan bread—and different dishes described in the novel, customs, and life under the Gaddafi regime. He was extremely generous in his answers, which were full of goodwill and precision.

What was distinct and original for you in this novel?

SR: I’ve read many Arabic-language novels told in the first person and Mohammed Alnaas uses this style with virtuosity. The character Milad keeps up the suspense for 347 pages.

Besides his narration, which also makes the reader a participant, there’s the incredible way Alnaas plays with the chronology of events in a fragmentary, digressive way.

Great attention is given to detail and all the senses, but in my opinion the novel is exceptional also because of the way the author shaped his characters, who are steeped in contradictions as we all are. There’s also the bread, which Alnaas writes about beautifully. This everyday staple is both a metaphor for the feminine world and for life, and it mirrors the main character’s emotions along his lifetime. All these elements bring depth to the novel, in which humor counterbalances hardship, making us smile or laugh even in the most tragic situations.I haven’t read such an absorbing and original novel in a while, with an approach to relationships between men and women told from the point of view of the male character, Milad.

The use of proverbs is very important in the book—how difficult was it to translate them?

SR: Proverbs are often used in Arabic literature, and of course I’ve often run across them, but here it’s a proverb that is at the root of the novel, as the proverb “a family with an uncle Milad” inspired the author.

Regarding the translation, the proverbs are not easy to translate. One can try to find something similar in the source language, when the proverb’s intention is to illustrate a situation. In this particular case, it was necessary to make sure that what the proverbs said about Libyan society was conveyed. Keeping them more or less literal seemed necessary to me in order to respect the wording, which was at times striking and incisive, and other times more commonplace. I also tried to keep a certain pace and musicality [as in the French proverb] “De la chatte que tu battras, la mariée apprendra”.

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris.

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