The Lebanese Civil War and Last Men in Aleppo

“I’m like the fish, I can’t live outside Aleppo.” – Khaled, Last Men in Aleppo

In November 2015 the same night that 120 people were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks 43 people were killed in a double suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. At the time I had just finished rock climbing and when I checked my phone there were messages, facebook security check-ins, and panicked tweets all over my home screen. I lost my breath for a moment. My friends in the US were concerned for my mental health and my French friends were letting me know they were safe. The entire drive back to campus was a blur of WhatsApp, Facebook, and text messages exchanged between friends and family. Things had shaken our world. Things had changed.

A member of the foreign language community at the University of Maryland we all held a sort of vigil; the department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures granted us a space where we could share thoughts, read statements, poetry, and mourn collectively. As a means of coping with the events that affected my life in the US and in France, while paying homage to those mourning in Lebanon, I read from Wajdi Mouawad’s novel Visage retrouvé in French and my friend Chris read my English translation below. In the passage the protagonist Wahib stares out his bedroom window, looking at the bombs fall over Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).

Time no longer goes by the same way it used to. That much is certain.

The bombs fall. I’m sitting on my bed. It’s nighttime. I hear the noise of machine guns. I hear explosions. Nobody is coming. We are used to all of this. I’m alone in my room. My sister is at a cousin’s house, my brother is at a cousin’s house. I call, but no sound leaves my mouth. I get out of bed. I push my bed. I climb on top of the mattress. I open the curtains. I open the windowpanes. The sound invades the room and penetrates my ears, taking over my heart. But my heart beats and I am strong. The strongest. I grab ahold of the shutter handle and spin it. If my mother saw me, she would still say that I am an irresponsible child. It’s stronger than me. I push with all my strength to discover the night and its carnage.

War.

There’s war at my bedroom window.

It’s so beautiful. The buildings collapse. The city brought to its knees. Over there, a tree explodes! And these bombs that fall! Like a painter finishing his canvas with heavy brushstrokes! Mother! I cry, but nobody hears me! Mother! If war is so horrible, why is it so beautiful? So to not give up, I imagine that I’m a warrior. I ride my horse in the moonlight; twirling my sword, I throw myself into the bombs. The shadow of a woman with wooden limbs outlines the distance. I scream out of fear. I’m no longer alone. I’m no longer even at the window. I’m sitting on my bed, between my mother and father, attempting to comfort me.

Time passes, but I no longer know how. (Mouawad 25-26)

Scenes from Last Men in Aleppo, the 2017 documentary about the White Helmets by Feras Fayyad, remind me of Mouawad’s novel. With drones and Russian planes raining down missiles on a city already brought to its knees.

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Screenshot from the Last Men in Aleppo

The viewer, I suppose, is in the same position as Wahib who cannot help but look at the sea of horrifically beautiful lights as they rip through the city of Aleppo, Syria. While the visual aspects of the film resemble Wahib’s personal narrative, the film is far from a documentary of juxtaposed images of war and destruction. Even in the devastating space of Aleppo, there is life, humanity, civility, family, and love.

The film follows a number of White Helmets, a civil force of volunteers who help save people from the rubble of fallen buildings and attend to the victims of bombings/missile strikes, including Khaled whose story perhaps best relates to Wahib from Visage retrouvé. In the novel, Wahib leaves Lebanon with his family for Montreal, but the war and his homeland continue to haunt him. Khaled, on the other hand, cannot manage to leave Aleppo. Numerous times in the film he asks people whether they can help his wife and children find safe passage to Turkey, or another neighboring country, in order to escape the Russian airstrikes and Bashar al-Assad’s civilian-targeted attacks.

Even though he wishes to help his family into exile, Khaled cannot imagine leaving Aleppo himself. At one point in the film, he purchases a number of goldfish and builds, along with his fellow volunteers, a pond for them outside of their headquarters. Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 10.28.49 PMThe pond provides a great deal of levity for the men as they enjoy building something together in a world predicated on things being torn down. While they are not sure the fish will survive, Khaled reassures them that the fish will be fine as long as they have water. Here is where Khaled realizes that he, too, is like the fish in a way, he cannot live outside of Aleppo.

Even though Last Men in Aleppo missed the Oscar nod, I still think everyone should watch this documentary. The ongoing bombings, targeting of the White Helmet’s bases, and the recent use chemical weapons in Douma make the case that the work being don in the film is unfinished––the people of Syria are denied the film’s radical humanity. While it is graphic––occasionally there are body parts being recovered from rubble, people both dead and alive being pulled from crumbled buildings, etc.––there is an inextricable humanity to the film and the filmmaking. The camera is not voyeuristic, the White Helmets are not reduced to a monolithic mass of saviors. Instead, the viewer is exposed to the subjectivity of people like Khaled, who live with their families in Aleppo and fight for the right to live humane lives, in spite of it all.

New York in French; or the Possibilities of Translation

I was in New York this past weekend for a French Graduate Conference at CUNY and so, like many of my visits to the Big Apple, I speak French about as much as English. While most of my trips to NYC revolve around Francophone academic conferences and workshops, the rest of the city is teeming with French speakers as well as speakers of various Creoles––Martinican, Guadeloupian, Haitian, and so on. I heard French on the subway, in tourist spots like the MoMA, and even in dive-y Brooklyn sports bars. The French I heard was accented, like mine, from France, from Canada, from Africa, and from the Caribbean.

One of the places I always hear French in NYC is in The Strand bookstore in Union Square. The quiet whispering of French as customers pick up, weigh, and decide which books they will or will not eventually buy. Encouraged by the bilingualism of the clientele, I cannot help but think naïve thoughts like “the world would be better if we all read in two or more languages…” As a language learner I know this is no simple matter, creating a whole society of bilingual or polyglot folks would not ensure cultural exchange, dissolve elitist education practices, or erase socio-economic, racial, and gendered boundaries to language acquisition.

So, in the middle of the store, I started wondering how translation as a project could help topple some of these (language) barriers. The Strand is a unique institution itself and has a robust collection of literature in foreign languages, as well as vast sections of poetry, drama, mystery––everything under the sun, including a curated section of literature in translation. The store seeks to guide readers to works in translation just as they do with award winners, thought-provoking essay collections, and books recently released in paperback.

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Translation display at the Strand

 

As I observed the works in translation, I noticed a few things about the books represented. First, the languages most represented were French and Spanish––celebrated novels by Victor Hugo, Albert Camus, Patrick Modiano, Gustave Flaubert, Julio Cortázar and Juan Gabriel Vásquez––feature prominently on top of and in front of the display. Camus and Modiano have both won the Nobel Prize, Cortázar is frequently associated with the highest literary ranks of Argentina and Latin America, Vásquez has taken the reigns of Colombian fiction in the US literary market, and Hugo and Flaubert are two of the most celebrated French novelists of in the world. There are many other languages represented on the table, as well as writers writing in a language other than that of their native country like Milan Kundera. The books shown are also largely male authors, and writing in European languages, with the exception of Haruki Murakami and Junichiro Tanizaki (Japanese), and A.B. Yehoshua (Hebrew).Strand2

Bookstores can only do so much to bring their readers to works in translation, and The Strand definitely succeeds in doing so. However, what would it look like to have a selection of books from non-European languages or countries, and how can the bookstore amplify the voices of non-male authors in their displays? I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, for they are systemic problems. But, I think, by amplifying publishers and specific works that run counter to heightened presence of male European authors in translation we can help bring readers to both new books, and publishers, that deserve to be on full display. Today, I’ll focus on Archipelagos Books.

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Archipelagos lately. I’d be lying if I didn’t say part of what lures me in about Archipelagos editions are their covers. These beautiful editions give off the rich simplicity of a denuded French publisher with the artistic flair of the US publishing market.

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Angot, Frankétienne, and Laâbi translations by Archipelagos Books

The last three books I’ve read from Archipelagos are Incest by Christine Angot (Trans. Tess Lewis), In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), and Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (Trans. Kaiama L. Glover). Lewis’ translation will shock you in how she is able to capture the abject violence in Incest; this tiny book was a hard-read in that it pushed my limits of comfort, regarding form as well as content. Nicholson-Smith translates the voluminous poetry of Laâbi with striking intimacy, each page of this massive volume feels like a personal aside. Glover’s translation of Ready to Burst is perhaps the most poetic translation I have read in a long time. To translate Frankétienne is a masterclass in interpretation and feel; thanks to Glover’s translation you will be swept into his world without so much as a bump along the way.I have my eyes and heart set on their edition of Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Ultravocal by Frankétienne, coming later in 2018.

Packaging Leila Slimani’s ‘The Perfect Nanny’

My first encounter with Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny (Chanson douce) was last May in Lyon, France. Freshly decorated with its 2016 Prix Goncourt quarter-jacket, the novel stood out to me for two reasons. First, the book was sitting in a cardboard display in two neat columns four books deep, surrounded by bubbly editorial comments about its stunning quality. Second, I was drawn to the author’s name, intrigued that the French literary establishment had recognized a writer of Moroccan descent with its top prize, which has only happened twice in since the prize was created in 1903. That day, I read the first four pages and put the book back in the display.

My second encounter with Slimani was in January, when I read Lauren Collins’ long-form article in the New Yorker announcing Sam Taylor’s translation of Chanson douce as The Perfect Nanny in the US––the UK edition is entitled Lullaby. Presented as the Anglophone introduction to Slimani, Collins’ delves into every aspect of the writer’s career, family history, and her (critical) reception in France. Released in 2017 in the UK, Collins reveals that Penguin chose to shift the name from Lullaby to The Perfect Nanny as a marketing strategy. The editor at Penguin John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership […] We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.”

While it’s true that Chanson douce is readily available for purchase in large-format French supermarkets like Super U and Carrefour, selling The Perfect Nanny in Walmart and Target involves an entirely different “packaging” of translated literature. As Richard Watts explains in his 2004 study Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World, the paratextual material­––cover images, endorsements, color schemes, back “blurbs,” and titles––that “the packaging of translations […] contributes to the vagueness surrounding the cultural field under consideration […] the paratext to translated works of francophone literature tends to reduce the text to an easily assimilable form of otherness” (Watts 161). So when Siciliano argues that The Perfect Nanny belongs in the same category as Gone Girl and The Girl in the Red Coat we see both of these titles mentioned on the front and back covers of the Penguin edition as selling points. Penguin has already decided which readers will buy The Perfect Nanny, it will show up on Amazon suggested lists just as it will appear in bookstores next to its Anglophone thriller counterparts.

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The Penguin US edition of Leila Slimani’s Chanson douce

When I went to buy The Perfect Nanny at my local bookstore I couldn’t find it, but it wasn’t because the store had sold all of their copies, I was simply looking in the wrong section. Slimani’s novel belonged, at least in the US, in the mystery section of the bookstore. In France the novel is considered a thriller, however, since the literary establishment claimed it for its own, it is sold in most stores in the literary fiction section. For Moroccan writers in France, this is also a relatively new phenomenon because writers from the former French colonies and the overseas departments are still considered “Francophone writers,” separate from the likes of Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Duras and the like. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Lauren Collins chose to call her article “The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France,” because its author unwound the post/colonial framing of French bookstores. With this feat, Slimani joins the ranks of writers like Marie NDiaye and Faïza Guène as writers born to immigrant parents to be considered “French” within the realm of the bookstore.

Another aspect of “packaging” that Anglophone publishers have to navigate is how to present an author to a new audience in an enticing manner. Essentially, they decide how to transform a writer from a Francophone writer into a member of the nebulous realm of World Literature. Watts shows how Patrick Chamoiseau is marketed as “the Garcia Márquez of the Antilles” or a writer of worldly repute like François Rabelais or Salman Rushdie (Watts 166-168). Never mind that Máquez actually imagined himself a Caribbean writer, the Francophone writer is subject to new framings and contexts in translation. While Slimani is marketed as the French Gillian Flynn or Kate Hamer, the paratext in the US edition casts Slimani as a Moroccan writer, rather than a French writer.

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The back cover to the Gallimard large-format edition of Chanson douce

For Francophone writers of Maghrebi origins, identity politics nearly always bears itself out in the publishing process or in the literary marketplace in France. Katheryn Kleppinger refers to this process in her book-length study, Branding the Beur Author: Minority Writing and Media in France, 1983-2013, where writers of Maghrebi origins seek to exist in and outside of the parameters of national identity. Slimani escapes identity “branding” by virtue of the timeless presentation of Gallimard’s “collection blanche,” which is the epitome of denuded, demure French printing aesthetics and only includes Slimani’s birth year. However, in the US edition, Slimani is “packaged” as Moroccan and the short biography identifies her husband as French. That the Penguin edition mentions Slimani’s husband’s nationality at the very least presents the writer as an immigrant writer, and potentially as a woman who attained citizenship by way of marriage. Although she was born in Morocco, Slimani has always had French citizenship through her maternal grandmother, Anne, who was from Alsace.

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The biography that precedes the translated front-matter from the Gallimard edition of Chanson douce

Slimani’s packaging in the US is glossy, bold, and definitive. It seeks to present Slimani as a Francophone Moroccan mystery writer, effectively reconfiguring the way she is marketed to a French audience. While Slimani may have conquered France, her post/colonial packaging in the US translates the writer based on the market rather than on her own terms. When asked by a French interviewer why Slimani didn’t write an autobiographical first novel, she responded “Because I’m North African, and I didn’t want to identify myself uniquely with that. I told myself: You’re going to weave a web in which you’re going to imprison yourself, when you have in front of you a much larger horizon.” By embracing Slimani’s North Africanness, Penguin has imbued their French Gone Girl with a decontextualized iteration of French imperial history that will, as Watts explains, force teachers of the translation to situate the works in question in relation to new and old systems of cultural, political, and linguistic meanings. One can only hope that for readers Leila Slimani is not lost in the act of translation.

Wandering and Wading into Translation

Do you ever go to bookstores and wander? I do. I can spend hours looking at the spines of books, careening forward to read a low-laying title, kneeling and stooping to make sure I didn’t miss a book, maybe the book that I will eventually leave with. Last week I went to the bookstore to feel better, and to reflect. After picking up and weighing a half-dozen books, caressing their covers and leafing through the first pages, I left. I didn’t buy anything. I didn’t want what the bookstore had, I wanted what it didn’t.

When I looked at the shelves I couldn’t see the books that were there, only the ones that weren’t. I don’t mean the books that have never leapt off a manuscript page and into the printing press, I don’t mean those that die, still-born in the minds of their authors, or those that fall out of the purview of the bookstore itself. I wanted the books that have not been translated, the books that I know other people want to read, the books that will speak multitudes to people if they could just speak the same language. I want to stress that I wasn’t hallucinating, I wasn’t seeing things––or not seeing them as the present case might prove.

It all began the night before as I was outlining notes for the dissertation chapter I am currently writing. At the time I was overcome by a feeling of anxiety, how would I be able to finish my dissertation? The road is long and arduous, and I am but at the beginning. To comfort myself, I rifled through the closet and pulled out my bound undergraduate and masters theses. Although these two projects took only a couple of months to compile, they felt as monumental to me then as the dissertation does now.

As I started to read them both, I noticed that I was obsessed by the question of translation. My undergraduate self, frustrated with my incomplete mastery of the French language, refused to read translations. I had to read the original. I had to translate it myself. I had to know what the words meant in two tongues, my own and this prosthetic one that I had been cultivating for a number of years. In that footnote so familiar to historians, critics and writers working with translations where you say “all translations in the text are my own unless otherwise noted” I made sure to say that no other translations would be mentioned because I wanted to “stress that translations are merely a stand-in for the French text, and I have tried to maintain the same “feel” of the text, but cannot help to think that all translations fall short of the original text and its authority.”

It’s funny to me that in such a declarative sentence, such a forceful statement, that I wasn’t even sure of myself. My own work was faulty, a lie. My advisor was kind enough not to point this out to me, maybe hoping that I would come back to it later. And so, I am.

At the time, I was concerned that the translations I was reading were inadequate, retrograde, or that they were, to use the most vaguely damning judgement to ever be cast about translations, “unfaithful.” I now know that none of these judgements were fair. For my undergraduate thesis I was working on the poetics of the Guadeloupian writer, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, whose novel Juletane was published in 1982 and shortly after translated into English by one of the most influential translators of Caribbean fiction in French, Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson, who also translated “First Prize” and “Passport to Paradise” from Warner-Vieyra’s collection Failed Women. As a matter of fact, Warner-Vieyra’s first novel As the Sorcerer Said… was translated into English by the much-celebrated UK academic and translator, Dorothy S. Blair. Apart from these translations, my would-be-MA-advisor French professor exposed me to many translations from the Heinemann and Longman African Writers and Caribbean Writers Series, which included important titles like Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy and Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. This early exposure to translation fueled my reading; I craved everything, especially that which had not yet been translated.

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Elizabeth Wilson and Dorothy S. Blair translations of Myriam Warner-Vieyra

I spent many hours in the University of Maryland library staring at the PQ stacks, coveting all of the books that I could not yet read. I wanted to know what was inside their covers, wanted to get lost in their narratives, and wanted to share my experiences with others.

***

            When I began my master’s degree I rejected translations. I didn’t need them anymore, and they had nothing to offer that I didn’t already know. The only way that I can pardon the hubris of my younger self is to remember how insecure I was, how my insecurities in French were a reaction to being in over my head. Shortly after the first term began, a former professor asked me to translate a couple documents from French into English. They were newspaper ads and descriptions of Rio’s Guanabara Bay. I had done some translating for my undergraduate thesis, but this felt different, I felt like I was helping to convey inaccessible material to new readers rather than waging some kind of internal war with myself.

For years I’ve translated historical documents for either the website A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789, articles for other scholars to be republished, or archival fragments to aid others in their research. In a large sense, I have drifted away from the literature that first caught my attention and my translation practice has been largely in the realm of history.

This blog space is an attempt to return to literature, to pay homage to the translators and writers I’ve come to know only in French or in English via translation. On Friday, I submitted my first literary translation to a press (we’ll see how that goes) and as I’ve been working on my dissertation, literature in translation has drawn me back in. Check back in for quick reviews, books and translations I’m reading at the moment, and my unbridled thoughts on the practice and ethics of translation.

Welcome, and happy reading!