An introductory essay to Stories from Syria, a portfolio published in English by The Common and in Arabic by Akhbar Al Adab (Egypt).
Today, in the second installment of a transatlantic literary collaboration which I hope will last for many years to come, Akhbar Al Adab publishes the original Arabic texts of stories by Syrian writers whose English translations appear in a special portfolio in Issue 17 of The Common, a literary magazine based at Amherst College. The first portfolio in the series contained stories by Jordanian writers and was published in Issue 15 of The Common, which followed the collaboration’s inaugural project: an issue of the magazine (Issue 11, Spring 2016) entirely dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature in translation entitled Tajdeed (Renewal), in which editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker and I selected stories and artworks by twenty-six writers and five artists from fifteen Arabic-speaking countries, with eighteen translators bringing the work into English.
Griffin LessellTranslation as Art: Against Flattening
Born in 1948, Vladimir Gandelsman is very much the literary child of the poets of the Russian Silver Age. He draws on their dramatic, spiritually intense version of modernism, the acme, or the highest point of expression, whether meditating on fleeting moments or on major historical events. His literary parents include Pasternak and Mandelstam. Proust and Wilde are his relatives: he draws on and develops their respective fascinations with the sensuous quality of everyday life. Gandelsman’s exquisite diction and surprising collages of words help us remember our own moments of heightened feeling.
This past fall, I asked Lara Moreno if she would be willing to send me some stories. I had read her novel Piel de lobo (Wolf Skin) (Lumen, 2016) over the summer and was struck by the honesty and intimacy in her portrayal of the interior life of her protagonist, Sofía, a woman in her thirties, mother to a young child, and wanted to try my hand at translating her particular voice. Lara was gracious enough to send me several Word documents, including the story “Toda una vida,” winner of the 2013 Cosecha Eñe prize organized by the prestigious Spanish literary magazine Eñe: Qué Leer, and I’ve been honored and delighted to work with her since.
I’m thinking of a classic geography text that explains how humans use rivers and mountains to mark their borders. The difference is that rivers help humans come and go from each other while mountains keep them apart. But from the textbook of my own travels, I know this isn’t true. The only real borders are those humans make themselves, in their own minds.
—Suddan Wisudthilak, Thai scholar
Two years ago, I stood aghast at the sight of a little island in the Moei River, the border between Thailand’s northwestern Mae Sot district and Burma, on which refugees from the latter had made their home.
“This is it—this is what they call a no-man’s-land,” said my friend, a local provincial administrator, who’d taken me there. “It’s not only that they lack a military force. For me, it also means there’s no humanity. Just look.”
Tamara says that I am constantly on edge; she says that for people like me, meditation can help. “Meditate on what?” “On yourself,” she replies. “Look inside yourself.” There’s nothing there, Tamara, nothing to see; everything that crosses my mind lies outside me: Goya’s caprichos, the appalling translation of Bertrand Russell’s essays on epistemology I was reading yesterday, the over-vinegared salad I ate today. Perhaps this is my self, Tamara: nothing worth contemplating.
I sprinted towards them as they battered away. Tried, but could not open the bolted door. I shouted out, called at the top of my voice for those around me to help, but to no avail. And when at last I despaired, and turned my back to come away, my head knocked against the wall of a water tank, greater still, shut fast against me.
She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye.