Translator Elisabeth Jaquette speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about four stories she translated from Arabic for Issue 19 of The Common magazine. These stories appear in a special portfolio of fiction from established and emerging Sudanese writers. In this conversation, Jaquette talks about the delights and difficulties of translating from Arabic, as well as her thoughts on form, style, and satire in literature from the Arab world. She also discusses translating Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, which is currently a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature.
Podcast: Elisabeth Jaquette on Translating Sudanese Fiction
That’s what my mother calls from where she sits on her low stool, which seems to long for the earth of my father’s grave, when she sees me kick an onion between two of the legs supporting the large earthen water jar. My vegeta-ball bounces off one leg and lands in the smoke pit, crying hot tears from the wound she sustained when she struck the sharp leg.
The smoke pit is under my grandmother’s wooden bed, so I bend down to retrieve my vegeta-ball, but when I see that the ground under her bed is wet with water dripping from the jug, I immediately forget what I was looking for. I love mud, and so donkeys, sheep, lions, elephants, and chickens emerge from the mud thanks to my fingertips, and then I take my new flock to graze in the courtyard, where they all eat grass, and even the lion’s stomach is fine with it. The two pebbles I use for his sad and happy eyes are like lovely girls’ eyes in my country. The elephant is smaller than the goat; it wasn’t born, doesn’t reproduce, and won’t die, just like the goat, and like me, I think, and the matches make for straight tusks. My mother is looking at me with a lot of love, not because I’m little and without a father, but because I’m ugly and skinny and poor, and my mother thinks this trinity will crucify me on sturdy beams before the age of thirty. But she doesn’t notice that the lion I’ve made is like an officer in plainclothes, that its mouth looks as meek as the beak of a bird, as if Christ has come down into my fingertips, then out through my hands. “Don’t worry about him,ˮ my grandmother tells my mother. “He’s been watching water drip from the jug for four hours, perfectly happy.”
He spotted her slender body, whipped by the hot air, on the verge of being flattened by the wheels of the racing cars. Without hesitation, hedecided to save her. He glanced around, then rushed to launchhimself deftly into the air, while behind him fluttered the hems of his tattered rags and the rope he had cinched around his waist in place of a belt to hold the threadbare rags against his thin, feeble body. For an instant everything was still; for a moment his mind went numb.Then bodies leaned, necks elongated, eyes widened, breaths quickened, and a panicked cry of warning escaped: “Hey, watch out!”
The entire scene instantly transformed into a boisterous one-man show, a masterful performance. He just managed to reach out and grab the edge of the empty cardboard box before roughly colliding with the asphalt. He looked around for an instant, then lightly stood, clutching the box, astonishing bystanders andcausing drivers to gasp and swerve to avoid running him over.
Amid the chaos, shouting, laughter, and exclamations of “Thank God!,” some people were awestruck by how terribly wrong things could have gone in that astounding moment. Meanwhile, mouths began to quickly—and freely—recount what had just occurred, adding some details, analysis, and a few imaginative embellishments to the life of the former high school teacher, who had ended up the skinniest and dustiest man with the most protruding ribs, absentmindedly wanderingthe open-air museum of Omdurman’s city streets.
Every Friday morning, all the residents in the simmering neighborhood of Wilat in this drab African city waited for the General to appear, to officially open the narrow street that passed between their houses. They had paid for the street’s construction themselves. And they could have used the road without any fuss, but neighborhood authorities had informed them, six months earlier, that His Eminence would be arriving to open the street himself. These authorities, and several other authorities, had ordered the residents to line up in the early morning on the first Friday of the month, but the General did not arrive, and so they repeated this scene on Fridays for months, in hopes of greeting him. Then an order was issued that forbade residents from driving their cars on the new street before it was officially opened. The residents kept lining up as usual for this tiresome wait, whispering and murmuring, but the opening did not happen. Many cursed the day on which the idea arose to build this now-postponed street, and after a long wait, they eventually dispersed in time for prayers, without having been cheered by the sight of His Eminence cutting the ribbon. That act was expected to last only seconds, at which point the neglected street would become well-known, and the media would add the street to a list of the government’s accomplishments. Really, any local official could do the job.
The oldest boys in the neighborhood—“bullies,” as our Egyptian neighbors would say—chased that boy… chased me.
I’d long been obsessed with watching Egyptian TV shows and films, sneaking into the cinema to see them because in our house it was forbidden… “forbidden, boy, to go there.ˮ According to my mother, grandmother, and the other women in the neighborhood, screens are the devil’s handiwork: they corrupt good boys and girls. Of course, they’re poor women, without an ounce of luck.
Between France and Marrakech is a route upon which travels a single bus from Paris. The bus reaches its destination safely, as one might hope and expect. Then the passengers who so desire transfer to another bus, which takes them by an established road to Agadir.
His coffee lasts. It’s what he starts his mornings with, early, and then he drinks half a cup in the mid-afternoon. It keeps him company. Maybe the smell of it fresh is the reason he keeps sipping it, even after it’s gone cold. Or maybe he has other reasons. Maybe he feels a certain duty, a responsibility toward it. His coffee, poured into a paper cup, changes in color, shape, and size each day, depending on the kiosk he buys it from. The man and his coffee spend the whole day together, and then he leaves it on his desk or the first ledge he sees. He abandons it without a last sip, or even a word of farewell. He leaves the paper cup of coffee and returns to his world, trusting that another one will be waiting for him in another kiosk tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.
You may wonder how old this sleepless face is. You may put him to bed in a long-gone mountain garden. Or revive him in the gardens of years to come, centuries from now. That’s where I live, in a dimension unseen by your future eyes, where feather-light cars drive by, and words freeze in the air.
This face appears on the other side of the table from me, in a bar suspended at three hundred meters. We sip our drinks in their feather-light glasses: neither raising them up nor setting them down nor clinking them together makes a sound to be heard. We hear no motors grinding or jet engines screeching on the trails wrapping around the mountain lodge. We are immersed in what scientists call the hush void, a space of near-utter silence. Here, voices fall mute when they pass beyond the scant inches of one’s hearing range. In the hush void, words can always be heard by the ears of the person meant to hear them. But if they escape beyond the void, into the vastness below, even a softly-spoken syllable could set off an avalanche in a solid rock face.