This article first appeared here in Arabic Literature in English.
On May 15, Nakba Day, Shadi Rohana, a Mexico-based literary translator, attracted a devoted group of literary enthusiasts to the historic Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. They came to discuss José Emilio Pacheco’s Las batallas en el desierto [Battles in the Desert/معارك الصحراء]].
Shadi has introduced and translated a number of Latin American authors from Spanish into Arabic, including Rodolfo Walsh, Yolanda Oreamuno, David Huerta, Eduardo Galeano and José Emilio Pacheco, as well as speeches and declarations from the EZLN in Chiapas, but Las batallas en el desierto is his first novel-length work.
To be honest, while I had always realized the relevance of translating Arabic literature into other languages to get Arab perspectives into the global consciousness, I had not previously taken the time to consider the importance – and politics – of translating literature from other languages into Arabic.
Curious, I spoke to Shadi, the translator, and the moderator of the session, Budour Hassan, a well-known political commentator with extensive knowledge about literature. She blogs in several languages.
Nora: What attracted you to learn Spanish, your fourth language after Arabic, Hebrew and English?
Shadi: I started learning Spanish when I found myself as a college student in the United States. I knew one of the good things US colleges offer is study abroad programs and I wanted to go to Cuba. But it was during the rule of Bush II and the embargo was tightened, so I couldn’t go through my college. But in the meantime I was learning Spanish from professors from Mexico, Venezuela, and El Salvador, and I discovered there is a whole continent I really knew nothing of. So, in the process of learning a new language there was also a process of opening up to the region of Latin America, which to me at the time was something totally new, intriguing and attractive. It was like being a little child and growing all over again.
Does the experience of translation, or your attraction to it, have anything to do with being Palestinian?
Shadi: I’m not sure. It is true that Palestinians speak many languages. To find a Palestinian who speaks only Arabic is practically impossible. Everyone I know has had to work as a translator at some point for some NGO or agency, when they were short of money. Also, given Israel’s position in the world, we are always expected to explain “the situation” to others, whether at home or abroad. This can be considered a kind of translation. But literary translation is something else and it requires, first and foremost, personal initiative, learning, and love for literature, not only the ability to explain one world to people from another.
How does your knowledge of so many languages affect your translation from Spanish to Arabic? Do you mediate through other languages?
Shadi: When I translate between Spanish and Arabic I am very self-conscious about avoiding reading or consulting other translations (English or Hebrew). One of the disasters in the Arab and Spanish-language literary worlds is that you can still find translations that are not direct, which go through other languages first (usually either English or French). This, today, is unacceptable since there are people who are capable of working between Arabic and Spanish without any other “mediating” language.
Budour: Shadi is definitely one of the few translators who translates directly from Spanish to Arabic, which is rare not just among Palestinians but among Arabs as a whole. Unfortunately, most Spanish-language novels available in Arabic were translated through English, i.e., translation of a translation. Sadly, the main criteria for translating into Arabic today has more to do with market than quality. So if a non-English-speaking author has sold record copies and has won a prestigious award and is famous in the English-speaking world, that makes it easier to translate him or her to Arabic. So what we eventually end up getting in Arabic is a mirror image of what the mainstream US and European publishers have deemed profitable and “successful” enough to merit translating into English. Even overrated authors who are not highly regarded in the Spanish-language literary scene but who are popular in the US through the translation of their work are more likely to be translated into Arabic. Isabel Allende, for instance, is a kind of literary celeb in the US, which is not the case in her native Chile; Allende’s works have not only been translated into Arabic but even adapted to Arab TV drama. So eventually the shreds we get to read in Arabic are determined by the dictates of foreign publishers. People like Shadi have a project to break those shackles, but unless there are courageous Arab publishers ready to support them, we will remain in this desperate situation where the literature accessible to us in Arabic is selected by global market considerations.
Why did you choose to translate this specific novel?
Shadi: It’s the first novel I was able to fully read in Spanish. When I read it as a college student, before having gone to Latin America, what struck me most was how “normal” the story is. It tells the story of Carlos, a child from the rising Mexican middle-class in the Colonia Roma in Mexico City, and what happens when Carlos falls in love. The novel is written in simple language that I was able to read, even while I was learning. I could relate a lot to the story because in my encounter with Spanish, I too really feel like a child.
Years later I found myself in Mexico City and living in Colonia Roma, where the novel takes place. This, of course, made me reread the novel. Rereading Las batallas through its translation made me realize the depth of the story it tells and what lies underneath the apparent simplicity of its language; that the narrator registers a moment in Mexican history not only through the political and social context of the story, but also through the language itself and how things are narrated.
I had a lot of support for the translation project in both Mexico and in Palestine, and because of this generosity the book is now available through Qadita Books in Palestine and the Ahliyya in Amman, who will bringing the book to book fairs and bookstores in Arab countries.
Budour: I think Shadi’s translation of the novel is important, not just for Palestinians, but for all lovers of literature. J.E. Pacheco, as far as I know, has hardly been translated into Arabic — even though he is one of Latin America’s most important authors from the second half of the last century. Having this novel translated into Arabic will, hopefully, introduce a larger Arabic-speaking audience to Pacheco’s writings.
Was it meaningful to you to discuss the book with Palestinians in Ramallah? At the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center? Why?
Shadi: Certainly it was. I was also able to discuss the book in my city, Haifa. Even though the participants in both events had not had the chance to read the novel first, we were able to discuss issues related to translation and literature, and of course the politics and history of both Mexico and Palestine – simply by reading aloud from the novel. Arabs in general today are introspective about who we are and who we used to be. So, despite the horrors that are going on politically, there are also a lot of interesting discussions happening, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to engage in them, and especially to do so in Arabic.
Budour: There is definitely significant interest among Palestinians in poetry that comes from Latin America, although novels reflecting magical realism are even more popular, and in this sense las batallas en el desierto is completely different. Obviously, we would have loved to have had the honor of hosting Pacheco, the author, in Palestine (and he would probably have been happy to know that his novel was translated into Arabic, in such solid way), but having Shadi speak about his experience as a translator also added value. We didn’t just discuss the novel; we talked about a wide range of issues, including the crisis of translations in the Arab world, the lack of direct translations from Spanish to Arabic, and the limitations that Shadi faced as a translator, particularly the difficulty of finding a publisher.
Apart from going deep into the novel its social and political context, we discussed Latin American literature in general challenging certain common portrayals of Latin American societies, and also the scarcity of Arabic literature translated into Spanish (again apart from award-winning authors).
When you mentioned to me that you’d be selling the book at the Palestinian International Book Fair, you said that you were “only” the translator. Do you feel that the contributions of translators are understood and valued by the general public? By the publishing industry?
Shadi: From my personal experience with Las batallas, I do feel that my work has been valued in both Mexico and Palestine, not only as a translator, but also because of the work I did to get the project going (e.g., securing funding, insisting on publishing the book in Palestine, working directly from Spanish to Arabic). It was also great to have Saleh Almani, veteran Spanish to Arabic translator from Syria (and the grandson of the village of Tarshiha in the Galilee), present at the book fair His name is well known among Arabic readers for his accomplishments translating authors like García Márquez.
As for publishing, honestly I’m a newcomer and I’m still trying to get a sense of what the industry is really like. My experience with the publishers Qadita and Ahliyya is very positive.
But what I do think is missing in the Arabic publishing industry, and the Arabic-reading public in general, is an understanding of and value for the artists who design and illustrate books. I feel most Arabic books are published with very little care for the appearance of the book, and as much as we would like not to judge a book by its cover, sometimes you can’t really help it.
For Las batallas in Arabic we had the contribution of Mexican artist Adriana Ronquillo, who made linocut printmaking especially for the Arabic edition, illustrating the cover and each chapter of the novel. The printmaking she did for the cover, illustrating Mexico City, is very inviting in my opinion.
What do you hope to accomplish by working as a translator of Mexican literature into Arabic? What projects are you working on now?
Shadi: I presented and discussed the book here in Palestine with old and new friends, so there is really nothing more I can ask for at the moment. Regardless of whether people like the book or not, I hope it will be an invitation to Arab readers to read more and dig deeper into Latin American and Spanish-language literature. For me, good books are those that call you to read other books. They send you to places you never thought of or imagined before.
Update: Shadi Rohana is contributing to an Arabic-Spanish translation of Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayad. Ashraf is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia serving an eight-year sentence for blasphemy. To show solidarity for Ashraf Fayad, you can purchase Palabras para Ashraf and write letters on his behalf or sign a petition in Spanish.