Amanda Hopkinson reports on her discussion with Ahdaf Soueif
At an initial planning meeting for the second International Translation Day at the Free Word Centre, the unanimous decision was taken to invite a prominent journalist to discuss issues of translation in their practice. ‘Literary Translation’ is too often taken to mean simply ‘high literature’ – predominantly poetry and fiction – and other non-fiction genres can get marginalised. In seeking someone known through both press and broadcast media, it would be a welcome bonus to find one who writes essays; in-depth investigations; contemporary history and, as it happens, fiction. Again, the unanimous choice was one who does all this and more: Anglo-Egyptian writer, Ahdaf Soueif.
Ahdaf Soueif became known in the 1990s for her fiction, particularly when her third novel, The Map of Love, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999. It became a bestseller and was translated into 28 languages. Ahdaf is also a literary translator herself, though she admits largely “for friends, as I always have so much else to write”. One of these friends is the great Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti, whose I Saw Ramallah appeared in 2004. In the same year, Ahdaf’s own collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground was published, an anthology of political and cultural essays from the previous decade. The ‘common ground’ is essentially the Middle East, but Ahdaf’s special talent lies in explicating global connections. In short, her humanitarian concerns coincide with those of PEN.
The week that Ahdaf flew in to speak at International Translation Day The Guardian named her as one of the top 100 people ‘exercising the most influence on the UK’s reading habits right now’. The forthcoming publication of her latest book, written under the immense pressure of time and events, was also announced at International Translation Day. Cairo: My City, Our Revolution [due January 2012] is her eyewitness account of events there since February this year, when the revolution precipitating the deposition of Hosni Mubarek began with the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square.
Our conversation inevitably fell to the new book – which she is still writing – as did many of the questions that followed. Ahdaf has written all her books and most of her journalism in English (the language of her education), although she has recently taken on a weekly column for the Al-Sharoukh newspaper in Cairo. Working in – and between – two languages, Ahdaf explained how hard it can be to deal with ‘untranslatable words’ for a British readership that may have difficulties in differentiating between italicised Arabic words such as intifada and jihad. Ahdaf is also best-placed to argue the literary translator’s mantra that ‘content can only derive from context’ as she has lived in the context of so many of her works. The Map of Love – like her earlier novels and short stories – may be a fictionalised exploration of personal relationships, but mapping the new cross-cultural world we all now inhabit is the recurrent theme of all her work. And, by way of a light-hearted but seriously-intentioned codicil, Ahdaf offered us a short reading from her work on the challenges of translating the tone and associations of the most commonplace conversations from a different cultural context.
Whether as novelist or activist, commentator or festival co-ordinator (of The Palestine Festival of Literature), Ahdaf is at the axis of multiple crossroads. She also happens to be our foremost Anglo-Egyptian author and it was a privilege for English PEN, Free Word and Literary Translation Centre partners to hear her at such an historic moment in time.
Report by Amanda Hopkinson
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/ahdafsoueifinternationaltranslationdayeveningspecial/