English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Second in the series is Linda Coverdale, whose translation of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s A Palace in the Old Village received an award in 2010
A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
“Mohammed thought about his five children. They would stand by him, no question; they wouldn’t abandon him or let him fall prey to sadness but take care of him, fuss over him, give him presents, send him on another pilgrimage to Mecca. No, the children were his pride and his protection against feeling lonesome. They respected him even though they rarely spoke to him.”
Interview by Polly Roberts
You chose to maintain many domestic and foreign words in their original French or Arabic, so much so that you included a glossary to the English edition of A Palace in the Old Village. Why did you feel maintaining elements of the original language here would add to the translation, and where did you draw the line?
When the original French word is particularly emblematic of the Frenchness of a text and works well in the translation, I like to keep it for atmosphere. (I have a running battle with copy editors who want to have Parisians sit in a cafe instead of a café! Please.) Such elements should never become intrusive, but when Ben Jelloun uses unusual words in his text, they should be treated with the same respect as the rest of his novel. When he speaks of democracy and then says that in Marrakech, someone on the radio was shouting, “Demokratía . . . demokratía al hakikya!”—then the reader will remember that some people may speak French in Morocco, but the language of the country, Mohammed’s native language, is Arabic, the language he brought with him to France and the one to which he finally goes home. As I said in my Translator’s Note for the book, Mohammed passes “From one time to another, one life to another,” changing “centuries, countries, customs.” He changes languages, too, and it is all these tragic gaps in his understanding that will swallow him whole, literally, in the end.
Ben Jelloun, originally from Morocco, lives and writes in exile in Paris. He wrote A Palace in the Old Village in French but included many words in their original Arabic. As a translator of French literature, were there any points where you felt your translation could be at a disadvantage by not also knowing the Arabic used in the book?
I would never translate a book unless I could read it with complete understanding. I checked the Arabic with native speakers. When I was asked to translate Patrick Chamoiseau’s Chronique des sept misères a long time ago, I was truly unhappy to have to decline the offer because at the time I wasn’t familiar enough with Martinican Creole language and culture to do justice to the book. But later I did my homework with Chamoiseau, studying the history, folklore, and customs of that culture. When I began to translate Chamoiseau, I made sure that I understood all the kreyol in Au temps de l’antan, and wherever necessary, I found a way to make sure the reader of Creole Folktales would understand any vital Creole information by slipping a word or two of explanation into the stories—but only when this could be done smoothly and efficiently. Chamoiseau had specifically wanted the kreyol nursery rhymes in his tales to remain untranslated so that they could work “their secret magic,” but by the time I at last took up Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows, I had his permission to add explanatory notes at the end of the text, because there was so much in his novel that a French reader would understand, but that would completely flummox an English-speaking reader. My feeling is that a translator should ensure that the English text will provide the reader with as much of the sense and sensibility of the French original as possible, and if that means providing information in brief interpolations or notes of any kind, then that’s part of the job.
In A Palace in the Old Village, we see the protagonist Mohammed, an immigrant for much of his life, make his journey back home to Morocco where he creates a place his family can visit together; but he soon finds that between the generations of his family there is now a cultural gap. Could you relate to Mohammed’s yearning for family and tradition and how much do you find identifying with a book helps you with the translation process?
If for any reason whatsoever I do not feel I can translate a book well, I do not accept the job. I don’t have to think the book I’m working on is the best book ever, but if I think it ought to be published, and that I can handle the task, then even if I have some reservations about it, I give it the best “Englishing” I can, because this is the only chance the French author will have in English, and the work deserves my best. That’s what makes me care about any book. Mohammed was a deeply touching character, an imperfect human being who worked hard all his life, fell through no real fault of his own into the crack between two worlds, and met a terrible—if glorious—fate. The challenge was to give him a heartfelt send-off into English!
A Palace in the Old Village has been described as ‘typical to Arab storytelling’ in the way the ‘plot is bolstered with stories and structural somersaults.’ Did you feel it was important to know something of Arabic storytelling traditions before you translated the book, or did you find these traditions evident purely in its original use of language?
As a child I read so many folktales, myths, and fairy tales that this question never even arose. In this case, the book speaks for itself. Here Ben Jelloun’s debt to Arab storytelling is in his style, and respecting that will showcase the literary traditions on which he draws. Any unfamiliar religious, political, historical, and folk elements involved were elucidated in the endnotes. Ben Jelloun has several styles, and the end of this novel is characterized by his personal brand of magic realism, which is often enigmatic. In such cases, again, the translator must endeavor to break the code. Many Francophone authors pose particular challenges because they use French, so to speak, against France, commandeering the language of the coloniser and wielding it as a magic weapon. I had to write an entire introduction to the first book I translated by Lyonel Trouillot because this Haitian author came out of his corner in fighting mode, with a language “rich in allusions and wordplay, flickering with hidden significance, studded with tiny devices of explosive meaning that may burst upon the reader when least expected.” The whole of Haitian life was in his little novel, centuries of it, and in this case, it was important for me to know something about Creole storytelling because I had to develop radar—so that I could sense when something else was lurking beneath perfectly innocent French and then take it to a Haitian writer for exegesis: “That? Oh, yes, that’s an allusion to one of Papa Doc’s campaign slogans…” Aha!
As a female translator do you ever find it difficult to adopt and maintain the voice of a man and the stream of his thoughts despite already being given his words?
Short answer: nope. When translators read books, they discover whether or not the voices within it can be found within themselves, and there are many voices in even one short book. Individual French translators (for example) will be variously adept at tackling different kinds of narrative languages and literary genres. Sometimes an author will think I’ll have trouble with some complicated jargon or dialect in a book but no, I’ll find I can set my thoughts in that groove and spin the text out, whereas handling a piece of straightforward exposition set in an eighteenth-century law court, for example, feels like chewing nails. The last time I checked, translating takes place in the mind, nowhere else, and the mind is in the top of the body, not the bottom.
Linda Coverdale has a Ph.D. in French Studies and has translated more than sixty-five books, including Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, for which she received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, she won the 2006 Scott Moncrieff Prize and the 1997 and 2008 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.