English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Max Weiss, whose translation of A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution received an award in 2012
A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
The Friday of Perseverance took place in the middle of April, and Good Friday saw the largest harvest of victims; then there was the Friday of Defiance and the organizers were punished. Thoughts I try to put in order: eight hundred civilians killed by the security forces, a large number of army officers among the dead. The rhetorical posture of the protest movement in Syria is growing and growing. There are so many details about pain and subjugation and death, about fear and the consecutive breaths of life… the life that is slowly expiring here before the eyes of the entire world.
Interview by Polly Roberts
Do you feel it is a privilege to translate literature that is written about a subject you are keenly interested in – that you are given the opportunity to delve further into the subject matter than would the average reader?
For me translating is a pleasure that developed organically out of my passion for literature rather than through any formal training or master plan. The real privilege, as I see it, is to be able to take advantage of time and resources that allow me to dedicate myself to the task of translation. Technically speaking, my “day job” is researching, writing and teaching the social, cultural and intellectual history of the modern and contemporary Middle East. Of course, I certainly benefit from and enjoy this wonderful opportunity to delve further into literary, political and historical texts; at the same time, my commitment to the craft of translation is also social and political insofar as I consciously participate in selecting works that I think are going to make an impact on how Anglophone readerships will encounter and comprehend the Arabic-speaking world.
Samar Yazbek kept a diary throughout the first four months of the Syrian uprising and here we have it published as a book. Samar’s fury with the regime generated much attention and she had to flee Syria along with her daughter. Knowing of the risk that Samar Yazbek was in at home, did it encourage or discourage you to translate her text into English? Were you worried for her safety in doing so?
Like everyone I know of who has heard or read her story, I was deeply moved by the temerity that Samar showed in everything she has done and in everything she has written. Once she had left Syria and we learned that she finally intended to publish the diaries in Arabic—which was not such a sure thing during the second half of 2011—I knew the English version would not pile any more risk or danger onto Samar’s shoulders. In addition, because she and her daughter had by this point fled the country with no explicit intentions of going back until the regime fell, I did not feel that this translation work would jeopardize her. Moreover, when we spoke about the project, she was very excited about these stories getting out to a broader audience beyond the Arab world.
As you will know from having read the diaries, they are not only about her, and Samar would be the first to insist that the true subject of the diaries is the Syrian people and their revolution of dignity, freedom and justice, even if the first-person narrator and protagonist is Samar Yazbek herself. One last thing that I would like to say about this issue regards the matter of bravery: Some people have asked me whether I was ever discouraged from translating her writing for fear of her safety or of my own. I have never given this any thought, except when prompted by others to consider the possibility. I want to stress that whatever minimal courage I have had to muster in order to translate and publish these diaries in English pales in comparison to the gargantuan courage that Samar shows every day of her life and that is on display nonstop with the hundreds if not thousands of known and anonymous activists in every corner of the Syrian revolution. If she already inhabits a world without fear, even after the terrible horrors she has seen and felt, then surely we can find a way to not only take courage from her inspiring stories but also to give something in return.
Did you have a personal understanding of Samar Yazbek’s individual situation and writing before agreeing to translate the text?
Yes, I had heard about her story and read some articles in al-Quds al-`Arabi newspaper, but since I am not on Facebook, I only learned about and eventually read her online postings after reading the unpublished Arabic manuscript of the diaries. Of course, the particularities of her story remained relatively obscure to me until I delved into the diaries at the level of literary translation and began to correspond with Samar on a personal level. The more I learn about her life-story and the more of her work that I read, I find it increasingly important to help broadcast and publicize her voice but also the voices of other Syrian writers and intellectuals who remain hopelessly distant from international conversations about literature, politics and culture. In fact, I would argue that the relative cultural isolation that Syrian writers, poets, artists and filmmakers continue to confront is one side effect of more than four decades of authoritarian rule.
How is it as a man to translate the straightforward monologue of a woman, knowing that the woman who wrote the words will also read your interpretation of them; is this something to consider and are there ever any difficulties with it?
There are myriad difficulties in translating the experience, voice and narrative of another. At a certain level, this might be said to be the very crux of translation theory itself. More concretely, though, this was not my first time translating an Arabic text by a woman writer. In 2008 I published an English edition of a polyphonic novel by Iman Humaydan Younes, called B as in Beirut, in which four female protagonists and their interlocking life-stories are buffeted by the circumstances and consequences of the Lebanese civil war. A Woman in the Crossfire is even more splintered in terms of the number of characters that enter the text from time to time. The difficulty resided in how best to distinguish among all of these voices, many of which appear in the diaries once, for a brief moment, only to disappear without a trace.
Of course, I am sure there are some women (and men) who believe that only a woman can comprehend, empathize with and, by extension, articulate the experience of a woman. I might be forced to reassess my position on this—especially if and when I receive criticism of the translation on these grounds—but I am inclined to argue that the matters of human empathy and literary understanding are not bound or immutably hamstrung by questions of gender, nationality or religious affiliation, whether we are speaking about readers, critics or translators. In the end, the universal power of literature transcends these arbitrary and shifting categories and boundaries.
Max Weiss is Assistant Professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi`ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), co-editor of Facing Fear: The History of an Emotion in Global Perspective (Princeton University Press, 2012), and the translator, most recently, of Hassouna Mosbahi, A Tunisian Tale (American University in Cairo Press, 2011), Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (London: Haus Publishing, 2012), and Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar (London: Pushkin Press, 2013). His current book project is an interpretive history of Syria in the twentieth century, to be published by Princeton University Press. Ph.D. Stanford University.