English PEN talks to the translators of some of its award-winning books. This time we speak to Alice Guthrie, who translated several of the pieces in Syria Speaks, an award-winning anthology of art, short stories and essays published in June 2014
In June I held the edge of the giant Syrian flag that reached to the very end of the Mezze autostrade. Laughing, I told my husband to go and hold the edge of it – but he didn’t laugh. In Umayyad Square in July I sang along with George Wassouf when he changed the chorus of his hit song Kalam al-naas to Kalaam al-net – from Who Cares What People Say to Who Cares What the Net Says. I relaxed, because I don’t have an Internet connection, and I repeated my oath of allegiance.
And then yesterday came.
Yesterday my soul changed course.
Extract from ‘The Thieves’ Market’ by Ossama Mohammed, translated by Alice Guthrie in Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (2014)
Interview by Rebekah Murrell
On the start of the Syria Speaks project
Syria Speaks is an international project. Can you tell us about the inception of the project – how it came about, how you became involved and your own connection to Syria?
Well I wasn’t involved in the start of the project, actually, I came on board at a fairly late stage when Dan Gorman of Reel Festivals put the editors in touch with me as a translator. They gave me two of the pieces to work on, and then I worked closely with both Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen on the edits of my work. I really enjoyed working with them and getting to know them, and as a result of that collaboration I am now translating Zaher Omareen’s collection of short stories about the Hama massacres, Tales of the Orontes, as well as Rasha Abbas’s new collection, as yet untitled, both due out in 2015.
My own connection to Syria goes back to living there as a student of Arabic and a teacher of English between 2001 and 2003.
On the contributors
As editor Malu Halasa writes in her introduction to Syria Speaks, for the contributors “[c]reativity is a way of not only surviving the violence, but challenging it.” What about, or which of, the contributors’ creative responses to the situation on the ground in Syria did you find particularly affecting?
It’s hard to know where to start with that one, as I find so much of the content of the book to be so powerful, and quite overwhelming in many cases. Mazen Darwish’s letter from prison in which he wishes his torturers’ children well, for example, moves me to tears every time I read it.
The depth of his humanity there has such a transcendental quality. There are pieces in the book which I find so disturbing I almost can’t bear them – some of Sulafa Hijazi’s artwork, for example, such as the woman giving birth to a machine gun, or some of the prison descriptions in Dara Abdullah’s piece ‘Loneliness Pampers Its Victims’. The piece I translated by Rasha Abbas, ‘A Plate of Salmon is not Completely Cleansed of Blood’, is very affecting in another way: it is such a frenzy of imagery and a blur of references, and there are so many shifts of gear and of language and tone in the piece that it makes me feel both breathless (even when reading it silently to myself!) and rattled. It’s so troubling and so complex, and yet on another level it reassures me – like so much of the book does – that there are ragingly clever, brave and eccentric Syrian people grappling artistically with the horrors of this moment in their country’s history with immeasurable verve and flair.
On the influence of new media
Syria Speaks features work from young art collectives (like Alshaab alsori atef tarekh, a poster collective, and Lens Young, a photography collective creatively documenting urban destruction) whose existence has been both catalysed and endangered by the internet. Did you sense the influence of new media in the works you translated?
Definitely, yes. In Oussama Mohamed’s piece ‘The Thieves’ Market’, a short story about a woman making the agonising transition from trust in the regime to understanding its true nature, we hear how the only way she had been able to ignore what was going on was to not have an internet connection and to only follow state media. There is also an interesting reference in the same story to the famous Syrian singer George Wassouf performing a free outdoor show in a central Damascus square and changing the words of one of his hits from ‘We don’t take any notice of what people say’ to ‘We don’t take any notice of what the net says’, in a chilling statement of support for the regime. Researching that, as I translated the story, I listened to a recording of that concert online in which one can hear the shouts of support for Assad from the crowd when Wassouf sings that line. Horrible – especially when we think about how most of that so-called support was motivated by pure terror.
The internet is a huge presence in Rasha Abbas’ piece, along with the mobile phone footage being disseminated by it, and the international news media coverage contrasting so starkly with the Syrian state media version of events. Of course all those things have been absolutely crucial, as we know, in allowing the crimes of the regime to be revealed – even if they haven’t been able to ensure any serious action on the part of the international community to support the Syrian people in their struggle – but they have also allowed the possibility of almost unprecedented exposure, for some, to traumatic imagery and information. The intense emotional anguish or even mental unravelling that can accompany such a deluge of unspeakable footage – perhaps the most distinctively contemporary aspect of twenty-first century conflict – is something that Abbas frequently explores in her work with unflinching honesty and chaotic imagination, and we certainly get a taste of it in the piece featured here.
Of course, the influence of new media is huge and nebulous, and reaches far beyond what we can spot or track.
On culture and politics
The Independent wrote that ‘Syria Speaks is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights or a better understanding of the current conflict.’ Do you think that literature and culture are crucial to the way the world reads news about Syria, and to politics in general?
In terms of politics in general they always have been and always will be, for sure, no? In terms of Syria, culture and the arts are crucial sources, now more than ever, for anyone who wants to understand the country and its troubles better – and Syria Speaks would be one of the very best places for anyone who doesn’t speak Arabic to start.
In three words…
Describe the collection in three words.
Blazing, haunting, defiant