‘Frying pan fire’ – a word from the translator with Lulu Norman

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Lulu Norman, whose translation of Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God won an award in 2013


No more chasing around frantically, expending pointless energy, no more insults and stupid brawling. No more living like cockroaches on the excrement of heretics. Gone, the fatalism injected in our veins by our uneducated parents. We learned to stand shoulder to shoulder, to flatly refuse the worm’s life to which we’d been condemned in perpetuity. We knew that rights weren’t given, they had to be seized. And we were ready for any sacrifice.

Extract from Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from French by Lulu Norman

Interview by Grace Hetherington 

Did you find it challenging to translate the ‘voice’ in this novel, given that the narrator and protagonist is at once a young boy and a man speaking from beyond the grave?

This was probably the biggest challenge of the translation. It had to work as the voice of an illiterate street kid but at the same time be capable of relating a story and concepts from a very complex adult world. It’s not clear, in fact, that the narrator ever becomes an adult, but wherever he is in the afterlife, he’s definitely had a literary education post-mortem – a poetic licence that Mahi makes explicit at one point and that we totally accept. The key seemed to be to read it aloud again and again, and to be as simple and direct as possible throughout. Mahi is very much in the Arab oral story-telling tradition. In this translation I had the tendency to strip things down to their barest. I find you have to do that to an extent in any translation from French, as we tend to be much more concrete, but it was carried to an extreme in this book. I have to say I went over and over and over the translation, many more times than I normally would – partly because, unusually, I had nine months to complete it – and I was constantly cutting away, concentrating on rhythm, tone, and the impact of the language.

The narrative contains a lot of the kind of slang you’d expect from a group of young street kids. How do you decide exactly what tone that slang will take, when there is such a plethora of options in English?

I don’t really ‘decide’: the obvious word or phrase usually comes very naturally if I am really immersed in the book and in tune with the writer. Then I check and hone it afterwards to make sure it rings true for the character. It had to be completely believable as what a kid here might say in similar circumstances, whilst not being limited to any time or place in particular, and it’s pretty instinctive. I have strong ideas or feelings about language, tone and slang, and tend to find solutions or know what doesn’t work quickly, if I’ve done the groundwork, so it never seems there’s a plethora of options. But I do make little personal thesauruses for all the themes that come up a lot in a book – in this instance fighting, eating and dirt – which come from brainstorming, listing, reading or looking up words. That’s really to keep my language elastic (and it helps avoid repetition) and to have good relevant options at my fingertips. It’s amazing too how often the right phrase happens to get read or said at the bus stop or wherever; that’s the lovely serendipity of translation or any creative process, your mind is working on it on some level the whole time and ‘le mot juste’ will turn up while you’re doing something else. Other more knotty problems take more time. The main thing was to have nothing mild or wishy-washy, vague or euphemistic, or else the brutality of the narrator’s world, as well as the more poetic passages, would not be convincing. So the English had to match that. I still remember a translation of an Arab novel I read ages ago, set in present-day Egypt, with a lot of slangy dialogue, in which the translator had the kids calling each other ‘clot’ and ‘dunce’…

Do you see your commitment to translating authors like Binebine as social and/or political in bringing works to Anglophone readers that will affect our encounter and understanding of different cultures, like that of the Moroccan underclass described in the book? Or is translation first and foremost an art?

I do think the act of translation is social and political, in the sense that humankind’s inability to cope with difference seems as old and persistent as time. To me, to confront one culture with another, to look through another’s eyes and attempt to transpose their language is a kind of salvation, since a different culture offers a glorious antidote to our own world. So to champion a writer whose world might be completely other can feel radical. And it really is being their champion, and a labour of love, especially if no publisher is showing an interest, and particularly since translators are so poorly paid in this country.

It’s also politically and socially relevant to be translating writers from the Arab world when the general trend of public discourse tends to Islamophobia, according to and felt by so many. When I started out in the 90s, there was almost nil interest in Arab writers; I couldn’t interest any editors in the writers I was reading and translating. Almost all those writers have now been published, which is a hugely welcome development, another hopeful offshoot of events since 9/11 and the Arab Spring. People are far more interested now. So I think that in that way the Arab world has come much closer and our understanding of it has deepened.

The two books of Binebine’s I’ve translated deal with overtly social and political issues, very topical ones here, since illegal immigration and suicide bombing impact the West so directly. I remember how ashamed and disgusted I felt (and still feel, in fact) at the discourse on ‘bogus asylum seekers’ in mainstream media and in Parliament, so when Banipal asked me to translate an excerpt from Cannibales (which became Welcome to Paradise), and the book hit me like a punch in the stomach, it felt very good to be able to do something about it in however small a way.

I don’t really care if translation is called art, craft or whatever. All I know is that we grind away and occasionally get that wonderful uplifting feeling, proper to any creative endeavour, when something falls into place and a solution happens almost without your knowing it. And to manage to inhabit another mind or world, to make ourselves invisible, feels like a feat of sorts. On a good day, translation feels a bit like alchemy.   

 Describe Horses of God in three words.

Frying pan fire.


Lulu Norman is a writer, translator and editor who lives in London. She has translated Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, Tahar Ben Jelloun and the songs of Serge Gainsbourg and written for national newspapers, the London Review of Books and other literary journals. Her translation of Mahi Binebine’s Welcome to Paradise (Granta, 2003) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

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