English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Robin Moger, whose translation of Writing Revolution: the voices from Tunis to Damascus won an award in 2013
It was in Ramadan of that very year that the tyrant perpetrated one of his most horrific crimes, executing opponents in the public squares and plazas and broadcasting their deaths on television to a nation sitting down to break the fast.
Orwell’s book was visible on my father’s shelves. I can still recall its plain cover and yellowed pages, its solemn black typeface and its stacked lines of close-packed words. My father once advised me to read it. This was back in 2003, when I was 13, and it had never occurred to me to touch a book so old and so battered. I often hesitated over it, but it was only in the summer of 2009 that I read it for the first time, urged by my friend, the Libyan author Ghazi Gheblawi who described it as a perfect analysis of the Libyan condition. I bought it and sat reading for two whole days: Orwell had painted a picture of Libya under Gaddafi. Naturally, I understood that wasn’t his intention; he was aiming at every totalitarian that overthrows a legitimate government beneath the banner of ‘revolution’ and commits its crimes and perpetrates terrorism under cover of ‘revolutionary law’.
If I had read it back when I was 13 would I have understood why my father wanted me to read it, or would I have raced through it, blissfully unaware, as though reading any other novel or play?
-Excerpt from Writing Revolution- the Voices from Tunis to Damascus – translated by Robin Moger (Arabic) and Georgina Collins (French)
The works you’ve translated from Arabic are essays from different countries, cities, people and revolutions. How do you research authors before translating their work?
The editors who put the book together explained how they had chosen the writer – how they had met or heard about them first, for instance. In a couple of cases I was in contact with the authors directly. The texts themselves are quite powerful and distinctive pieces and so what information I had was more than enough to flesh out the voices.
How did you go about translating the range of different voices in the anthology?
Well, I read the texts and listened to them and for me I’m not sure what else there is to it beyond that.
The closest reader of a text is the translator. When translating Writing Revolution what struck you as the most persistent themes across the different essays?
Themes isn’t perhaps the word I’d choose. If anything was consistently present in all the pieces I translated it would be the honesty and vulnerability of the writing, and by vulnerability, I mean a degree of transparency – they show bravado as well as bravery if you see what I mean; it is not a totally comfortable ride from that perspective which I think is courageous and unusual. Another thing they all have in common is context; in some cases their pre-revolutionary personal lives, from childhood on, constitute the bulk of the piece. There has been a lot written about the revolutions and I think those two qualities are conspicuously absent from much of it.
Describe Writing Revolution in three words.
Intense, affecting, challenging.
Robin Moger is an Arabic translator currently living in Cape Town, South Africa. From 2001 to 2007 he lived in Egypt, where he worked variously as a journalist, translator and interpreter. He has translated the novels A Dog With No Tail by Hamdi Abu Gollayel (2009) and Vertigo by Ahmed Mourad (2011), and is a regular contributor to Banipal.