English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Here, we talk to Sarah Irving, who translated one of the short stories in the award-winning anthology The Book of Gaza (July 2014)
She watches these shadows forming on the ceiling of her room, the picture emerging from them. In her fantasy, her gaze drifts across the image: those eyes surging with all the pent up desire of a great river in a romantic city like Paris; that nose belonging to a man proud of his origins, rooted in his land; those two cheeks, plump like reddened apples, tempting the onlooker to nibble gently at them; that broad forehead showing beneath the jet-black hair which hangs down to his eyebrows, without overshadowing the radiance of that moon-like face…
Extract from ‘The Whore of Gaza’ by Najlaa Ataallah in The Book of Gaza (Comma Press, 2014), translated by Sarah Irving
Interview by Rebekah Murrell
On the Gazan short story form
The proliferation of the short story form in the region has led to Gaza becoming known as ‘the exporter of short stories and oranges’. What struck you as being uniquely Gazan about the storytelling in the collection?
I’m not sure how much I’d want to claim a specifically Gazan aesthetic to these stories so much as a particularly Palestinian one. Obviously it occurs in writings from other parts of the world, but to me it feels very Palestinian to have such a matter-of-fact but all-pervasive sense of the place of resistance in everyday life. Ordinary actions often seem to take on extra meaning in this context, and I guess in the Gazan environment that is even more concentrated than for Palestinians in the West Bank and the State of Israel, because the situation in Gaza is so intensified by the population density and the scale of the encirclement and the military attacks. And that also affects internal social relations and individual relationships; perhaps the short story form comes into its own there, because it allows short bursts of that intensity.
On translating both group and individual experiences
In a space so densely populated by people and politics, both individual and group psychologies are paramount to the stories written out of it. How did you respond to the writers’ exploration of both the personal and the political?
I think the main issue for me was appreciating the extent to which, in a context like Gaza, the personal and political overlap so much – but also that this is something which is enforced by circumstances, not necessarily because people want it to be like this. To at least some extent, most of us in the West have the luxury of drawing those lines, or if we want to, of politicising the personal in our lives (or not). That’s not the case in a place where ‘politics’ – in the broadest sense, and often the most militarised sense – are there everyday. So in relation to often very nuanced stories like those in The Book of Gaza, which present complex and un-ideological images of life, it’s very much a question of finding ways to respect the implications that choices and statements might have in that environment, where things that might be ‘personal’ become ‘political’ but in potentially unexpected and problematic ways.
On getting to know Gaza
The stories undercut the standardised image of Gaza presented in international media, instead detailing the streets, homes, cafés, shops, bedrooms, corridors, cars, and even smells of the region. How important do you think it was to the contributors to present their version of Gaza, to draw a map of Gaza as home?
One of the main things I’ve always heard from Palestinians, whether from Gaza, the West Bank or in ’48 or the Diaspora, is that they’re passionate about wanting to dispel the stereotypes – of terrorists or of poverty and refugees. Gaza is perhaps the most extreme example of that, because we only tend to hear about it in the media when it’s facing another onslaught from Israel. But this is a place that is busy and full and bustling and where people’s spirit survives. That’s not to romanticise the situation, or to claim that there is somehow something especially resilient about Palestinian people, any more than there is really a special British thing called ‘Blitz spirit’. People are resilient and steadfast because they have to be, and I think these stories – full of sex and food and cars and lovers and the beach – just demand that readers respect the people of Gaza in their own particular brand of resilience. For sure, the writers of these stories live the news headlines – the bombings and massacres and horrors – but they also live all the bits in between, the everyday bits, and it’s really clear that that’s what they wanted people to read.
On women writers
You translated Najlaa Ataallah’s ‘The Whore of Gaza’, a self-conscious, visceral and affecting exploration of what it is to be a woman in Gaza. What did you find particularly powerful about hearing the female voice in the Gazan short story form?
It was a total thrill to see how many women were in the collection and to translate a story like Najlaa’s. It completely defies all the preconceptions that people might have about women in Gaza, but the twists of the story also defy the preconceptions that the reader might go in with from the title and opening. I think it’s a really psychologically and socially complex story, and I loved the challenge of trying to get that over into English, and the opportunity to show English readerships that Palestinian women writers from Gaza are very much willing to push the boundaries – to write about themes that would be confrontational coming from a British or American writer, let alone one from what most people’s idea of Palestine is.
Do you think The Book of Gaza and other works by Palestinian writers have an important role in the current conflict? Do you think literature can play a part in politics?
I think it has to, on the level of small-p politics if not big-P politics. One of the biggest problems in the Western grasp of the issue of Palestine has, I think, been the dearth of real Palestinian voices in the media, in literature – anywhere that people can hear them. I defy anyone to read the stories in the Book of Gaza, with their accounts of ordinary people and daily life, and then to watch TV footage of entire blocks of flats in Gaza City being shelled and bombed, and not feel differently for having a sense of who the people are that live in those flats, who are being made homeless and their possessions – all their momentos – destroyed, or who are being maimed and killed. For sure, no government minister is going to stop an arms shipment to Israel for having read The Book of Gaza, but maybe one of their constituents might write a letter or sign a petition. It all goes into the mix.
In three words…
Describe the collection in three words.
Tangy, chewy, salty
About the translator
Sarah Irving is a writer, translator and editor. Read some of her writing at http://sarahirving.wordpress.com.
Read more about The Book of Gaza and its editor Atef Abu Saif on the World Bookshelf