We’re delighted to welcome Tunisian poet and translator Ali Znaidi to our blog, to discuss his translation of Houyem Ferchichi’s “The Spider’s Widow”, from our June 24th 2019 issue, as well as some of his interests as a translator. You can find out more about Ali on his website.
What inspired you to become a translator?
AZ: When I was a child I used to watch cartoons and films dubbed in Arabic language and read books translated into Arabic like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, just to give an example. Ever since that I have been hooked on translation. This love deepened when I studied English at university. I got deeply immersed in studying English language and Anglophone literatures and civilizations—but honestly, I’d always wanted to write my own texts and share works I love with the world through translation. I am passionate about the art of literary translation because I strongly believe in its value as a means to combat cultural cringe through acculturation and spreading constructive diversity.
Roland Barthes spoke about “The Pleasure of the Text.” Here I would like to appraise what British novelist Adam Thirwlell called the “pleasure of translation.” Telling one story in another language would then perhaps be entering into a new system. This is where the greatest pleasure of translation lies because I believe that translation is a kind of resurrection. Translating a text is like resurrecting a dead bird through giving it a new body and fleshing it out with new wings. Umberto Eco once pessimistically said that “translation is the art of failure”. In contrast, I say that this precious craft is the art of success because without literary translation, we are all separate dots in an ocean of failures.
Just driven by passion and love for this genre, I always wanted to become a bridge between Tunisian literature and the Western English readers, despite (dis)ability, hardships and lack of support.
How did you come to translate Houyem Ferchichi’s work?
AZ: Some years ago; I was reading a lot of Tunisian literature and blogging about it in English and I bumped into one of Houyem Ferchichi’s short stories, “The Wolf’s Wedding”; I thought it was really beautiful and it would be an amazing experience to translate it and share it with the English-speaking world. This short story was echoing in my ears until I read in December 2016 that the Australia-based literary arts magazine The Lifted Brow was seeking translations from “a language or perspective that is underrepresented, or a part of the world that doesn’t see a lot of its literary output translated.” So reading Ferchichi’s work hones my ability and my intuition to ferret out that this short story would be a great success. I translated it, submitted it, and it was accepted for publication, of course, after some edits. It was really a great success to be published in a magazine that once published David Foster Wallace, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Tracy K. Smith, Eileen Myles, as well as hundreds and hundreds of other fine writers and artists.
Houyem Ferchichi’s work is so intelligent. I couldn’t resist its charm. Its glow spreads across the pages. When reading Ferchichi’s fiction, I am compelled by the unfolding story, dazzled by the strength of its voice, and impressed with the quality and beauty of prose writing, savouring every sentence and every word. Houyem Ferchichi’s work is a very different kind of prose—compelling narration with lots of poetic elements and richly described scenes.
Overall, what strikes me is that she manages to combine two things rarely bound together in fiction without being accused of hybridity: a masterful prose and the urgency of poetic elements. She blends the two genres through the most admirably elegant language, defying typical fiction’s need for straightforwardness. A bit of the spell Ferchichi’s fiction casts can be attributed to her ability to add poetry molecules to fiction but the piece remains fiction with a powerful voice, depth of character, beautiful writing, and vivid perspective.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when translating “The Spider's Widow”?
AZ: At the beginning I found it a bit difficult and challenging. But after several close readings the difficulty eased a bit. Relying on my expertise, yet still humble, enabled me to deal with all the pesky translation problems. The biggest challenge I faced when translating “The Spider's Widow” was how to render the poetic elements with which this multi-layered tale brims into English without losing its fiction DNA. Also tense shifts were a bit challenging, but I think this linguistic difference between Arabic and English is really fascinating and this is what makes the translation process pleasurable and enjoyable. When you solve a puzzle, you feel pleasure, don’t you?
In brief, although this short story blurs the lines between everything at the levels of form and content in its original language, my mission as a translator is to keep it a lovely read in the target language. For me, the translation must stand. And, without bragging, I think I was up to the challenge.
Are there any authors you would love to see more widely translated?
AZ: Noting that there is a scant availability of translations of works of Tunisian literature, especially women writing, in Western languages, my translations were an attempt to introduce some Tunisian writers of considerable power and originality to the English-speaking world. Of course, there are many Tunisian authors I would love to see more widely translated and who deserve to find a wider international audience. As far as I am concerned, like I introduced Houyem Ferchichi for the first time to the English-world, I have some other names in my mind to translate in the near future, but I will not reveal the names to keep the suspense.
In the long term, if I were to undertake another major translation project, my dream would be to translate a bigger portion of Tunisian literature, of course, if health and financial resources permit because most people think that the translator is just a robot without any needs.
Do you prefer to translate short fiction?
AZ: Honestly, I prefer to translate poetry, but I got into translating short fiction for the same reason I get into translating poetry: that feverish love for translation and the strong desire to share texts I love with others.
Thanks so much Ali!