Samah Selim: Interviewed by Rebecca Ruth Gould
In Full Stop: Reviews. Interviews. Marginalia
May 20, 2020
Samah Selim is a scholar and translator of Arabic literature. Her translations include Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-movement Generation in Egypt (2018), Yahya Taher Abdullah’s The Collar and the Bracelet, which was awarded the Saif-Ghobash Banipal Translation Prize in 2009, and Jurji Zaydan’s historical novel Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt, which was awarded the Arkansas Arabic Translation Award in 2012, Khaled Ziadeh’s Neighborhood and Boulevard: Reading through the Modern Arab City (2011), and Mohamed Makhzangi’s Memories of a Meltdown: An Egyptian Between Moscow and Chernobyl (2006), and Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights (2011). In 2019, She received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for her translation of Ghalib Halasa’s novel Sultana (1987). Currently an associate professor at Rutgers University, Selim is also the author of The Novel and the Rural Imaginary in Egypt 1880-1985 (2004) and the Translation, Popular Fiction and the Nahda in Egypt (2019).
Rebecca Ruth Gould: What made you decide to become a translator?
Samah Selim: I didn’t really decide to become a translator, it just sort of happened. In the early 90s a friend who was running a new translation imprint based in Cairo asked me if I’d like to do one of their books. I think it was Ibrahim Abd al-Magid’s House of Jasmin. I immediately agreed, and that’s how it started. I never finished that book because the press closed down suddenly. But not long after, AUC Press offered me what became my first published translation, Makhzangi’s Chernobyl memoir, Memories of a Meltdown. I took to it right away, translation. It was as though two parts of my brain that had never quite clicked were now talking to each other in fits and starts for the first time. It was a wonderful, and illuminating experience. But it was the next translation that really decided things. I loved Yahya al-Taher Abdalla’s work and I proposed The Collar and the Bracelet (which I had devoted a chapter to in my dissertation) to AUC Press, and they agreed right away. I did the translation while I was living in Marseille and immersed in a third language (I sometimes wonder whether my struggle to master French at the time had any effect on how I worked). I think that was the book that did it for me, set me definitively down this path and made me understand eventually that I am a translator, even when I’m not actually translating.
In “Politics and Paratext: On Translating Arwa Salih’s al-Mubtasarun,” you write “I, the translator, was implicated in the translation in ways that were both intensely personal and political, and my intention was to implicate others; to summon a community of readers.” Does the process of such “summoning” in translation differ from the process of such “summoning” when producing one’s own scholarship?
That’s a really interesting question. Yes, I think so. Literary translation involves the creation of affect — moods and emotions — in a way that scholarship doesn’t. Especially with a political and deeply intense book like The Stillborn (Al-Mubtasarun). The difference here is like the difference between “summoning” (which calls for a kind of witnessing and responsiveness) and “addressing.” I don’t tend to speculate or daydream about my reader when I’m writing an academic text, and I don’t assume or expect that the reader and I are making the kind of journey together that happens through the literary text in particular (it’s not the same thing when you’re translating an academic article, which is another kettle of fish).
How does your identity as a translator relate to your identity as a scholar? Does one have more prominence than the other?
For me, scholar is a funny word. It always brings to mind George Eliot’s poor old Mr. Casaubon, hunched in the dark over his never-ending universal history (I was struggling through my dissertation the first time I read Middlemarch). I prefer the French term ‘chercheur,’ or straight-up ‘researcher’ because it has a kind of Sufi ring to it. You know, the idea of being on a never-ending path towards knowledge, ignorance being the perpetual state of the present. I love researching as much as I love translating, and though different, both processes are equally and in turns fascinating, perplexing, joyous and frustrating for me. Even though the end product is different, my work as a researcher is deeply connected to my work as a translator. They’re both rooted in a similar set of places and concerns. I imagine this is fairly common with people who wear both hats, researcher and translator.
Do you think the academy values literary translation adequately? Are there ways in which you think translation can and should be accorded greater recognition in the professional trajectories of scholars?
Luckily my university definitely values literary translation, and it’s an important part of promotion criteria. I would hope that the same goes for other universities in the US, though in my experience, this was not the case, back in the 2000s, at least at the Ivy Leagues. A more important concern for me is that translators be recognized and valued by publishers. There is a lot of skulduggery that goes on in the publishing industry (and not just in the US). Translators are paid pittances, their rights to their work is ignored, they are often treated like machines or servants rather than artists. Incidentally, the Arab world (and perhaps other countries in the global south?) is an exception to this last point: readers who may not know the book in question will seek it out because of the translator, precisely because of her artistry, which is a marvellous thing really.
As you note in “Politics and Paratext,” translations of nonfiction tend to be rarer than translations of fiction. Do you have any explanations for the reasons for this difference? How would you compare your experience of translating nonfiction (Salih) to your experience of translating fiction (Zaydan, Abdullah)?
Many US and UK publishers consider non-fiction to be commercially unviable because it demands more of the reader (more attention or commitment, more specific kinds of interests and concerns, more of a knowledge base for example). This is especially true when it comes to non-European literatures; to distant national and regional histories and literary traditions. And as I discuss in the article you reference, because non-fiction tends to be less ‘legible’ to target-language readers than say, the novel (a globally ubiquitous genre), it requires some form of baseline annotation (introductions, footnotes, glossaries) that publishers generally try to avoid. I hope more publishers will decide to take these kinds of risks with non-fiction translation in the future, and I do see that happening very slowly already.
In terms of my own translation practice, the difference between fiction and non-fiction is negligible; it’s a very similar process that involves the same interpretive work, the same kind of struggle with word and phrase and rhythm. One important difference goes back to the first part of this question, a difference that makes fiction translation not ‘easier’, but less labour intensive. Translating non-fiction generally involves more research -of names and dates etc. but also of all kinds of details related to the life and times of the text (for the annotation I mention above). Having said that, not all fiction is the same: I did quite a lot of research for my translation of Jurji Zaydan’s historical novel; doubly historical because it takes place in the distant past (twelfth century Baghdad) and was written in a present which is now past (early twentieth century Egypt).
Are different kinds of critical apparatuses needed to translate fiction and nonfiction? Should we develop different translational methods for translating different modes of discourse?
It depends. I don’t think that fiction should generally speaking need framing within as robust a critical apparatus as non-fiction. While a translated novel may well benefit from a good introduction, I think endnotes and glossaries may be useful for only specific categories or types of fiction. The historical novel is one obvious example, or the political novel. I really like Fatma Moussa’s translation of Naguib Mahfouz’ Miramar, in part because of her careful and timely endnotes (as do my students). When someone picks up a translated novel or collection of stories, I don’t think they care or need to know how the translator reads a particular passage, whereas this kind of intervention can serve both the reader and the text in important ways in some kinds of non-fiction translation.
To the second part of the question I would again say, it depends. Non-fiction is a very broad category that includes many different modes of discourse. A work like The Stillborn has a lot more in common, as discourse, with a novella like The Collar and the Bracelet than it does with a work of philosophy or literary criticism for example. For me it’s more useful to think in terms of poetics and audience. How does the text structure and deploy language and voice? Does it contain multiple registers of language, and if it does, how will I go about rendering that difference and multiplicity? What kind of reader is the translation ‘for’ and what might they need and expect from both the source text and the translation? Translation practice will always depend more on these kinds of specificities rather than broad and neat categories of genre.
Can you tell us about the genesis and current work of the Cairo-based translator collective Turjoman, for which you are a founding member?
Thank you for this question. The collective is an important part of the pedagogical and political aspect of my work as a translator and I’m glad for the chance to talk about it a bit here. The project started when a group of young translators approached me in Cairo about starting a translation studies reading group. Though they were talented working translators, they were unfamiliar with the academic field and wanted to learn about it. It was a great experience. I ended up meeting so many wonderful translators working in the opposite direction (from English mostly, to Arabic), and learned so much from their on-site interactions with the American and European field of translation studies, coming from this positionality, as global south translators. I also learned a lot about the trials and tribulations of the translation landscape in Egypt. This is where the idea for the collective first emerged. We wanted to think about how to change this landscape: in terms of the abysmal working conditions of Egyptian translators and of market-driven production (what gets translated and published), but we also wanted to create a space for collective reflection and experiment in terms of the translation process itself (and of course translation into Arabic has its own set of thorny problems and exciting possibilities). Behind all these questions is our common belief that translation is a form of creativity and committed knowledge production in its own right, and that it should be practiced and valued as such. So far, the collective’s projects have been largely determined by the specific interests and connections of individual members. These projects include an online database and platform publishing translation-related content (the launch is set for this summer), an ongoing series of translation workshops run through the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and a translation book series in the radical humanities. The first book in the series (The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker) is set to come out late this year in partnership with the Cairo-based press Kotob Khan.
Is there any advice you would like to share for translators just embarking on their careers, who aspire to integrate activism into their work?
Translating a work you love and taking the chances, doing the labour of seeing it through to publication is already a form of activism, not least when that work doesn’t fall into the category of marketable fiction. I would also love to see young translators working outside the box of the market, submitting to or creating online forums for publication and discussion with their peers and readers, reaching back in time for all kinds of valuable texts that have slipped from the view of both English and Arabic language readers (and perhaps also from copyright, an added plus). This is a great way to stay in practice when there’s no book contract on the horizon besides being a way to build up your translation profile, not to mention the house of Arabic literature-in-translation.
More specifically, in terms of translation ‘and’ activism, there is a huge need for what you might call ‘political translation.’ This was something I realized during the 2011 uprisings, when people were up in arms around the world and there needed to be a way for them to reach out and talk to each other. There was a lot of translation happening in 2011 and 2012, from manifestos, action campaigns and press releases to newspaper articles, video and film. In Egypt, a wonderful group of translators came together around the Mosireen video collective to do subtitling for their productions — street journalism and witness testimonials (incidentally, this was how I learned to subtitle, in the middle of a revolution, and it’s a skill I’m really thankful for). A lot of that broad and intensely dynamic translation action died down after the first couple of years, but I hope that it will see a resurgence in the aftermath of Covid-19. Fragile and exploited populations around the world are dealing with very similar social catastrophes and struggles as a result of the pandemic, and the kinds of horizontal communication made possible by translators are essential to creating alternative grass roots and internationalist readings of the crisis as well as programs for the future. It’s difficult for one person going it alone though. This kind of political translation belongs to collective spaces and larger political projects in order to thrive and do its work. There are some communities of like-minded activist translators out there already like Tlaxcala for example, but of course there is a need for many more.
Rebecca is also one of our inaugural Full Stop Fellows. She will use her time as a Full Stop fellow to further explore the link between translation and activism. The project begins with a series of interviews (which can be found here and here) and culminates in a set of curated book reviews by Palestinian students in Gaza focusing on the work of James Baldwin. The reviews will be published in a special Full Stop supplement. Help support innovative, long-term projects on contemporary literary culture like this by becoming a Patreon subscriber.