Detox | Translating Baldwin, translating ‘magic’

By Yasmine Zohdi – August 22, 2020
Mada Masr / مدى مصر

Instead of offering our usual weekly guide and recommendations, we thought we’d make this week’s issue of Detox a platform for a translator to showcase her efforts with a text she’d always wanted to work on. This is our culture editor Yasmine Zohdi’s account of her attempt at translating a short story by American author James Baldwin (1924–1987) to Arabic. We found her drafts and commentary to be fitting material for weekend reading.

How can language encompass a people’s entire history? How do you hear music through written word? How do you describe the crests and ridges of an old wound passed from one generation to another through the story of two brothers, one of whom is attempting to save the other from his own attempt to save himself?

You can perhaps find the answers to these questions in James Baldwin’s exquisite short story “Sonny’s Blues,” first published in 1957, later included in a collection of his short fiction titled Going to Meet the Man in 1965. I read it in 2014 and once again fell in love with short stories as a literary form. The narrator, an algebra teacher at a high school in Harlem, New York, is trying to navigate his strained relationship with his younger brother, Sonny, a recovering heroin addict who has just been released from jail. Sonny plays the piano and adores jazz; he wants to make music the focus of his life. His older brother, however, believes that his insistence on becoming a professional musician is nothing but an excuse to indulge in the lifestyle that led him to drugs in the first place, while Sonny tries to convince him that it’s a matter of life and death to him; jazz is his salvation.

That’s the story, but, as it is in any great work of literature, there is always a story beneath the story, and the story beneath this story is the heritage of fear and grief that African Americans have to live with, and the constant conflict between the desire to honor it and to break free from it.

I am a translator. I have not studied translation; nor am I professionally trained in it. I did not intend for most of my life to be spent stumbling between two languages, nor for such stumbling to be a source of my livelihood. But I translate. I was born into a language and fell in love with another and so I live between the two of them; I read and write and talk and in my head there is a ceaseless dialogue between one and the other, a dialogue burdened with what is heavier than letters and words, one which usually turns into a pitched battle that ends in silence: my own. I float weightlessly through English sometimes, but Arabic has a relentless power over me, and so — even as it resists me — I keep coming back. I discover later on that language — any language — is a sly, cunning, liar: it tricks you into thinking you’re on your way to taming, only to throw you once more against that Great Wall of Silence, and leave you in doubt: are these the limits of language, or are they your own?

I thought a lot about translating Sonny’s Blues, but I was too scared. I was intimidated by Baldwin’s language and, later on, by everything he’d come to mean to me over the years. Several of Baldwin’s novels have been translated into Arabic, but I’d never run into an Arabic translation of any of his short stories, until I found out that an Arabic version of “Sonny’s Blues” was in fact published in 1989 by Dar Al Maamoun in Baghdad, translated by Sajda Al Saadoun, under the title “أحزان سوني” (Sonny’s Sadness). However, I couldn’t find it anywhere online, and I was never able to get hold of a printed copy either. I now read “Sonny’s Blues” for the fifth time and I feel tempted. There’s no harm in a new translation, especially that it’s been a lifetime since the first was published (my lifetime, actually: 31 years).

I start with a little exercise, no strings attached. I turn the sentences into Arabic in my head as I read. I get off to a smooth start so I am encouraged, and I write the first passage in the “Notes” app on my phone as follows:

«قرأتُ عن الأمر في الجريدة، في المترو، في طريقي إلى العمل. قرأت الخبر، ولم أصدق، فقرأته مرة أخرى. ثم أعتقد أني حملقت فيه، في الخط الذي كُتب به اسمه، الذي حكيت به القصة. حملقت فيه في أضواء عربة المترو المتأرجحة، وفي وجوه وأجسام الناس، وفي وجهي أنا، حبيسًا في الظلمة الصارخة بالخارج.»

(I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.)

I read the passage once more and the doubt begins to seep in.

The lights are swinging, not the car. The text says “the swinging lights of the subway car,” but the translation makes it like the car is doing the swinging. But if I write «الأضواء المتأرجحة بداخل عربة المترو» the rhythm changes. Also, the last sentence sounds odd: will the reader understand that the narrator is looking at his reflection in the window of the subway car, so it seems like he is stuck inside the darkness of the tunnel that the train is speeding through?

How do I transmit the flow of the English passage to the Arabic? Silence nearly defeats me, so I go back to the title: begin at the beginning. But the wall here is higher. Baldwin plays on the double meaning of the word “blues” in English: Blues music is Sonny’s passion, but when a person “has the blues” it means they’re sad, or are feeling down. If I translate it as “أحزان سوني” like the translator before me, one meaning will be lost. Maybe “لاعب البلوز الحزين”? But without Sonny’s name the title loses the sense of intimacy it gives off; it loses the voice of the narrator who loves his brother.

Okay, I’ll get back to reading and forget about the translation for a while. I lose myself in the story and once again I am captivated by the part where the narrator remembers sitting with the family after coming home from Sunday service as a child, while the sun sets and night slowly falls. It seems like a normal family gathering until the pains of each of the people present are revealed to us, without anyone uttering a word. The same pains suffered by their ancestors, and that will also be suffered by their descendants, one of whom is the narrator.

I’ll try once more:

«يزحف الليل في الخارج ولكن لا أحد يدري بعد. قد ترى الظلام ينمو عبر النافذة، وتسمع ضوضاء الشارع كل حين، وربما صلصلة الرقّ من إحدى الكنائس القريبة، ولكن في الغرفة يسود الهدوء. للحظة لا يتكلم أحد، ولكن تعتم الوجوه كلها، كالسماء في الخارج… ينظر الجميع إلى شيء لا يستطيع الطفل أن يراه… ربما يجلس أحدهم وفي حجره طفل، ربما يربت على رأس الطفل دون تركيز… الصمت، الظلمة الآتية، والعتمة في الوجوه يخيفون الطفل بشكل غامض. يتمنى ألا تتوقف اليد التي تربت على جبينه أبدًا، يتمنى ألا تموت أبدًا. يتمنى ألا يأتي وقت لن يكون فيه الكبار جالسين حول غرفة المعيشة، يتحدثون عن كل شيء: من أين أتوا وماذا رأوا وما الذي حصل لهم ولذويهم. ولكن جزءًا يقظًا في أعماق الطفل يعلم أن لكل ذلك نهاية، بل أنه ينتهي بالفعل. بعد لحظة سينهض أحدهم ويشعل الضوء. ثم سيتذكر الكبار وجود الأطفال ولن يتكلموا مجددًا لبقية اليوم. وحين يملأ النور الغرفة، يمتلئ الطفل بالظلام. يعلم أنه كلما حدث ذلك، يقترب هو من الظلمة الزاحفة بالخارج. تلك الظلمة هي ما كان يتحدث عنه الكبار. منها أتوا، وعليهم تحملها. يعلم الطفل أنهم لن يقولوا المزيد، لأنه إذا عرف أكثر من اللازم عما حدث لهم، سيعرف أكثر من اللازم -وقبل الأوان- عما سيحدث له.»

(… the night is creeping outside but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness grow against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside… Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see… Maybe somebody’s got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly stroking the kid’s head… The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop — will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around the living room, talking about where they’ve come from and what they’ve seen, and what’s happened to them and their kinfolk. But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. The old folks will remember the children and they won’t talk anymore that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to the darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.)

Are italics used for emphasis in Arabic? I don’t think so, it’s most probably an American technique. Does it matter, though? Why can’t we borrow it if it’s going to serve the narrative voice as the writer wants the reader to hear it? Anyway. I feel partly satisfied with the part I translated (though not quite). I’ll come back to it later.

I continue reading and am once again met with the Wall at another favorite scene. Here, the narrator watches a Christian revival meeting from his window. The meeting is held on the street and is led by a “brother” and three “sisters.” The brother is testifying — in the Evangelical Protestant tradition this means he is telling the story of how he became a Christian, or how he was “born again” — while one of the sisters plays the tambourine and sings: “If I could hear my mother pray again.” I am not sure whether the narrator refers to the group as brother and sisters from a religious standpoint, as members of the same church refer to one another, or out of a sense of racial solidarity, the way African Americans often call their friends, neighbors and sometimes any fellow Black person they don’t know “brother” or “sister.” I get even more confused as the scene is packed with so many details describing communal life on the streets of Harlem, as people line up to listen despite these meetings being a frequent occurrence as the narrator says:

«المرأة ذات الرقّ، التي يهيمن صوتها على الجو ويتوهج وجهها بالفرح، لا يفصلها سوى القليل عن المرأة التي وقفت تشاهدها، بسيجارة بين شفتيها الغليظتين المتشققتين وشعر كعشّ الوقواق ووجه متورم تتخلله الندبات -آثار ضربات عديدة تلقتها- وعينين لامعتين كالفحم. ربما كانتا تعلمان ذلك، وربما لهذا السبب، كلما وجهت إحداهما الحديث للأخرى -وكان أمرًا نادرًا- كانت تسميها أختًا.»

(The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister.)

Baldwin was raised in an evangelical church; his stepfather was a preacher, and he himself went through a spiritual epiphany in his adolescence (which is the main theme of his first novel Go Tell It on The Mountain, published in 1953) and went on to become a young minister who gave sermons in his church on several occasions. Despite abandoning the church — and religion altogether — a mere three years later, Baldwin’s particular religious experience, fully influenced by his being brought up in Harlem in the first half of the twentieth century, remained heavily present in his language, be it in his writings or later speeches and interviews given during the course of his political activism. Whenever I read or listen to Baldwin I instantly go back to a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad: “Some [eloquent] speech is magic.” (إن من البيان لسحر).

How do you translate magic? How do you strive to recreate a miracle which was impossible to occur in the first place? Isn’t that greedy? Arrogant? Naïve at best? Language is not words; language is a bearer of experience and place and pain and history and soul. How do you translate someone’s soul? Do you even get to try? How do I take meaning out of its home — a home it has finally settled in after a battle that I have no doubt has happened — and reshape so it can pass through the door to a new house; a foreign house? How do I make that house a home? How do I keep my own experience and place and pain and history from coloring the words, how do I keep the words from absorbing my soul? And what is the value of a translated work if it isn’t touched by something of the person who ventured to claim it? What betrayal is this?

But isn’t all writing — any use of language, actually — a betrayal of meaning? And what is the alternative, if not silence? Silence, too, has its own magic, but it’s unreliable. We were not made for silence, I discover, again and again.

Language is a temptress, and all I can do is give in.

«ثم تجمع الكل حول سوني وهو يعزف. بدا بين الحين والآخر وكأن أحدهم يقول: آمين. ملأت أصابع سوني الجو بالحياة، حياته. ولكن حوت تلك الحياة حيوات أخرى كثيرة. وعاد سوني في الزمن طويلًا؛ بدأ بنوتة بسيطة ومسطحة كانت هي افتتاحية الأغنية. ثم شرع في أن يجعلها له. كانت جميلة لأنها لم تكن متعجلة، ولم تعد مرثية. خيل إليّ أني أسمع كيف احترق كي يسعه امتلاكها، كيف نحترق كي نمتلكها نحن فيما بعد، كيف نكفّ عن الرثاء… خلا وجهه من العراك الآن. سمعت ما مرّ به، وما سيستمر في المرور به إلى أن يرقد تحت التراب. قد جعله ملكه: ذلك الخط الطويل الذي لم يعرف منه هو سوى أمنا وأبينا. وكان الآن يعيد منحه، كما لكل شيء أن يعود… رأيت وجه أمي مجددًا، وتصورت، لأول مرة، كيف جرح حصى الطريق التي مشتها قدميها. رأيت الشارع الذي مات فيه أخو أبي تحت ضوء القمر… رأيت طفلتي مرة أخرى ولمست دموع إيزابيل مرة أخرى وشعرت بدموعي تجتمع في عيني. ومع كل ذلك كنت أعي أنها مجرد لحظة؛ أن العالم ينتظر بالخارج، جائعًا كنمر، وأن العناء يمتد فوقنا، أعلى من السماء.»

(Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting … there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which he knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back … I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died … I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.)