Taxi, translation and "true" literature

A few days ago, I attended the talk by author Khaled Al Khamissi and by translator Jonathan Wright at AUC. Wright--the former Reuters Bureau chief in Cairo--translated Al Khamissi's Taxi, and Youssef Ziedan's award-winning Azazeel.

The always up-to-date Arabic Literature (in English) has a selection and discussion of Wright's remarks, although the way they are construed makes Wright's approach to translation seem more casual than I believe it to be: Wright said he ended up translating Taxi "by chance," but also that he has always had an interest in translation; his self-deprecation and pragmatism doesn't mean he approaches translation with any lack of rigour or reflection (far from it). The issue of how to translate Islamic formulas came up, and Wright noted that he tends to translate them functionally. It's a valid point, because expressions such as "Insha-allah" or "La illah illa allah" ("God willing" and "There is no God but God") may be more accurately translated, not literally, but in terms of their quite varied contextual meaning. 

The issue of how to translate the different registers of Arabic--Taxi is written in Egyptian Conversational Arabic--was also discussed. Apparently, the Italian translator chose, for example, to use Italian dialect. Wright, after briefly considering using Cockney English, chose wisely not to replace Egyptian dialect with some form of English "dialect." 

I reviewed Taxi back in 2008 here on the blog. It's a lovely little book, and had a big success in Egypt and abroad (particularly in France). It was interesting to me to note, however, how the book's reception in Egypt--where a debate ensued over whether it was a work of literature proper, rather than of reportage or sociology--has been interiorized by its author. Al Khamissi was at pains to describe Taxi as a "literary text," one that was entirely his imaginative creation. That's not quite how the book presents itself--the narrator, in the introduction, states that "for years I've been a prize customer for taxis..I'm one of those people who likes to talk to taxi drivers...this book contains between its covers some of the things that happened while I was in their company between April 2005 and March 2006." When I interviewed the author years back, he gave me the impression that his fictionalized dialogues were based on actual conversations--a fact supported by the specificity of the voices and situations he conjures.

After the success of Taxi, Al Khamissi has been at pains to present himself as a Writer, capital W. This seems to include retroactive re-interpretation of his work: Taxi clearly has a sociological goal, but Al Khamissi today insists it should be discussed "from a literary point of view." He also recently published a "proper" novel--Safinet Noha ("Noah's Ark")-which however has not received the same attention and praise as his earlier work  [Ed. Note: I've been informed that the new novel has actually sold twice as many copies as Taxi; I haven't read widely enough to say with any certainty what the critical reception has been] and he noted that his next novel will be written entirely in Classical Arabic. Given the cultural context in Egypt--the fraught divide between high and low culture, between literature and reportage, Formal and Colloquial--it's hardly surprising that Al Khamissi should become defensive about his commercial success and want to position himself as a "true" artist. But it's too bad, because what was fresh and affecting about Taxi was exactly its lack of pretensions, its combination of genres, and its pitch-perfect rendering of "unliterary" voices. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.