“Literature has the power to open our eyes to how others feel”

The translation of The House of the Coptic Woman was depicted by Peter as a courageous exploration of religious minorities and sectarian strife, a theme rarely tackled so boldly in Egyptian literature. “As a mystery enthusiast, its intricate narrative intrigued me,” with the shift from urban settings, familiar from translating The Lady of Zamalek to the rural landscapes of Tayea, presenting an absorbing challenge.

Tayea’s world allowed for the vivid portrayal of its characters and ambiance, with the hope that these rich, vibrant personas will be appreciated by readers as much as they were by Peter.

How do you see the role of translated literature in promoting cultural understanding and fostering connections between diverse communities around the world?

This is the subject of a lot of studies because of the need in today’s world to encourage multicultural awareness in societies, starting from the youngest ages. Of course, there are many genres of fiction (mystery, sci-fi, adventure, etc.) and many novels do not set out to address social problems. But, in general, fiction opens horizons and opens windows into ourselves. More importantly, here, fiction fosters empathy. This is precisely why it can be a powerful tool for building bridges between different cultures whether within a single country or internationally, even if a fictional work doesn’t consciously set out to do this.  Because of the way we engage with fictional characters and their problems, literature has the power to open our eyes to how others feel, think and handle things that come their way in their world in ways that non-fictional works can’t.

What drew you to “The House of the Coptic Woman,” and what challenges did you face in translating it into English?

I was drawn to The House of the Coptic Woman for many reasons. It’s the first Egyptian novel that I know of that grapples head-on with the question of religious minorities and sectarian strife. And it does that quite boldly, especially regarding how the government handles it. It’s part mystery novel, my favourite genre. Its setting, characters and tone are completely different to Ashmawy’s The Lady of Zamalek, which I had translated before this. As a long-term expat in Egypt, Zamalek and broader Cairene urban life are familiar to me.

I can’t say the same about rural Upper Egypt, even if I’ve visited quite a few villages. The novel soon oriented me in Tayea, where the events unfold, and introduced me to its way of life in ways no brief visit can. The characters are vibrant and unique. I could picture them easily which facilitates helping readers to do the same. I hope they enjoy the company of Hoda the Coptic Woman on the run, Nader Fayez the prosecutor judge in an unfamiliar environment, Ramses the caretaker of the judges’ lodge who seems to have fingers in many pies, Nabawi el-Dib a guard with a mysterious past & Alwan the peacock thief as much as I did.

Translation often involves making difficult choices, especially when it comes to idiomatic expressions or culturally specific references. Can you share an example of a challenging translation decision you had to make for this novel?

To me the main challenge is to make it possible for foreign readers to experience a novel in translation much like a native speaker would experience the original. That means trying to ensure that the translation does what the novelist did: draw readers into the unique world he created and enable them to visualise the setting, feel the atmosphere, picture the characters as they interact, understand what drives them as they struggle to overcome challenges, sense emotionally and perhaps morally invested in their fates, and remain glued to the novel to the very end. That involves quite a bit of granular detail and, in my opinion, maybe even a tad more than the author provided if it helps bridge a knowledge gap between native speaker readers and foreign readers unfamiliar with the culture and helps make the scene more visualisable. There’s also the need to avoid things that might disrupt the flow and yank readers out of the fictional “dream.”

Contrary to my expectations, despite the rural setting and characters, I didn’t find the idiomatic expressions as challenging in this novel as I did with The Lady of Zamalek, especially with the colourful turns of phrase of the sarcastic, sharp-tongued Zeinab. Naturally, you can’t translate these literally, and I spent hours trying to formulate English alternatives with the same snap and import. But still, quite a few challenges did arise, one right at the beginning. It has to do with a pun on the village’s name in Arabic. Puns defy translation, but this one could not be avoided. It’s central to the theme and reflects the sardonic wit that suffuses parts of the novel. It involves the name of the village: Tayea. Nader encounters it on a sign as he enters the village. A few paragraphs along, encounters it again, but in a warped form, when Ramses, the keeper of the judge’s lodge, greets him: “Welcome to Tayha.” One technique is simply to add the translation in parentheses. But at this point, the English wouldn’t contribute much at this stage, and I didn’t want to interrupt the flow by reminding readers they were reading a translation. Plus, the pun was also on the village mayor’s family name, and he hadn’t been introduced yet. (Because of the punning, I felt it necessary to change the name from masculine (Tayie) to feminine (Tayea). Fortunately, the novel would give me the perfect opportunity to explain the pun in one short phrase, when it would mean something and not cause distraction. In comes in the third chapter when Nader & Ramses are discussing the history of the village.

Nader relates:

[I skipped] ahead to the post-1952 Egyptian revolution, when they renamed the village Tayea, after the mayor at the time, Mohammed Tayea. Even then, the villages insisted on mispronouncing the name. They called it Tayha, as in “the lost soul” instead of “the obedient one.” That was done to spite the mayor’s family. Evidently, this Mohammed Tayea was a staunch supporter of the revolution, despite the harm it caused the Coptic landowners. Now things are set for Ramses’ punch line a little further ahead: “But as I said, these are all stories. Tayea, Tayha, what’s the difference? Neither controls their own fate.”

Collaboration between authors and translators is crucial. Can you talk about your collaboration with Ashraf El-Ashmawy? How did the author’s insights contribute to the translation process?

One of the biggest challenges for me was the legal terminology, mostly because I’m not a lawyer, but also because the Egyptian judicial system is different from the British/American one. For example, a public prosecutor/investigative judge has different powers and functions from the American district attorney. Ashraf’s help was invaluable here. Nader has a dual responsibility as a deputy public prosecutor: he investigates crimes, and he may also issue rulings like a judge. Ashraf helped me understand some of the terms and technicalities that came up in the course of Nader’s job.

It’s a great pleasure collaborating with Ashraf, and I was grateful for this second opportunity to do so. He’s easy to work with, very methodical and generous with his time. Mostly, I’d send him batches of questions, which he’d answer, sometimes at considerable length. If there were a need for a follow-up that would be through a brief phone call or WhatsApp. His input sometimes opened my eyes to aspects of a character or scene I had missed. He helped me a lot with pinning down details in scenes so that I could visualise them as concretely as possible. I might ask questions such as which way was this person facing at the time? Was the head of the dying man slight raised? What material was the autopsy table made of? While such details may not have appeared in the original or translation, I believe they enabled me to convey the scene as intended and in a visualisable way. Sometimes they even help me when it comes to choosing between synonyms in English. Ashraf was very patient with my questions and his answers were always clear and often enlightening.

I should add here that I see Ashraf as a direct descendant of the first generation of Egyptian novelists, many of whom were professionals who decided to try their hand at the new forms of literature that were emerging in the late 19th and early 20th century. That’s why I smiled to myself when Nader, almost as soon as he arrives at the judges’ lodge, plucks out a couple of books by Tawfiq el-Hakim that were tucked away between legal tomes on the bookshelf.

Tawfiq el-Hakim was one of Egypt’s first great novelists who also happened to be a public prosecutor who had a stint in rural Egypt.

What advice do you have for aspiring translators, especially those interested in translating literary works?

Research, even when not entirely relevant, and organize your research well. Revise, revise, revise. If you have the chance to work with the author, take advantage. If you have a good editor, like I had, you are truly fortunate, because their input is invaluable. I’ve learned so much from the ones I’ve worked with.

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