Jonathan Smolin is the translator of the two Hoopoe novels Whitefly by Abdelilah Hamdouchi and A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me by Youssef Fadel. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Moroccan Noir: Police, Crime, and Politics in Popular Culture (2013). He studied the ancient Middle East as a University of Chicago undergraduate, and earned a master’s in Semitic languages and a PhD in modern Arabic literature from Harvard.
Currently he is associate professor of Arabic and chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College, where he has been teaching since 2005.
On his recent visit to Cairo, Hoopoe sat down with translator Jonathan Smolin to ask about how he first fell in love with Moroccan Noir and his rendering into English of the two contemporary Arabic novels.
You are a particularly big fan of Moroccan Noir. How distinctive is this genre from the Middle East and how does it compare to crime novels from other parts of the world?
Moroccan Arabic police procedurals are surprisingly similar to the works of writers like Henning Mankell, Andrea Camilleri, and others. Most of these texts take on the process of societies, which had been until only recently closed off to foreign influences, facing the tensions of globalization and the unexpected dangers of a rapidly integrating world. The genre of Moroccan police procedurals is distinct, however, in the way it grapples with local changes in rule of law, freedom of expression, and the transforming relationship between the public and the police in Morocco.
What is, in your opinion, the most challenging thing for a translator, especially when it comes to translating from Arabic?
Every translator is different. While I believe that the “translator is a traitor,” I still aim to make the English text as faithful to the Arabic as possible. True, the translation needs to read smoothly in English, as if it weren’t a translated text. But I strive for the English text to reflect the Arabic and the experience of reading the Arabic as much as possible.
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