Translating the Invisible with Tahar Ben Jelloun

By Katherine Sanders

Literature, claims the director of this year's International Literature Festival in Berlin, Ulrich Schreiber, can be our society's political and moral compass. Since 2001, the Festival has given some of the world's most influential writers a place to come together. The Festival is about an encounter, or many encounters: encounters with voices of the past, with new voices, new ideas, and encounters with strangers leading to encounters with friends. I'll be covering some of the highlights of the festival events that took place September 7-17, beginning with Tahar Ben Jelloun's keynote address.

Wednesday 7 September 2011
Keynote speaker Tahar Ben Jelloun

“We write out of the darkness that controls us” said French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun to a full audience at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele as he opened this year’s International Literature Festival by discussing the question, “What does literature do?” Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin began in 2001 as a way to bring authors and audiences together for readings and discussions. This year’s festival brought together 140 authors from 53 countries for ten days to talk about current work and cross-cultural influences. A full audience gathered in the large auditorium of Haus der Berliner Festspiele to hear Ben Jelloun’s keynote address in French (translated into three languages). Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in 1944 in Fes, Morocco and now lives and works in Paris. His second novel La nuit sacrée (The Sacred Night) published in 1987 won the Prix Goncourt. He has won many other awards and honors and much of his work deals with racism and religious repression. Ben Jelloun explained that in some ways, literature is a substitute for what we cannot do. We cannot stop all the injustices of the world: human rights violations, corrupt governments, institutional shame—these things aren’t solvable even through very powerful literature. No literature buff likes to hear the adage from Thomas Bernhard, “There are only failed writers,” but Ben Jelloun turned this “failure” into the foundation for creativity, arguing that knowledge of this failure makes us stronger and frees up the writer to be  “the translator of the invisible.”

Tahar Ben Jelloun quoted Henri Bergson in saying “Intelligence is characterized by a natural incomprehension of life.” So we don’t have to know everything, or even pretend to know everything in order to write about something. The process of writing itself is enlightening, or in Ben Jelloun’s words, “to write about the world is to attempt to understand it better.” This is not to say the process of writing comes easily. According to Ben Jelloun writers have a responsibility to be honest, and quoting Herman Melville, “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its jagged edges.” But the painful truth is often exactly what needs to be heard. Writers, readers, and those who would censor literature shouldn’t see honesty as a threat to an orderly society, rather a way to be more sincere participants within it.

Ben Jelloun emphasized his opinion that both doubt and imagination need to be part of literature because both doubt and imagination are part of life. “Doubt is therefore a path toward reality.” And “Every man [or woman] bears the whole stamp of the human condition” wrote Michel de Montaigne, so as much as we think we know about humanity, there are still so many more untold stories to be expressed. Ben Jelloun talked about the importance of listening to one’s people and not just writing only out of personal experience. Listening means being “willing to report the words and translate the silence of all those who hope and wait for someone to appear out of obscurity and tell the world of their suffering and to portray their future.”    

Tahar Ben Jelloun applied these thoughts to a recent example, speaking candidly about his disapproval of international media coverage of the recent political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, termed “Arab Spring” or “Jasmine Revolution.” According to Ben Jelloun, these events should not be labeled by journalists as “revolutions,” but instead called “revolts.” For Ben Jelloun, a “revolution” is a catchy name for a romanticized civil disobedience, while a “revolt” gets closer to the heart of the matter—a “revolt” is “a refusal to live without dignity.” In trying to come close to honesty and understanding—how does one write honestly about a revolt?—writers need to be taking risks, undaunted by the jagged edges, because even an attempt to translate the invisible is better than no attempt at all. Said Ben Jelloun, “the writer is a witness of his time. Yet depending on the era he lives in, the writer must do more than bear witness…He must go beyond and bravely translate what others do not see.”

This is what literature does—allows us to see what we otherwise wouldn’t see. And this is also why we need it. There are voices that would treat honest literature as “corrupt tendencies,” but “we need the novel,” said Ben Jalloun, “not only to explain the world to us, but also to accompany our historical times.” In other words, right now, “we must write more than ever…beautifully, powerfully, even if humankind increasingly wallows in a pseudo-reality, in mediocrity, and in ugliness.” Because despite all this, he said, literature and humankind can astonish and move us; “this is what happened in the Arab Spring.” Tahar Ben Jelloun’s words reminded me of those of Vladimir Nabakov: “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.” 

Read the speech in French on Ben Jelloun’s website


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