I have listened to Tahar Lamri speak many times, in all sorts of places—from packed theaters to a rooftop terrace in Ferrara at two o’clock in the morning—and the remarkable thing about his voice is its quiet, even tone. Even when talking to hundreds of teenage school students in a crowded, echoey hall, he raises the volume only ever so slightly. But they always listen. There’s something about that relaxed, conversational Italian of his that commands attention and, to me, the sound of his voice is intrinsically linked to the things he writes. Whenever I read something in Italian by Tahar Lamri I cannot help but hear it, and that is the voice I want to hear when I read through my translation of “Cous Cous Klan.”
My judgment, then, of whether the translation works or not is based largely on whether or not it jars with how I imagine it would sound with Tahar speaking it. As simple as that.
But not quite; the fact that Lamri commands the attention of roomfuls of teenagers so effortlessly depends not just on the tone of his voice, and not even entirely on the things he says, but also on the audience’s expectations of him. In Italy, for a whole series of complex reasons, related more or less to the recentness of mass immigration into the country (mid-1990s onward) and the generally catastrophic way that has affected political and media discourse, anybody introduced to an audience as an “Algerian writer” automatically invokes a whole lot of preconceptions in people’s minds, much more so than in countries like France, Germany, and Britain. These preconceptions may be fleeting, and are not necessarily negative—especially in a younger, more culturally diverse audience—but they definitely exist, and any speaker of non-Italian origin is forced to take them into account.
Tahar Lamri plays on them with great skill. In a live reading, the beginning of “Cous Cous Klan,” with its interminable list of Arabic names, could be a classic example of this: the emphasizing of Samir’s “Arab-ness” catches the audience unawares and sets the scene for the finely contrived insights into cultural identity in the paragraphs to follow. But it also poses questions: how does this interplay of preconceptions and reactions between audience and speaker carry over into the actual substance of his writing? Does he write, as he speaks to an audience, in a way that plays on what he believes his readers’ preconceptions of him to be? Has he developed a set of literary devices to compensate for the absence of this real-life interplay? If so, what are they? And, more to the point, how do they translate into another language?
I will not attempt to answer these questions here. What I will do, though, from my privileged vantage point of knowing the sound of the author’s voice, is explain a couple of choices I made to stop the translation from “jarring.” I hope this will contribute to the debate on translating works—often written not in the author’s mother tongue—referring to highly specific social and political circumstances that can deeply affect the language itself.
“I leave to my parents their portable country, so magnificent in their memory and in the stories they tell.”
At first sight, this phrase may seem a bit overly formal, like a solicitor reading a will. Would it not be more normal to put “portable country” before “to my parents”? Perhaps, but then, as well as having to solve the problem of the possessive pronoun—it would now have to be “this portable country”—you would also lose the initial, slightly ironic, emphasis that Lamri would put on the words “my parents” if he were reading it. I’m sure about this. I can’t imagine him reading it in any other way, and so that was the deciding factor when I chose this sentence structure. I decided that the risk of sounding formal, and of breaking the number one rule of always turning an Italian sentence on its head to make it sound more “English,” was one worth taking in this case.
“She walks often, under the heavy rain and also when a gentle breeze blows.”
This is a trickier one. I could not for the life of me understand why Lamri had ended his description of the beautiful, fascinating Fayrouz with “gentle breeze blows.” I could understand why something unusual like a person walking under the heavy rain was worth including in a description, but what’s unusual about walking in a breeze? And then, to complicate matters further, in the original it’s actually “the gentle breeze” and not “a gentle breeze.” I rang extremely knowledgeable friends up to ask them if there could be any hidden literary or geographical allusions in “the gentle breeze,” but there were none that they knew of. And then I thought: perhaps we’re not meant to fully understand it. Perhaps we’re seeing it not rationally but through the doting eyes of Djilani, who feels a kind of breeze—the breeze—whenever he sets eyes on his beloved in the street. A mystery package, in other words.
So what do you do with a mystery package that has to be delivered in another language? Unwrap it, take it to pieces, reassemble it as best you can? No, I would say, especially in the case of something written already in a second language, to do the bare minimum: leave the contents as intact as possible and just change the wrapping ever so slightly—“a breeze” instead of “the breeze”—and then see how it sounds.