An excerpt of Peter Bush’s translation of Najat El Hachmi’s The Foreign Daughter appears in the April 2017 issue: You Will Not Be Born Again: Catalan Literature Now.
I can think of no other writer in Spain who so delicately and uncomfortably explores the tissues of consciousness—the intricate layers of sensibility and intellect, of cultures and languages—Najat El Hachmi coalesces in the narratives of her female protagonists. The young Moroccan girl in The Last Patriarch (2008) dips into a Catalan dictionary every night—it’s her bedside reading while she ruminates on her father’s rascally behavior. The young woman in The Foreign Daughter compares herself to Evelyn in Joyce’s Dubliners and later sits in the bathroom reading Thus Spake Zarathustra, reflecting ironically: “Your predicament is headline stuff: ‘Moroccan (?) girl reads Nietzsche shut in the lavatory: does nothing to decide her own life.’” Earlier, she asserts: “I don’t need to reread The Fear of Freedom, I don’t need to analyse my behavior.”
The Catalan protagonist of The Body Hunter (2011) mentions no bookish points of reference and seems to put all her energies into her work—whether cleaning floors or pizza factories—and her serial one-night stands and affairs, but her quest for tenderness recalls Anaïs Nin’s Diaries and the heroine of Mercè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square housecleaning to keep her family while her husband is fighting in the Spanish civil war. Najat El Hachmi’s narrators speak intensely of their cultural, linguistic, or sexual dislocations and in a Catalan rooted firmly in the traditions of twentieth-century Catalan fiction. They don’t live cheek by jowl with Las Ramblas or refer to Gaudí or Miró at the drop of a hat, rather they are rebellious young women, hypersensitive and self-conscious, fighting to create paths for their lives in a society that expects them to acquiesce to the rule of the male and never question the limited lives tradition (Catholic, Muslim, or secular) prescribes for those born outside the white urban elite. When will they have rooms of their own?
Najat El Hachmi’s breakthrough came with her first novel, The Last Patriarch, that won the national Catalan Ramon Llull Prize for literature, which, when I read it, reminded me of the success of another first novel, White Teeth. Just as Zadie Smith returns to the streets of Kilburn in north London, the scenarios of her childhood and adolescence, with a sense of identification and separation and the importance of class and color, Najat El Hachmi’s fiction revisits the town in the Rif valley where she was born and the backstreets of the Catalan provincial town Vic where she went to live at the age of eight with at once profound attachment and distance. In her latest novel, the “foreign” daughter charts her estrangement from the rituals that fill the lives of her mother and her friends, whether in the Rif valley or Vic—the baking of bread, the henna-ing of hair, the painting of bodies, the wives’ get-togethers—and her admiration for her mother “with the forehead of a woman from the Rif, the face of a true Tamazight from head to toe, a fine lady, if ever there was one” and who was “a revolutionary” in the way she worked in a foreign land to sustain her family.
Her feeling of otherness is triggered repeatedly by the most everyday exchanges (“If I could, I’d change myself so I felt things less intensely”) where words in the language of the Rif don’t easily equate to daily life in Vic—just as elsewhere a baguette isn’t quite a sliced loaf: “all of a sudden, this banal insignificant lexical slippage underlines how distant I am from her way of seeing and understanding things. However hard I translate, however I try to pour the words of one language into another, I will never succeed, there will always be difference.”
A view of the abyss that Najat’s translators are familiar with! When I was leading a workshop at the City University summer school last July translating a fragment of the novel, we probably spent the most time trying to capture the nuances and shifts in the following passage:
But my mother had said he’d find something he could do without a contract like so many other husbands who’d been brought over, that if someone is espavilat and wants to work, they’ll find something. Espavilat—a word that doesn’t exist in my mother’s language, as far as I know. She says ifsus, lleuger in Catalan, which means quick, although Moroccans have adapted the word—ispavila. Because espavilat is not quite the same as lleuger. Lleuger can be very positive, someone who does things quickly, but, depending on your tone of voice, it can also be negative. He’s lleuger, said in a certain way means he’s espavilat, more of a hustler. Someone who will fleece you of your money. If tone decides the meaning of a word, then suddenly something like intonation that we take for granted becomes all important. People also use lleuger to mean smart . . .
Though perhaps such a passage would lead us to reflect that recognition of tone and inflection that is so central to the art of translation is at the same time part of the quotidian negotiation of life for the majority of humanity who don’t just hammer away in hallowed standard, but take diversity of dialect and multilingualism in their stride. Just as a preceding description of a lack of nuptial bliss in Vic derives its bite from a childhood chore: the narrator isn’t shy of harnessing memories of physical experiences from the rural Rif to express her disgust in viscous Catalan:
Then he’d then grab me roughly any way he could, grab my face with one hand, force my mouth open and insert his slimy wet tongue that reminded me of the cow-tongue my mother often bought and that we had to scrape so as to get all the muck off. But my cousin-husband’s tongue smelled of sheep’s entrails, smelled like the raw fatty meat from sticky, stringy sheep’s intestines we turned inside out with a thick needle and that I liked to tie in knots. It was a job I loved when I was little, I loved the feel of the gut in my hands but I found no such pleasure in my cousin-husband’s tongue.
On the other hand, the translation of both passages was an act of great pleasure for us all. With the first, a playful pursuit of degrees of meaning of the Catalan and Tamazight, and in the second, raucous laughter over the cow-tongue and intestine operations, particularly the use of the thick needle.