At the Belgian residency of Seneffe (which hosted eight translators with one author in common) a few years ago, I must have been stickling over the spatial relationships of a setting, because the author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, remarked that the only other translator who’d raked him over the coals regarding the layout of a particular parking lot, and the position of the parked cars vis-à-vis a storage shed, had been (perhaps predictably) German. It is a defect of character that I find extended metaphor, which I’m told is a relative abstraction, more instantly apprehensible than descriptions of mechanical action. As a reader, and hence, as a translator, it is easier for me to imagine mental rather than physical space—a trait I naively believed universal until workshop. But I have never had any trouble with IKEA instructions, and perhaps that is an argument for the visual medium.
Hélène Aldeguer’s graphic novel After the Spring: A Tunisian Youth traces the fates and misfortunes of four young Tunisians through disaffection, violence, and despair over the course of a single year, 2013. The excerpt that appears in Words Without Borders was taken from different sections of the book as glimpses into the lives of two friends and fellow law students, Cheyma and Meriem, worried about the future.
Image: Tunis clock tower in a photo (by David Weekly, CC BY 2.0) and as drawn by Aldeguer.
In its first panel, Aldeguer takes us to Tunis with a distinctive landmark: a gilt-topped, 120-foot, obelisk clock tower with a mashrabiyya façade (pictured above). Built to commemorate the bloodless 1987 coup with which former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ousted his predecessor Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba, it stands in a roundabout once named for the former, at the eastern end of the avenue still named for the latter. Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and independence leader, served for three decades; Ben Ali, who ruled for two, was forced to flee the Arab Spring and has since been sentenced in absentia to life in prison. The Place du 7 novembre 1987 is now the Place du 14 janvier 2011. The names of a city, to mangle Baudelaire, change faster than the human mind.
I wanted some sense of the city between the comic’s panels, to make them something more than postcards.
Writers are fond of saying that in exploratory drafts they follow a character around to see what they will do; as a translator, I needed to inhabit this space to orient the action. But translating comics doesn’t usually fund location-scouting junkets. A virtual tourist in Tunis, I nevertheless wanted some sense of the city between the comic’s panels, to make them something more than postcards. Even cursory research could arrange them in space and time, geography and history, a staging that for me, at least, lent mental depth to any dialogue I later rendered. Or as Meryl Streep once put it, “I guess I’m just the kind of person who likes to clean behind the refrigerator.”
Image: Beb Bhar, photo by (WT-en) Elgaard at English Wikivoyage, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Cheyma is en route to see Meriem, who is at Beb Bhar (pictured above), which the French comic in an asterisked footnote identifies as “the sea gate,” or Porte de la Mer. This was confusing to me, as a stranger to Tunis: wasn’t it the eastern end of Avenue Habib Bourguiba that opened onto La Goulette, the port of Tunis on that channel or “gullet” opening into the Mediterranean? Was Cheyma then headed even farther east? Yet Beb Bhar, or Bab el Bhar (Tunisian Arabic: باب البحر) marks the beginning of the old medina where Avenue Habib Bourguiba, at its western end, becomes the Avenue de France. This, and the fact that it dates back to the French Protectorate, lend it another name, the Porte de France. In 1939, the walls on either side were cleared, but the gate, a squat archway topped by crenellations, remains. Why, then, “sea gate”? Legend has it that once the sea came up to the gate, but apparently this never happened: the name comes from the fact that the gate faces in the direction of the sea, connecting the medina and the lakefront. Mystery solved! Though it might seem a mystery of my own making, had I been content to take the author’s words at face value.
Images: The Avenue Habib Bourguiba in a photo (Wikimedia Commons) and as drawn by Aldeguer.
Cheyma, then, is in fact heading west, down Avenue Habib Bourguiba (Tunisian Arabic: شارع حبيب بورڨيبة). Most cities in Tunisia have an Avenue Habib Bourguiba. This one (pictured above), the central thoroughfare of Tunis, has historically been the political and economic heart of Tunisia, often compared to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and as the first page of the excerpt gives way to the second, we see why: the broad, tree-lined prospect, the shops and cafés. Many major monuments are located along this avenue, including the municipal theatre, the focus for protests that toppled former President Ben Ali. As Chemya draws near the theatre she becomes aware of but can’t quite make out the public furor that Aldeguer conveys with a jagged balloon empty of intelligible speech. Chemya never makes it to Beb Bhar.
One of the first things that drew me to these pages was not only Aldeguer’s depiction of twenty-seven-year-old Adel Kedhri’s self-immolation, but the way she puts readers in her character’s shoes as Cheyma is bluntly confronted by it. The first time I saw the bottom left panel of the second page (pictured left), I did not know what it was meant to portray. The wavy lines are powerful, almost abstract, yet immediately unpleasant. It was a minute before I even made out a human torso, and even then, it looks like it’s being swallowed by . . . tentacles? Only in the splash panel on the next page, with the man sitting on the ground, literally going up in smoke, did I belatedly realize what I’d been seeing. From Aldeguer’s framing of facial expressions and sequencing of subjective visuals, I’m inclined to think Cheyma went through something similar in under a second: bewilderment, recognition, disbelief, shock, horror. Kedhri’s act obviously recalls the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death in December 2010 led to a revolt in Tunisia that spread across the Arab world. Nor was Kedhri the first to set himself on fire in the two years that followed.
Later, the girls are watching the news in the privacy of Meriem’s apartment. Toward the end of this scene there is a small, grace note of a moment that I found at once intimate and glancing, typical of Aldeguer’s light touch with enlivening detail in this book. As Meriem steps out on the balcony to berate her ultraconservative Wahhabi neighbors, she takes a moment to don her headscarf (pictured above). These moments, which make readers say “Of course! But I never thought of that . . . ,” on which the convincingness of a work hinges . . . Research should be immersive; rather, call it “method.” I steep myself in backstory—of people, a place, a time—hoping it will all boil down to informing just a few word choices with such felicity.