As far as I can tell, The Ardent Swarm, out today with Amazon Crossing, is one of the first fictionalized accounts of a post-Arab Spring Tunisia to be published in English. In the novel, originally written in French, Tunisian author Yamen Manai cleverly uses allegory to depict the complex sociopolitical landscape that developed following the Arab Spring: an influx of Islamist parties that filled the political void, a wave of religious violence, and general anxiety about the future that persists today. There is also a profound ecological meditation woven through the book.
This translation proved to be the best kind of project—a compelling novel combined with an engaged and receptive author. Shortly before the close of 2020, Yamen and I got the chance to interview each other via email and discuss a few of our favorite things: literature, Tunisia, translation, and, of course, bees.
Lara Vergnaud (LV): I love the inspiration for your novel—a nature documentary you happened upon one night. Can you expand on that, as well as how the ecological and political elements of the novel came together in the writing process?
Yamen Manai (YM): I firmly believe that the main challenge currently facing humanity is saving our planet—our home—along with all the inhabitants that make it a harmonious and viable place to live. It’s a unifying mission, one that pays no mind to the differences that divide us and in the name of which we wage wars and inflict suffering on each other. Sadly, this past decade, rather than marking an awareness of that challenge, has seen enormous violence, both in the West and the East. I wanted to use the pen—the only weapon I believe in—to denounce that violence, but not just that. I wanted to remind my readers of what I consider to be essential. Paul Valéry, the famous French poet, said: “Politics is the art of making people lose interest in what truly interests them.” In my mind, literature plays the exact opposite role.
I spent many fruitless months searching for the perfect idea, for inspiration that would give meaning to, and serve as a reminder of, what really matters. One night, while I was channel surfing, I randomly landed on a National Geographic documentary. It was about bees, those marvelous, indispensable creatures, and their battle against giant hornets. The novel entered my mind instantly; it was like a lightning bolt. Then all I had to do was let myself be guided by the bees and write.
LV: The Ardent Swarm is a parable about post-Arab Spring Tunisia, specifically the period during which an Islamist party took political power in the country’s first democratic elections. Why did you choose to depict those events as a parable?
YM: It wasn’t really a choice. The conceit struck me as the only option. My aim was always to tackle the theme of man in nature, from which he has gradually removed himself, to remind my readers that it’s not an abstract notion. The bees aren’t merely a way to approach the question of the individual’s place in society. They represent something truly sacred that warrants our undivided attention. I see in their mission, and notably their behavior when confronted with danger, an ideal that could inspire us, and in the behavior of the hornets, a parallel to the barbarism practiced by the most extreme among us. The bees and hornets are fated to behave in such ways—it’s their nature. But what is our fate? What is our nature? These are the questions I tried to answer through this allegory.
YM: And how did you discover The Ardent Swarm? What was its path to publication?
LV: I first heard of The Ardent Swarm when the novel received the Prix Comar d’Or, Tunisia’s most prestigious literary prize. With a little difficulty, I obtained a copy of the book and knew immediately that I wanted to translate it. Because of my own Tunisian background, I’ve been particularly attentive to literature coming out of Tunisia since the Arab Spring, and I loved how your novel presented the aftermath of that movement in an accessible, allegorical, and moving way. I had already translated a sizable sample when I received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, which helped me attract attention for the project. Shortly after the grant was announced, I found an equally enthusiastic fan of the book in editor Liza Darnton at Amazon Crossing. She’s been a huge advocate of the project from the start.
YM: What are the major difficulties and sticking points of which a translator must remain vigilant in general, and during your translation of The Ardent Swarm in particular?
LV: Broadly, I think the translator has to be cautious of hewing too closely to the source language, which carries the risk of producing a text that is stiff and lifeless. Among emerging translators, I often notice—and this is certainly a challenge I still face myself—a hesitation to stray too far, an idea that doing so will betray or weaken the source text, when the opposite is true. Sometimes you need to stray to best capture a voice or style.
With The Ardent Swarm, I was lucky! Because your writing is so lucid, there were few linguistic pitfalls. I could focus on capturing the very distinctive voices of the characters, namely the Nawis [the residents of Nawa, the isolated village that serves as one of the novel’s main settings], who often speak almost as a chorus. The many scenes of dialogue were another preoccupation; I wanted to make sure that someone reading them didn’t stumble, that they didn’t come across as “translatese.”
“We’re never as inventive or creative as with our backs against a wall.”
LV: December marked the ten-year anniversary of the Tunisian uprising that sparked the Arab Spring. Tunisia got a lot of attention in the aftermath of those events but has been increasingly ignored by Western media in the years since. Do you have any hopes or ambitions that your book will play a role in how English-language audiences remember and understand that period, as well as Tunisia’s continuing efforts to achieve a fully democratic and politically stable state?
YM: Tunisia’s experience with despotism and revolution is universal, so much so that in my novel I didn’t explicitly mention the country’s name, though I include contextual references. I use “Country” instead so that readers can see a reflection of their own society, because we are all affected, worldwide, by the fragility of democracy, by political corruption, by unstable ecosystems, and by the dying out of the bees . . . If, on top of those messages, the book triggers interest in Tunisia and allows people to identify it on a map, that’s icing on the cake!
LV: The first time we met, you told me the writer has the responsibility to “incarnate the fragility of their community.” Can you expand on that, in relation to Tunisia in particular?
YM: It suffices to read the novel to realize this. A large part of the story takes place in a rural village stuck in medieval conditions: no running water, no electricity. For its inhabitants, access to health care, education, and culture is truly an obstacle course, and most of them have given up . . . These people have been left behind, forgotten by society, no matter who’s in charge. I happen to be familiar with these regions, and these people. I know that they have dignity and deserve more than to be abandoned. I spoke for them. I’m not the only one, but there aren’t enough of us doing so.
LV: One of my favorite elements of your novel is its prudent optimism. Your tone can be cynical at times, and you certainly don’t shy away from revealing the darker side of human nature or at poking fun at people, but underlying the novel is a sense of hope. Was that intentional or a facet of your own life philosophy peeking through?
YM: The humor, irony, and sometimes even cynicism that permeate the novel are a way to grab the reader’s attention without overwhelming them. Laughing at and mocking misfortune is an act of healthy rebellion, a first step toward optimism. In the current global situation, that attitude is no longer a luxury but a necessity. We need to be pessimistic in terms of what we see and optimistic in how we act, and even tell ourselves that we’re never as inventive or creative as with our backs against a wall.
LV: In France, a distinction is often made between French authors and Francophone authors, a categorization some authors have loudly rejected. Do you consider yourself one or the other? Both? Neither?
YM: Writing, for me, is the realm of absolute freedom. There’s no better way to free yourself from your chains, to be reborn, to reinvent yourself. Yet some people find reassurance in putting literature into little boxes, in cages, like birds that need to be distinguished because they don’t produce the same melody. And in France, there is indeed a distinction made between French and Francophone books, which has consequences for their visibility and circulation. It’s a reality, but a secondary, minor one; it doesn’t mar the freedom to create, which of course is the be-all and end-all. The “Ikea-sation” that follows doesn’t interest me very much.
YM: Can you share how you got into translation, and what translations you’ve already done?
LV: Several years ago, while living in France, I had a short-lived career as a technical translator before happily shifting gears to literary translation. The first literary work I translated was Zahia Rahmani’s France, story of a childhood, which was published by Yale University Press. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to translate a variety of genres—creative nonfiction, scholarly works, graphic novels, and of course, fiction. In recent years, I’ve been focusing my attention on literature written by authors of North African origin.
“I view translation as a primordial cultural act.”
YM: Michel Tournier said: “A book has two authors: the one who writes it and the one who reads it.” What position do you occupy as the translator? What personal mark do you leave on a text, and notably on The Ardent Swarm?
LV: This is something that I’ve thought a lot about since becoming a literary translator. Historically, we’ve been viewed as intermediaries, vessels, faceless scribes, etc. I find that people unfamiliar with literary translation often assume it’s a very mechanical exercise: substitute word x for word z. I ascribe to how writer and translator Lily Meyer so wonderfully describes it: “Translators, like writers, should allow their experiences, desires, and preferences to inform and enrich their art.”
This was particularly true for The Ardent Swarm. I have a personal connection to Tunisia (my father is Tunisian, and I spent my early childhood there), which, inevitably I think, influenced and enriched the translation experience. I was able to draw upon my memories and personal associations to visualize and then translate specific images, places, and character traits. What’s more, I felt incredibly invested in the story.
LV: Throughout the translation, you certainly were a dream author—kindly providing clarifications when asked, remaining receptive to my ideas for the English version (even changing the protagonist’s name), and providing me valuable space to render the best English version I could. How do you view this version of your novel? Translation in general?
YM: I’m at my novel’s service, and not the contrary! I’m guessing that’s what made me a dream collaborator for you. I view translation as a primordial cultural act. It’s through translations that I discovered, as a child, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, and Perrault’s fairy tales. These works, and many others, opened my mind to different cultures, and made me understand the power of literature, namely how it tells us that there is more that joins us than sets us apart, that people share the same sense of love, justice, sadness, that we can see ourselves in others, that there are more reasons to hold out one’s hand than refuse to. That’s why I was particularly happy to see L’Amas ardent translated, and with talent. I had faith in your understanding of the text and context thanks to your diverse background and the connection you have with Tunisia, and in your skills as a translator when I saw that you had received a prestigious PEN grant. I knew that my text was in good hands, that I could trust you and accept your necessary mark on it.
YM: In your mind, what is the importance of literary translation, with respect to both the source language/culture and the target language/culture? Do you regard it as a luxury or a necessity?
LV: At the risk of hedging, can I call it a necessary luxury? Though there is inarguably a redemptive quality to literature, I’m wary of grandly calling all literary translation a life-saving endeavor. But I do believe in its transformative power and its capacity to inform and influence.
At its best, literary translation can bring attention to underrepresented languages and ignored cultures and subcultures in a profound way—teaching by way of a good story. In just the past few years, there’s been a surge of attention in the US publishing world to marginalized languages and literatures, which has been gratifying and encouraging to witness. In terms of the target language/culture, I think that literary translation can give a much-needed nudge (shove, even) to prevailing literary constraints and expectations, and beyond that, to language itself. The wonderful thing about English, which is such a flexible, permeable, and often informal language, is that it lends itself readily to those nudges.
YM: If you had to translate a literary masterpiece that’s already been translated, what book would you choose?
LV: Camus’s The Stranger—which has in fact been recently and skillfully retranslated by Sandra Smith, who renamed it The Outsider—because it’s so canonical, and a product of a historical period I’m particularly interested in. And, of course, that famous first line . . .
LV: Finally, what are your literary influences? Any favorites? What authors and books are getting you through the pandemic?
YM: As a child, I read many of the Arabic classics. It’s an intrinsically poetic language that instilled a love of reading in me very early on. As I grew up, I discovered other languages, other universes, and some phenomenal authors. If I had the magical power to gather my favorite authors around a dinner table, I would invite Kafka, Cervantes, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, García Márquez, Sépuldéva, Saramago, Camus, Romain Gary, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and George Orwell. But if I had to go to a desert island with just one book, I would take The Iliad without hesitation. In my mind, this ancient saga that has traveled through the centuries condenses the entire human condition. It’s the perfect illustration of a brilliant line by Hölderlin, who said: “But what is lasting the poets provide.” And to think that Homer, the lyric poet who told this tale, was blind. Best believe that our eyes aren’t where we think they are.
YM: And a final question for you: do you have projects in the works?
LV: Always! I’m finishing up a debut novel by Franco-Algerian writer Fatima Daas, which was a surprise best seller in France. The novel explores homosexuality and Islam, racism in France, and gender roles and constraints. Next, I’m translating two novels by Mohamed Leftah, the seminal Moroccan writer, which also explore sexuality and gender roles in Arab culture.