Horses of God is your second translation of Mahi Binebine’s work. How did this collaboration come about?
I work with Banipal, the journal of modern Arab literature, as a writer, translator (and now editorial assistant), and they happened to send me an extract from a book called Cannibales to translate (later published in English as Welcome to Paradise). It hit me like a punch in the stomach. I felt an instant identification with the style of writing and, because I’ve spent a lot of time in Morocco, with its universe. It’s about a group of Africans waiting on a beach in Tangier to make the crossing to Spain, and spools back into each of their stories to tell how they came to be there. It’s simple, dramatic, and political, with the kind of black humor I love. Given the level of the discourse on immigration, illegal or not, in the UK at the time, it also felt like a shot across the bows. When I finished the translation I sent it to a couple of publishers who both immediately wanted to buy it.
What’s the first step in translating a book?
I think it’s that identification, perhaps. It’s good (or makes it easier) if you and the writer share a sensibility and love of language. I only really want to do books that are linguistically challenging or interesting. And if, while reading it, you find the sentences jumping into English it’s a good sign too, just that you’re excited. Because really the first thing is to read and read and try to not translate at first, but immerse yourself in the book and its world.
How involved was the author in the translation process?
Possibly too much for his liking! Because I know Mahi a little now, I have no qualms about sending him a lot of questions, some of which I’m sure he finds bemusing and pedantic, and which can go on and on, in some detail. This time too, as I neared the end, I went to spend a week with him in Marrakesh to go over any questions or problems more deeply, which was wonderful, as a lot of nuance is lost via e-mail. And then I sent more questions… He made himself totally available and was extremely generous.
How long did the process take?
It was long. Because the release date was so far away the publishers gave me an unusually long time, nine months, which the work certainly expanded to fill. I have never gone over a translation so many, many times. And also, because it was being published simultaneously in the U.S., there were two versions to get right at the same time.
The book is set in an Arab country and is about suicide bombers. In his portrayal of their lives, which are filled with poverty and violence, Binebine shows great compassion for his young characters, who eventually commit horrific acts of violence themselves. Did you worry that that compassion would be difficult to convey to a Western reader, who is probably less familiar with the world the boys come from and may have certain prejudices about who commits acts of terrorism and why?
I don’t think Western readers think terrorists do what they do for no reason, even if the crime seems entirely senseless and is abhorrent to us. The whole book is attempting to ask the questions “What kind of person can be a suicide bomber?” “How can that happen?” and acquaint the reader with a world they probably don’t know. Mahi spent a lot of time in Sidi Moumen, the slum the 2003 Casablanca bombers came from, and did a lot of research into how long and what it takes to make a terrorist or “turn” a young boy. The boys are vulnerable kids; it’s the sheikhs who are the shadowy creatures in the book, and they are left pretty opaque.
I also think compassion and curiosity are stronger than prejudice, and prejudice in any case is a dead end, and what all art tends to topple. We can, after all, judge something monstrous and also attempt to understand it.
Were there any other challenges specific to working on this book?
The book is narrated by one of the bombers, from the afterlife. The challenges were to do with making his voice believable as the illiterate street kid he was in the past, but also have the depth, education, and all-seeing eye that he somehow gains in death. If that makes sense. And also I was keen to make the religious passages not feel too smooth or neutral and substantially less exciting than the wild and violent life that precedes them, which has so much more incident.
Obviously, rhythm and tone are important to capture in a translation, as well as accuracy in terms of meaning. Do you have any tricks for doing this?
If there are any tricks I don’t know them. The only thing that’s really important is to read it out loud. Then you immediately know what’s not working.
Binebine’s work is written in French and published first in France, then in Morocco, where he lives. How have his books been received in Morocco?
Very well, I understand, although with this one he did receive threats.
What are you working on now?
I am doing my own writing and I am about to translate a great Algerian writer called Mustapha Benfodil, who wrote a book about the Iraq war called The Last Six Days of Baghdad. Though I’ve read a fair bit about the war, recently and while it was in full spate, by fantastic writers like Patrick Cockburn, I realized I’d never read one that really gives an account of what it’s like to be in a city at war, under fire, or to what extent normal life does or doesn’t go on, what people are saying on the street and how they are living it, what they believe, etc. Mostly there’s a veil of exoticism when Western writers or reporters cover a war or it’s very measured, reverent, and elegiac. This doesn’t feel like that at all.