A Bit of Her Baraka: Interview with Translator Rachael Small

Cagibi had the pleasure of conducting this interview with translator Rachael Small in Spring 2018, both in person with well-mixed cocktails, and online. She lives in Brooklyn, and by day works in the Manhattan office of Europa Editions as the Director of Publicity and occasionally as an editor for novels in translation that they publish.

Cagibi: Rachael, thank you for this conversation, and we are so glad to be having it with you. At Cagibi, it is a big part of our mission to expand conversations of international work in various ways. We plan for this to be the first in a series of translator interviews. So let’s begin. While you were doing graduate work at the University of Iowa, you began translating Another Morocco. Was this where you first discovered the work of Abdellah Taïa?

Une melancolie arabe 250w.jpgRachael Small: Yes, I started reading Taïa’s work while I was an MFA student at the University of Iowa. This was back in 2010, the year Taïa won the Prix de Flore, which I heard about through my former advisor at Bard College, Eric Trudel. This was the first I’d heard of Taïa and his work, but as soon as I read descriptions of his writing, I rushed to the University of Iowa library and picked up the first book I could find, Une mélancolie arabe. I was instantly seduced by the raw, unabashed intimacy of the voice, the brutal beauty of his prose and storytelling, and I immediately started translating and submitted an excerpt to my translation workshop, who fell in love as well. I started seriously considering the novel as my MFA thesis, and so began looking into translation rights and discovered that this particular novel was being translated by Frank Stock for Semiotext(e), who published it as An Arab Melancholia in 2012.

Mon Maroc by Taia 250w.jpgBy that point, I had fallen so deeply for Taïa’s prose that rather than search for a different author to translate, I decided to go through the rest of his catalogue and began reading Mon Maroc, his first book, a collection of short stories published in France in 2000. These very short stories felt much more guarded than the novels, but rich in a different kind of intimacy that was expressed through the intricate detail of daily life. It’s both like listening to a dear uncle tell tales of life in the old country and speaking with a new friend who is testing the waters, trying to decide what he can or can’t reveal to you about himself.

Tangier is a possessed city, haunted by spirits of different faiths. When we have literature in our blood, in our souls, it’s impossible not to be visited by them. —from Another Morocco

Cagibi: What was this experience of translation work like at the university?

Small: The short stories in Mon Maroc were perfect for a workshop setting, and because these stories were so brief, 3-8 pages each, we could spend a single session digging into a story or two at a time in their entirety. Workshop was a wonderful opportunity for me as a translator to test waters of my own, to decide just what aspects of the original text I absolutely had to bring out in English, which repetitions I had to hold on to and which I should rework, what the voices of the characters would sound like in translation, how I should treat Arabic insertions, how I should use the knowledge I had of Taïa in 2010-12 in translating a book he wrote in 2000.

Cagibi: For Another Morocco, how did you work with Taïa? Was there a back and forth, revisions, etc? And how is his English?

Small: I have now met Taïa on a number of occasions, and mostly in the US, and his English is excellent. That said, he put so much trust in me with the translation and allowed me to work on it autonomously. I felt lucky in that way. Often, when an author speaks the language you are translating them into, they’ll have strong feelings about certain word choices or constructions. In this case, I was in closer conversation with the text than with the author himself during the translation process.

Taïa was involved in this project more as a curator than as translator or editor, selecting the stories he felt were most important for inclusion, but also leaving space for me to recommend stories he may not have selected. We also included a few stories that had previously been translated for publication by Daniel Simon and Frank Stock, and an afterword that was translated by Noura Wedell. Though my name is on the cover, this book is truly a collaboration among a community of translators who have been touched by Taïa’s writing.

View over Salé, Morocco
View over Salé, Morocco. Photo: Unknown

Cagibi: Abdellah Taïa often writes of his childhood in Salé, Morocco. Did you encounter specific figures of speech or cultural references that felt uniquely important to translate, in that they embody a way of being that is particular to this place?

Small: In many ways, Taïa’s earlier stories feel almost like works of personal ethnography, and I learned so much about particular objects and spaces and groups through translating them. Because of this, I felt that the stories like “Majmar” and “From One Body to Another”—which explore the charcoal brazier used to heat Taïa’s childhood home and the space of the hammam, respectively—would be important to include in the final collection. In these stories, written in French and for a French audience, Taïa has performed a sort of translation of his own, one that invites the reader into the intimate spaces of his childhood in Salé and introduces new cultural concepts and a language with which to describe them. He uses Moroccan and Arabic terms very strategically and I wanted to honor that in my translation, which created the challenge of making sure the English around them was stable enough to support them, in the way that Taïa’s French is. The “foreign” terms should stand out, not as intrusions, but rather as confidences. I did not want to add a glossary at the end or footnotes for this reason. The only glosses or more explicit definitions included should be smoothly incorporated and all have their origins in the original text.

So yes, there are many terms and concepts that felt important, both in their particularity to Taïa’s Morocco and in the way they felt familiar to me and my own experience of the world. The idea of baraka, which shows up in a few stories and is most explicitly defined in “Starobinski’s Baraka,” is one of these concepts. “In Morocco,” Taïa’s story tells us, “when a person is successful, we touch our clothing to theirs so that we might have a bit of their success, a bit of their baraka.” How many rituals exist in different cultures to ward off failure and court success? And what is the desire to meet, to touch, to get signatures from or pictures with those we admire if not, in some way, an attempt to bring some of their “star power” into our own orbit? Baraka was a new concept to me, and yet it felt so very familiar in the way Taïa described it, a sort of spirituality that was not explicitly religious—though the origin of the concept is found in Islam. I wanted to honor the way Taïa employed these concepts in his writing, allowing them to be revealed to English readers as they were to French readers.

The idea of baraka…what is the desire to meet, to touch, to get signatures from or pictures with those we admire if not, in some way, an attempt to bring some of their “star power” into our own orbit? —Rachael Small

Cagibi: What emotions in storytelling have you found the most difficult to translate? These stories were all written before Taïa came out to the French-Arab journal Tel Quel, becoming the first openly gay writer to be published in Morocco. In the French text, could you feel a fear around disclosing homosexuality? How was the emotion different in the French text than in the English?

Small: I wouldn’t say that I felt a fear in Taïa’s writing around disclosing his homosexuality. It’s so hard to accurately locate this kind of emotion in a text, and each reader or interpreter brings her own lens and experience to her reading. As I worked through these stories, I was particularly concerned with the preconceived notions and interpretations I was at risk of bringing to it, from the perspective of a reader who knew Taïa as “Morocco’s first openly gay author.” This was particularly important in approaching issues of gender in the text, written originally in French, a language in which all nouns are gendered. It can be easy to read significance into the gender of a noun and connect ideas in that way as a non-native reader. In my translation, I attempted to replicate the experience of a French reader of these texts who did not yet see Taïa as a “gay author,” a label that can often be quite limiting to an author. Today, even as he has embraced his out persona, I see him straining against the kinds of limitations such a label can place upon the reading of his work. He is gay, but not all of his political and creative concerns stem from his sexuality, and he is so much more than that. And I hope that my translations have helped to underline just how generous and nuanced his writing is.

Cagibi: What is to you the biggest appeal of world literature? What do you find in the literature you translate that you don’t find in American literature?

Small: Reading is an experience of opening yourself up to a different perspective on the world, and in reading more broadly we get to multiply the variety of experiences we have. Writing is shaped, not only by the language of which it is constructed, but by the culture in which it is created. In the U.S. especially, our literary culture is deeply influenced by the proliferation of MFA programs, our publishing industry, and the literary circles of influence that for generations centered around New York City, which can have a homogenizing effect. Over the past few years, I’ve been really pleased to see the American publishing industry taking an interest in diversity in its many forms, but we still have so much work to do. And I think one of the most crucial parts of allowing for diversity is making sure that the writers and readers in our country are reading international authors and books in translation, to broaden our sense of what literature can do and be, and to explore new landscapes.

I truly believe reading literature in translation makes one, not only a better literary citizen, but a better global and local citizen. After all, the United States is a country of immigrants, these various different cultures are in our DNA, yet there are so many who would deny their immigrant roots in the name of American exceptionalism. When we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, we miss out on so much beauty and variety.

I truly believe reading literature in translation makes one, not only a better literary citizen, but a better global and local citizen. —Rachael Small

Cagibi: For someone interested in doing translation work, what books do you recommend?

Small: I love translators’ memoirs and have recently fallen in love with Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and published by the Feminist Press. It’s a thought-provoking collection of brief, related essays about Gansel’s experience with translation, the authors she has worked with, the context in which they wrote and the context in which she translated, the languages she has translated from and her relationship to them, and so much more. Similarly, I’ve enjoyed reading Gregory Rabassa’s essays about translating many of the great authors of the Latin American boom. And for a good overview of some of the different schools of thought and issues considered in “translation theory,” I’d recommend The Translation Studies Reader edited by Lawrence Venuti and The Craft of Translation edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte. Otherwise, read lots, in the language you translate from, the language you translate into. And read older and newer work.

Cagibi: What are you working on now, or next, in translation?

cover_9781609454517_1218_200.jpgSmall: I’m mostly involved in translation now on the editorial and publicity side of things. Working full time in the publishing industry makes it surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) difficult to dive into new translation projects. But I’ve truly loved working with other translators to bring attention to their work. One of the books I’ve worked on as an editor and publicist that touched me most deeply is Tina Kover’s translation of Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental, which comes out April 17. It’s a sweeping story about immigration, Iranian history, punk rock, sexual identity, motherhood…the list goes on. And I’ve now had the pleasure of working on three books from the Spanish, including two translations by the brilliant Andrea Rosenberg: The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen and Naked Men by Alicia Giménez Bartlett, which publishes this fall. The feedback I received on my translations of Taïa’s short stories truly helped shape the collection into what it became and I feel honored to get to help other translators to polish their work so it can truly gleam when it’s finally published.

Cagibi: Great recommendations! Thank you, Rachael!

Rachael Small 1024w.jpg

Rachael Small is the translator of Abdellah Taïa’s Another Morocco, from the French. Small is a native of Los Angeles, California whose love of language and literature has moved her around the world, from upstate New York to Paris and Dakar to Mexico and Iowa. A graduate of Bard College, Small earned her MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. She has translated works by Philippe Adam, Disiz, François Bon, Giovanna Rivero, and an exhibition on the life and works of Albert Camus. She was a 2012 resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre and has worked for the Book Department of the French Embassy in New York.

About the author Abdellah Taïa, whose work she translates from the French: He was born in Rabat, Morocco, and grew up in Salé, a city across the Bou Regreg River from the capital. He now lives in Paris. His debut, Mon Maroc (My Morocco), was a collection of autobiographical vignettes about his childhood in Morocco and subsequent move to Europe. In 2010, Taïa won the Prix de Flore for his third novel, Le Jour du Roi. His feature film, L’Armée du salut, based on his novel of the same name, was a featured selection for the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and International Critics’ Week in Venice, Italy. He came out publicly in 2006, earning him the distinction of being Morocco’s first openly gay author.

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