Gained in Translation (and how I lost the ‘dude’)

Interesting.  I wonder what this is about?  That was my initial reaction when I opened a package from my publisher the other day and saw Przepowiednia Szeherezady.  I was thinking that another writer must be as equally obsessed with Scheherazade as I am.  Perhaps she had read The Night Counter, and had liked it so much she had written a book length analysis of it.  Perhaps that was why my name was in big letters under the beautiful Nubian princess on the cover.  We can all be delusional for a few seconds.

The Nubian princess on the cover I immediately recognized was not me.  However, it took me awhile to figure out she was indeed my Scheherazade from The Night Counter.  This was in fact the Polish translation of The Night Counter, with one of the main characters literally photographed in a way I had never imagined her.

Being as The Night Counter’s characters are fiction, I had never seen a photograph of any of the characters in the book outside of my head.  Nor did I ever contemplate how hard or easy it would be for the characters to master life in Polish.  Now sometimes in the space they forever inhabit in me, I can imagine them whipping up some witty repartee in Polish.  At least I hope it’s witty and true to themselves.  But no one ever really knows when it comes to translation.  Indeed, how Dobromila Jankowska (the translator) heard them in English might be different than how I heard them, and therefore they might be slightly different people in Polish.  Just like real humans, characters become slightly different when they move to a different language, let alone a different country.  Even my English doesn’t sound the same here in Abu Dhabi as it does in the US.  There are words I don’t use often now—“dude” mercifully high among them—because they sound foreign in English here and maybe I speak louder and slower.

Humor, which is more based on culture and language, than drama is probably the hardest thing to understand in translation.  In Germany, The Night Counter family is apparently quite funny.  I only know this from sitting at readings in Germany in which I would read in English to relatively stoic responses –I could have been reading a new political manifesto for Europe.  But when the translator read the German version, the laughter told me they were not thinking of The Night Counter as a manifesto, at least not one they took seriously.

The Night Counter became Feigen in Detroit (Figs in Detroit) via translators Nadine Psuchel and Max Stradler.  My German editor at Auf Bau called Max a replicant because he can translate in several languages faster than anyone she’s met, run marathons and raise a son on his own.  Max did the first literal translation and Nadine went in and made the characters authentic in German.  At least that’s what everyone who has read the translation tells me:  They said Nadine was able to deliver fully dimensional characters who sounded like they’d always been speaking German suitable for their phobias and demographics.

When I met Nadine, we clicked instantly, bonded by the hours we had both spent pondering every word in the book, something that creates a natural intimacy, as probably no one else has ever had to be so close to what goes on in my head.  We also had similar sensibilities, key to good translation. Here is an exchange, unedited, between us when she was doing the final pass at the translation:

Nadine:  On page 84: “Yeah, we could call it the International Dateline,” he said. “Sometimes these ideas just come to me. The entrepreneur in me, I guess” (Zade talking about a new cooperative partnership in his match-making services). The pun with date doesn’t work in German so we thought of him proposing the name “Achse der Liebe” – “axis of love”. But of course this would have a more political undertone so what would you think of that version? (We could also leave the name in English. Date in the sense of rendez-vous is known in Germany, so the pun would be lost but the name itself would make sense, maybe with a slightly different wording in his next sentences).

Me:  I love axis of love. It would have been better in English, too.

Translation is complicated, but it also made me understand my own language more–and I got to understand my characters better in talking about them as German speakers.  But perhaps on the other hand its simple.  When I met my Norwegian publisher last year, I asked her why she had bought the book for this country with one of the highest per capita reading rates in the world.  “I loved the story,” she said.  “I could see it in Norwegian.”

That’s it really:  translation at its most noble is love of sharing stories and information. Some of the best things I’ve read in my life originated in languages I only know how to say “thank you” in.  If I have any doubts about how translation makes life better, I only have to look at the woman on the cover of Przepowiednia Szeherezady :  Scheherazade understood stories and the importance of them for survival.  That’s why she’s been in translation for centuries, some translations recognizable to how I know her, and some less so–and one day soon, she’ll find herself saying “dude” in someone’s interpretation of her.

Doner Kabob and Schweinefleisch

At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau  2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases.  From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them.  Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them.  I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me.  I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities.  It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something.  I loved  Germany.  Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi.  It’s just a little different.

1.  In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay.  In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m.  “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.

2.  I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section.  In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore.  It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.

3.  I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags.  In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels.  In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)

4.  In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste.  In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.

5.  In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products.  In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.

6.  There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi.   Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.

7.  Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi.  The cow has it easy in both places.

8.  Germans love dates—as a treat.  Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros.  In Munich, one date costs one Euro.

9.  In Germany, the VAT tax hurts.   Abu Dhabi is tax free.

10.  In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes.  On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading.  This made me happy.  On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting.  No books, no computers, not even any iPads.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.

Feigen in Detroit: The Night Counter in Germany

Many people ask me why “The Night Counter” is called “Feigen in Detroit” in German, which means “Figs in Detroit.”  Therein lies the beauty of translation.  It’s all about what your translators (Max Stadler and Nadine Puschel) and publisher (AufBau) see in German that you didn’t see in English.  I have loved working with

Feigen in Detroit

AufBau from the day they aquired to today and I’m looking forward to meeting the people who read it in German.  So if you’re in Germany or Vienna this coming two weeks….

More information also on Facebook at “The Night Counter by Alia Yunis”

Wednesday November 17, 2010 at 7pm
James-F.-Byrnes-Institut
Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum
Charlottenplatz 17
Stuttgart, Germany

Thursday November 18, 2010 at 11 am
ISF International School
Strasse zur Internationalen Schule 33
65931 Frankfurt am Main
Frankfurt, Germany

Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
Stadtbücherei – Central Public Library
MedienZentrale Hasengasse 4
Frankfurt, Germany

Friday November 19, 2010 at 7:30pm
Hauptverband des Österreichischen Buchhandels
Palais Fürstenberg
Grünangergasse 4
Vienna, Austria
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m.

Sunday, November 21,  2010 at 11 a.m. Munich Literature Festival
WORD-RAGA
Club Ampere im Muffatwerk
Zellstr 4 81667 München
Germany

Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 4 p.m.
Munich Literature Festival
A Traveling Story, Munich City Walk
Germany

Monday, November 22, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Zeitungs-Café Hermann Kesten
Stadtbibliothek
Gewerbemuseumsplatz 4
Nürnberg, Germany

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
Hugendubel in den Fünf Höfen
Theatinerstraße 15
80333 München
Germany

Wednesday November 24, 2010 at 6 p.m.
Forum Factory
Besselstr. 13-14
10969 Berlin
Germany

Muslims Wearing Things

I miss living in the US every day for many reasons, but among the things I don’t miss are the shallow debates on TV that pretty much follow the line of “Muslims:  Terrifying or just really scary?”–usually a heated debate book ended with some heart pounding intro and outro musak– like these are one of two  extreme positions that need to be taken about Islam’s billion followers.  It’s easy for me to tune it out when I’m not Stateside, so I’m glad I missed the whole Juan Williams debacle, and I’m not sure why he got fired when so many others have said way worse things and had it pass as “news.”   But I get a kick out of this blog’s response–and feel pretty privileged to be in the company of these fine dressed people.

http://muslimswearingthings.tumblr.com

THE PAPERBACK RELEASE OF THE NIGHT COUNTER THIS WEEK

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    Contact: Emily Lavelle
(212) 572-8756
elavelle@randomhouse.com

PRAISE FOR THE NIGHT COUNTER:
“[Yunis] weaves a colorful tapestry…rich in character and spirit.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Wonderfully imaginative…poignant, hilarious…The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction.…Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”
—Boston Globe

“Little pigs and lost siblings make for decent bedtime story fodder. But the life and times of Fatima Abdullah, the madcap matriarch of Alia Yunis’s charming debut, The Night Counter, is even better.” —Daily Candy

“The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Night Counter
A Novel
By Alia Yunis

When THE NIGHT COUNTER: A Novel (Three Rivers Press; July 13, 2010) by PEN Emerging Voices Fellow Alia Yunis was published in hardcover in 2009, it was chosen as recommended summer reading by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix, received rave reviews across the board, and was praised as “wonderfully imaginative,” (Boston Globe), “emotionally rewarding reading,” (Kirkus, starred review), and a “captivating debut” (Publishers Weekly).

Now available in paperback and perfect for summer reading, THE NIGHT COUNTER crafts a striking tapestry of modern Arab American life. With great comic timing and a touch of magical realism, this quirky and poignant novel centers on the last ten days of Fatima Abdullah’s life and the richly layered, multigenerational stories of her family.

The beautiful and immortal Scheherazade, the legendary character from The Arabian Nights, has been roaming the earth for eleven centuries, and she yearns for a story to distract her. When she follows an American soldier home from Iraq out of curiosity, she runs into Fatima Abdullah in Los Angeles, a cantankerous and fiercely loyal matriarch of a sprawling Arab American clan with two husbands, ten children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild with a great-great-grandchild on the way.

Eager to learn more of her family secrets and why Fatima left her husband—the great love of her life—at the age of eighty-two, Scheherazade visits Fatima each night, coaxing her to divulge more about her past and speculate on her family’s future. THE NIGHT COUNTER begins with Scheherazade’s 992nd visit.  She has already warned Fatima that “when our stories end, so do our lives,” but now, with just nine days left, Fatima has run out of childhood stories of Lebanon and must tell a love story, a story she has run from all her life.

With a zealous FBI agent watching her home, a gay grandson refusing to take her marriage advice, and ten children who make lousy heirs to her house in Lebanon, Fatima is finding her remaining days in Los Angeles quite frustrating. Through Fatima’s stories and through first-person chapter narratives of Fatima’s progeny in Lebanon and across the United States, Yunis unravels four generations of a quirky clan whose members are as desperate as Fatima to find where they belong. Imbued with great humanity and imagination, THE NIGHT COUNTER is a heartwarming tale that proves that storytelling is an act of love.
# # #

The Night Counter
By Alia Yunis
Three Rivers Press
On sale: July 13, 2010
978-0-307-45363-1; $14.00 paperback
http://www.threeriverspress.com
http://www.aliayunis.com

For more information or to request an interview with Alia Yunis, please contact
Emily Lavelle at 212-572-8756 or at elavelle@randomhouse.com.

THE NIGHT COUNTER’S MIDDLE EAST TOUR BEGINS

Six weeks after finishing the initial U.S. tour, The Night Counter and I are going to do a little tour of the Middle East.  Started out easy last night at the

The Night Counter at the Virgin Store in Abu Dhabi

The Night Counter at the Virgin Store in Abu Dhabi

American Women’s Network in Abu Dhabi, where, thanks to my friend Annette, many of the women had already read it and were fans.  Next is Bahrain, where I don’t know anyone.  I’ll wrap it  up in mid-December in Abu Dhabi with New York University’s international conference on the Arabian Nights.  Here’s a rundown:

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.
American Women’s Network (guest speaker)
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Saturday, October 24, 2009
Seef Mall at 10 am, City Centre at 5 pm
Jashansmal’s
Manama, Bahrain

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 7 p.m.
Diwan Bookstore
159, 26th July Street, Zamalak
Cairo, Egypt

Saturday, November 7 -10, 2009
Arab-US Association for Communication Educators Conference
Cairo, Egypt
Presentation of paper with Dr. Gaelle Picherit-Duthler: “Tramps, Terrorists, and Teases: The Changing Image of American and Arab Women in Hollywood Films.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 7 p.m.
Virgin Store
Doha, Qatar

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Librarie Antoine
Hamra Branch
Beirut, Lebanon

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
American Community School
Opening of New Library, 3 p.m.
Workshop, 2 p.m.

November 11 to 20, 2009
Sharjah International Book Fair
Sharjah, UAE

December 12-14, 2009
Arab and Muslim Literature in English Conference
University of Nizwa
Nizwa, Oman

Tuesday December 15, 2009 at 6:30 p.m.
New York University’s “Writers in Conversation with The Arabian Nights With Alia Yunis, Elias Khoury, Gamal Elgihitany, Githa Hariharan, and Amira El-Zein”
Intercontinental Hotel
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Fatima’s Fig Tree

One of the last things I did before leaving Jordan this week was to go into the backyard of my family’s home to see if another fig was ready for the picking.

Fatima's Fig Tree

Fatima's Fig Tree

It’s also the first thing I’d done when I arrived there, upon my mother’s insistence. We’re a family that gets pretty excited about blooming fruit.

While I certainly also embraced the apples on their tree and the grapes on their vines,  there’s something magical about the fig, perhaps because it’s so hard to find in its green and pink perfection of sweetness, unless you literally have a tree in your back yard.  I had never been in Jordan at this time of year, and so the last time I had had this privilege was years ago when I had lived in Athens and Beirut, where peddlers used to walk by with carts teeming with freshly picked figs.  I understood better then Fatima’s obsession with the fig tree in “The Night Counter” than I had before.  So while the fig was Fatima’s eureka moment, I had mine picking a fig off a tree in Jordan—I learned that it is possible for a writer to understand her characters even more after she’s literally closed the book on them.

When my uncle came over later that day, he went off on another book, talking about how the figs leaf outfits and numerous other references to figs shared by the “people of the book” or Old Testament, as it is better known in the US.*  Not so fascinating when you consider that those stores were pretty much set right where we were sitting.   But, if we were just talking figs, those stories could have also been set in California, the U.S.’s fig supplier.  But because figs are so delicate, it’s hard to even get them to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in tact, let alone deliver them to the rest of the country.  The difficulty of transporting them is why it was possible for me have a conversation with my Florida-born nephew once in which he said, “I know raisins come from grapes, but what do figs come from?”  “Figs,” I answered.  “But before they were figs, what were they?”  Even if I could have torn him away from his Xbox to get a fresh-ish fig one at the finest grocery stores in town, it wouldn’t have been juicy and bright pink.  It’d have been a little tired and a lot happier if it had been allowed to dry up and go into his Cliff Bar.

There are scores of recipes for fresh figs, but really that seems wasteful.  Your time could be better spent than trying to improve on perfection. But if you do insist on jazzing them up a bit, a side of white cheese is really all you need.
Fatima's Fig Tree

* In case you were doubting there was anything beyond the fig leaf threads, here is one of many other examples, and a quote that often find well explains the power and comfort of faith to those who have nothing (and even those who do):

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
a God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.