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Aneesa Abbas Higgins on translating Seven Stones by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Aneesa Abbas Higgins, translator of "Seven Stones" published by Jacaranda Books, tells us more about her perception of the novel and her experience translating it.

I’ve been fascinated by desert landscapes since I was first confronted with the hot desert winds of the Middle East during a long flight to India in the days before non-stop long haul flights. The plane stopped every few hours, or so it seemed, at a succession of outposts in a sea of sand. I stepped out of the plane at one such outpost and felt the shock of a blast of a wind that seemed to come from a furnace. At another, I watched the sun rise over the dunes and witnessed an explosion of colour and light that seared itself on my memory and provided a welcome antidote to the soggy landscapes of my English childhood.

That desert environment is the setting for Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Seven Stones and for me this was one of the greatest pleasures of translating the work. We are transported to an unnamed country, where a harsh, biting wind sweeps across a parched landscape, and where rain, when it is finally unleashed from the skies, transforms the plains into a carpet of flowers, but only for a brief moment. This is an unforgiving environment, vividly evoked by the author’s distinctive, compelling voice.

Vénus Khoury-Ghata is primarily known for her poetry, although she has written an impressive number of novels in her long life as a writer. The daughter of a French official and an uneducated Lebanese woman, she grew up in Lebanon at a time when women’s rights were severely constrained. Speaking both Arabic and French, she spent her childhood moving between the westernised world of her French father, and the traditional environment of her mother and grandmother. She writes in French, but has translated much French poetry into Arabic, and has said many times that her own French is suffused with the rhythms and sensibilities of Arabic, her mother tongue.  All of this is evident in her work: for me, these elements are the vital ingredients of her voice. This is the voice of a woman who is a fierce defender of women’s rights and who deploys her poetic powers to create images that burn themselves into the minds of her readers. She takes on difficult subjects, and gives voice to women whose own voices have been stifled or silenced.

In Seven Stones the voice is given an extra dimension by the fact that the majority of the book is recounted in the second person. The narrator is not “I” but “you”, a point of view that lends an intimacy and urgency to the narrative, and adds a twist to the well-worn technique of the interior monologue. The fictional self talks to the fictional self, in the same way that our non-fictional selves do when we mull over our experiences. French, in common with many other languages, distinguishes between formal and informal second person pronouns: the narrative voice of Seven Stones addresses herself not with the formal vous, but with the more intimate tu. Of course, in English, we don’t have that distinction, which makes it quite a challenge to ensure that the translation has the same whispering urgency as the original. As I was translating, I occasionally found myself slipping unintentionally into the more familiar “I”, only to wake up, as it were, and realise I had to go back and correct that slippage.

An important feature of Seven Stones is the presence of Arabic words dotted throughout the novel. Many of those words are familiar to French speakers and require no explanation: they have been absorbed into the language, much as many Urdu and Hindi words have become common currency in British English. I considered providing a glossary of unfamiliar Arabic words for Seven Stones, but in the end, fell quite naturally into the technique of either letting the words speak for themselves, or adding an explanatory word or two in the text itself. Some, like the khamsin, the desert wind that makes its presence felt in the opening pages, play a key role in the narrative. Others appear only once or twice. But they are all important, and all contribute to the author’s style.

Another distinctive feature of this novel is the poetic intensity of the language. Vénus Khoury-Ghata has been garlanded with honours for her poetry, and much of it has been exquisitely translated into English by Marilyn Hacker, herself an award-winning poet. A translator must always be alert to musical elements, to the rhythms and sonorities of the text, and this is particularly true for Khoury-Ghata’s prose. Her imagery is vivid and intense, sometimes viscerally so. Images recur throughout the novels and poems. Often they are violent. Women suffer, usually at the hands of men, to whom the author gives short shrift in Seven Stones. All of this is thrilling to translate: poetic prose is never easy to recreate in another language, but it is always deeply satisfying, at least for me. Every word must be carefully weighed, its connotations considered, its musical resonances listened to. I heard the women’s voices as I was working, inside my own head at first, and then again as I read the text aloud to myself. Translating a work of this nature fully engages the imagination, and with it, the senses.  

It is often observed that there is no such thing as a “correct” or definitive translation of a literary work. Some argue that a translation must strive for “accuracy” above all else, even if the resulting text seems somewhat clumsy or distant. Others place the elegance of the translated text above all other considerations. My own instinct is to search for the balance between literal transposition and a subjective interpretation that relies on my own sensibilities and preferences. My hope is that readers of this English translation will find themselves transported to the desert setting of Seven Stones and hear, as I did, the voices of three women standing together against the forces, both human and natural, that seek to stifle and oppress them.

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