Luke Leafgren on translating THE PRESIDENT'S GARDENS


Luke Leafgren describes the process of translation The President's Gardens

"Muhsin Al-Ramli was the first author I ever translated. While writing my dissertation and needing a creative outlet, I approached one of my Arabic teachers during the final years of graduate school to ask about how to get a start in literary translation. My teacher told me about a friend of his who was looking for a translator for his second novel. That friend was Muhsin, who passed through my teacher's hometown of Irbid, Jordan, on his way from Iraq to Spain in the early '90s. I read the novel – Dates on My Fingers – and as I was reading the Arabic text, I could hear in my head the voice of the narrator telling his story in English. I found myself relating to the narrator's attempt to make sense of his place in the world, and the English translation came through almost as quickly as I read. 

The coincidence that my teacher could provide that translation opportunity is one example of how life's most exciting opportunities can come unexpectedly, without much planning. I read Al-Ramli's subsequent novel, The President's Gardens, several years later, in the summer of 2014, and I drafted the translation over the fall semester, working an hour or so a day, usually in the mornings before my teaching and administrative work. Throughout the process, I felt grateful to be working with Al-Ramli, who was so warm and encouraging, and trusting in his e-mail replies to the updates I sent. 

After I make a rough draft of a novel, I typically set it aside for some months before making a second pass, when I edit the English text to make the prose flow more smoothly and look for passages and phrases that reveal themselves as translations, as something that would not be expressed in such a way in English. There tend to be a surprising number of such passages, particularly where English is more economical in expression or where the translation of a sentence follows the original Arabic word order instead of a natural English syntax.

My third pass is a close comparison to the Arabic, line by line, to ensure that I have not strayed from the text and also to make notes about words or passages that I did not fully understand. There may have been 200 or so questions that I wanted to check for The President's Gardens. A few of these I sent by e-mail to Muhsin, receiving prompt and encouraging replies, sometimes with photographs to illustrate. But I also had the benefit of working with a young Iraqi at Harvard University, Yousif Hanna, who is now in medical school but seemed to spend all his free time as an undergraduate reading Arabic literature. We spent several afternoons working through all my questions. Some of my questions were purely linguistic, and talking them through with a native speaker helped resolve a syntactic ambiguity or an obscure definition. Others were cultural, and I learned about the kinds of tea served in Iraq or traditional methods of irrigation. 

One of the more exciting moments was when Yousif explained that a passage that confused me by seeming stylistically out of place was in fact a quotation from the Qur’an. In a powerful description of the Highway of Death, where Iraqi soldiers were bombed during their retreat from Kuwait, Muhsin applies to the soldiers the Qur'an description in sura 33 (verse 23) of early Muslims who were faithful unto death in battle. The resonance of that passage in Muhsin's novel would be readily apparent to native speakers, and now that I have learned that source text, I have actually come across it in a second context. This experience of further developing my understanding of Arabic language and culture is one of my primary motivations for pursuing literary translation. It is humbling to know that, no matter how careful I am in my translation work, there will be other passages that I will miss (or mistranslate) along the way. I recognize, however, that if I wait until I am perfectly competent to make my contribution, I will never make a contribution at all."

Luke Leafgren is an Assistant Dean of Harvard College, an Arabic teacher and translator, and inventor of the StandStand standing desk.

YOARElise Williams