For our latest installment of our “Interview with a Translator” Blog Series, we bring you an in-depth interview with British translator Sam Gordon on his just-released-in-the-US translation of Arab Jazz, by French author Karim Miské, a roman noir which playfully explores the vibrant, diverse, and criminally creative city of Paris.
Interview with a Translator: Sam Gordon on Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz
- Interview by Molly Odintz
Molly Odintz: Arab Jazz is a fairly complex novel in terms of changing mood, atmosphere, and general quirkiness -was it a challenge to bring all of the horror, humor, and humanity of the novel over to English?
Sam Gordon: I think the task was made easier by the fact that the various voices and moods you mention don’t overlap too much in the original. The narrative shifts tend to occur at the chapter level, so it was a case of clicking in and out alongside the French. Karim emphasizes the different tones and voices very clearly in the original, so it was relatively straightforward to find consistency and univocality by following the French, even if all the different aspects did have their challenges. My first experience of translating the work involved a sample for the publisher (years ago now!), and this entailed the first five or six pages of the book. These pages center on the protagonist Ahmed, who is a dreamy, very interior character. It was the first of many of his reveries, which are written in beautiful, lyrical, stream-of-consciousness French that I felt compelled to follow relatively closely in the English. The snaps back to reality come at a clear point, so I always felt it was my job to mark this transition from the astral to the terrestrial as definitely as possible.
“…we are no strangers to hardboiled crime fiction, with all its horror and grittiness; and we can do black humor, too…”
The other thing that helped was the fact that, behind the quirkiness, there are plenty of generic norms that helped me pitch my translation to the Anglophone reader: we are no strangers to hardboiled crime fiction, with all its horror and grittiness; and we can do black humor, too. For the latter, I found there were some handy precedents in film when it came to establishing the tone in the English. I had in mind black comedies like In Bruges and Lock Stock, satires like Four Lions, not to mention Tarantino. And of course French films like La haine and Un prophète. In general, however quirky or offbeat Karim’s writing can get, I always found it very visual and cinematic. Ahmed’s reveries, like the time he’s high, lying in the park and channel-hopping in his head, watching a series of different programs in which he plays the starring role, are quite weird, but I found them very easy to visualize. If people reading the English version have the same response, then I feel in part like I’ve done my job.
But overall, yes, it was a big challenge – any translation involves an endless amount of tricky decisions, dilemmas and judgment calls, and this remarkable book kept me very busy on a number of levels.
“Arab Jazz is radical because it forces people to realize that even the broad notion of the city as “blanc-black-beur” (literally “white-black-Arab”, perhaps exemplified by the three protagonists of La haine) is too narrow: you can be an Arabic-speaking Moroccan Jew like Sam; a black Salafist of Mauritanian descent; a depressive Breton raised by communists who feels rootless in the city; a feckless Islamist called Mahmoud or a feckless Islamist called Robert… It’s not just Juliette Binoche!”
MO: The story is told from a number of different perspectives – was there one in particular that spoke to you?
SG: I loved the Ahmed parts. The reveries I mentioned just before, where there’s an opportunity to be a bit more playful, off-kilter and unexpected with the language. In the original there’s both a lot of freedom and a lot of control in these sections, and I found that really exhilarating to read and then rewrite. Ahmed is a fascinating and, I think, immensely likeable character, so it was a pleasure getting inside his head and writing about Paris from his perspective. I also really enjoyed the bits that are set in New York with Susan, Dov and various other characters. At the time I had never been to New York or even the USA, so I found myself following the characters on Google Street View and looking at lots of photos online to help get acclimatized. So personally that was really interesting for me, there was quite a physical sense of discovery through the translation process. My wife took me to New York for my thirtieth birthday back in the autumn (sorry, fall!). It was a mind-blowing trip for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most powerful moments was walking across Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the Watchtower Building up close! It plunged me straight back into those sections of the book.
MO: This was your first novel-length transition – how does it compare to previous translation projects you’ve worked on?
SG: Before Arab Jazz I had only ever worked on short-form fiction (poetry and short stories, mainly) and various bits of non-fiction and commercial translation, but nothing even close to this in scale. Limbering up to do an 80,000-word translation was of course a very different and daunting task. I soon realized that I needed to change my modus operandi entirely. Before I used to do a very slow, exacting first draft – it would take a lot for me to move onto the next sentence until I was completely happy with the previous one. So much so that the first draft would never be too far different from the final one. This sort of punctiliousness is just not viable with a novel-length translation, both for the practical reason that it will take you forever, and for the stylistic reason that it takes away from the flow and pace, which are all the more important bearing in mind Arab Jazz is a thriller that fairly rattles along. Once I was underway with the task, having read the novel very carefully a couple of times, I felt much less intimidated and very eager to tell the story. And when it was finally done the sense of achievement was huge. There is an element of rose-tinted spectacles because we are now talking about the process a good couple of years later – there’s no doubt that the prominent emotions at the time were doubt and fear and other healthy things like that! But on the whole it was such a privilege, and as my first book it will always have a very special place.
MO: Arab Jazz has an incredibly multicultural cast of characters, none of whom embrace particularly traditional occupations. Do you think the novel is radical simply through its refusal to embrace stereotype?
SG: That’s a good point about the occupations… It makes me think of Al, the weed-smoking, guitar-playing, cartoon-drawing guy who definitely doesn’t have a traditional occupation. But then that doesn’t stop him being a typical character – he is representative of lots of young Parisians who are struggling for work and direction, and who float around the margins (societally, if not geographically). One important point that comes out of Arab Jazz is that many people’s perception of Paris – that you have the postcard-perfect, Haussmannian center and the troubled banlieues at the edge in the suburbs – is false, or at least over-simplified. Like most major cities, it is a much more diverse and intricate affair, as we see from this portrait of the relatively central 19th arrondissement.
“One important point that comes out of Arab Jazz is that many people’s perception of Paris – that you have the postcard-perfect, Haussmannian center and the troubled banlieues at the edge in the suburbs – is false, or at least over-simplified. Like most major cities, it is a much more diverse and intricate affair, as we see from this portrait of the relatively central 19th arrondissement.”
In terms of the characters, it’s funny but I think many of them are stereotypical to those with a proper understanding of France’s complex cultural make-up. Karim shows us Parisian residents who are very typical, but just seem radically different because people are usually presented with a very narrow notion of French identity – think of a film like Paris, which leaves you with the impression that the city is populated entirely by good-looking white people. Arab Jazz is radical because it forces people to realize that even the broad notion of the city as “blanc-black-beur” (literally “white-black-Arab”, perhaps exemplified by the three protagonists of La haine) is too narrow: you can be an Arabic-speaking Moroccan Jew like Sam; a black Salafist of Mauritanian descent; a depressive Breton raised by communists who feels rootless in the city; a feckless Islamist called Mahmoud or a feckless Islamist called Robert… It’s not just Juliette Binoche! Sometimes the characters are a bit stylized or melodramatic, or taken to comic extremes (like the wonderful Dov, a Rastafarian turned Hasidic Jew who is a science genius), but the underlying point is the same: everyone has their own story, identity is a complex, non-superficial thing, and that types are heterogeneous and ever-changing.
MO: Did you get to communicate with Karim Miské while you were translating the novel?
SG: Karim and I did correspond, yes – I fired him various questions about things I didn’t quite understand and needed some form of clarification about. We were supposed to meet around the UK launch of Arab Jazz in London when he came over to do some events, but I was on honeymoon. We eventually met up in London near Oxford Circus, and I was delighted to encounter some Jehovah’s Witnesses with their copies of Awake! at the exit to the station (that won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book!). It felt very apt.
In general Karim was really relaxed about letting me get on with the work, but it was reassuring to know that I could send him a few queries if I was unsure about something.
MO: You translate from both French and Spanish – this may be a gigantic question, but how does the experience of translation compare between the two?
SG: I must confess that I don’t actually translate an awful lot from the Spanish; just the odd commercial thing, really. I recently went to Andalucia and it reconnected me with the language in a very exciting way, so I’d certainly like to make a return in the future. I still read a bit in Spanish, but really my French has always been a lot better, not least because I have spent much more time living there and I have more French friends. So I’m probably not equipped to say anything useful on the difference between the two processes, although for me translation is so much to do with writing good, appropriate English that I’m inclined to say that the distinction is not that major – my English thesaurus always gets more of a battering than my French or Spanish dictionaries, and I spend an increasing amount of time editing my version with just half an eye on the original text.
MO: There’s a statistic floating around that says that only 3% of new works published in the United States each year are translations. Do you think the UK has a better market/more appreciation for translations? Why the low number?
SG: The 3% statistic roughly applies to the UK as well, and it does seem low, especially when compared to the percentage of works in translation in neighboring European countries (anything from 8-40%). Very soon after I first heard this popular statistic, I was pointed to this excellent article by the British translation supremo Daniel Hahn, and his arguments still stand. In fact they would still stand even if the figure crept to a mighty 7 or 8%. Anything I say on the matter will just be plagiarizing the points he made, but in short: the focus should be on encouraging and enabling more people to read adventurously, on ensuring that the 3(or 7 or 8)% represents the very best fiction from outside the English language (which does, let’s remember, account for an awful lot of important books from outside the UK and the USA!), and to make sure that people devour the books as hungrily and readily as they do any other fiction they like. There’s an awful lot of dross in the UK book market, so I think it’s helpful to look at quality instead of quantity when it comes to the proportion of books in translation (at the same time as obstinately trying to increase the number!).
There’s an awful lot of dross in the UK book market, so I think it’s helpful to look at quality instead of quantity when it comes to the proportion of books in translation (at the same time as obstinately trying to increase the number!).
A recent study commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize makes for great reading for anyone involved in translated fiction: sales have increased by 96% since 2001, and while translated fiction only represents 3.5% of literary fiction published in the UK, it accounts for 7% of sales – so the present situation is really promising.
MO: One of my favorite things about Arab Jazz was that the novel is so multicultural, it could take place in almost any world city, which to me, feels like a nice antidote to rising nationalism in the world today and an increasing “us versus them” mentality. Did you get that same feeling of universalism while you were working on the translation?
I think Arab Jazz is a fine addition to the noir genre, which has always been an effective way of getting under the skin of a city and laying bare its character traits. In that sense, working on the novel was an important way of learning about and exploring Paris, discovering anew its peculiar beauty, rawness, contradictions, diversity and darkness. I think that many of the issues that the reader is confronted with are very particular to France and its postcolonial identity crisis, its inequalities, its disaffection, its xenophobia, its complicated relationship with religion, especially Islam… These are all rooted in France’s history, and in particular its recent history: passing references to the Algerian War, Kabylie, the Six-Day War are all there to animate and contextualize the situation in contemporary France. Each of these is the tip of an iceberg, and I found myself learning a huge amount by following the various clues Karim inserts into the novel. I hope this perspective helps readers in France and beyond, and that it can help stem the tide of both nationalism and fanaticism that you mention – right now, what with Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, and the threat of nationalism and xenophobia in many parts of Europe, and of course the ongoing and devastating scourge of Islamist terrorism, I’m afraid I can’t be too optimistic just yet.
“…working on the novel was an important way of learning about and exploring Paris, discovering anew its peculiar beauty, rawness, contradictions, diversity and darkness.”
But you’re right, there is so much in the book that is universal too. Family breakdowns, mental illness, corruption, misogyny, gentrification, the lure and manipulation of cults, of drugs or gangs… And positive things too! Love, infatuation, enjoyment of all different sorts of food, the power of reading, film and music, a genuine internationalism. It’s very expansive in that respect, but I think there’s a real lightness of touch too.
I had a lecturer who spoke about “writing the city”, and I think Karim writes Paris very well, but he also writes the city in general very well.
MO: Do you have any particular influences in your work as a translator? Who do you think are some of the best translators working today?
I read Edith Grossman’s translation of Love in the Time of Cholera when I was about fifteen I think, and it changed my life as a reader. I’m now reading her version of Don Quixote in tandem with the original, and again I am bowled over by her wizardry. People rightly celebrate the fact that the translation process can bring infinite possibilities to an original text, but when you look at Grossman’s translations you can’t imagine the work reading any other way in English. I have learnt a huge amount from Sarah Ardizzone, who I met at the London Book Fair years ago and who has been a sort of unofficial mentor (and recently co-translator!) at the start of my career. She manages to achieve an amazing verve and naturalness in her translations. Robert Chandler from the Russian is a complete don – I really recommend his collection of short stories from the Russian. Charlotte Collins from the German (her version of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler is stunning). And if anyone wants any more gritty French noir, then Frank Wynne’s versions of the Verhoeven trilogy (by Pierre Lemaitre) are off-the-scale good, and I really love Melanie Florence’s translations of The A26 and Boxes by Pascal Garnier.