How To Separate Mediocre, Good, and Great Stories in Translation

Translator Max Shmookler, who is currently co-editing a collection of Sudanese short stories with ArabLit contributor Raphael Cormack, explores the tension between what Sudanese readers think is a great story and the story that will appear “great” in English translation. This post is the first in a series, and originally ran on Baraza:

By Max Shmookler

One of the unexpected benefits of preparing an anthology is the chance to read through enough mediocre literature to begin to ask yourself what “mediocre” actually means. This summer, as Raph Cormack and I co-edit a book of Sudanese short stories in English translation, we are finding out that our attempts to distinguish the great stories from the mediocre raises interesting questions about competing literary aesthetics. Figuring out which stories to include and how to justify our selections to the publisher has been a hands-on lesson in how a literary canon, even a marginal canon such as Sudanese Arabic literature in English translation, is formed.

In our work, the basic tension is that some stories generally regarded among Sudanese readers as “good” do not translate into “good” literature by Anglo-American standards. It’s not that Anglo-American standards are superior to the Sudanese, largely because that way of speaking presumes we have some outside standard by which these two literary aesthetics could be properly compared. We don’t. But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers. As translators, we must either conceal or explain that difference to our imagined English readers. These essays are a first attempt to do the latter: to explain those aspects of my encounter with Sudanese Arabic literature that I cannot properly translate. In large part, I’ll be looking at different aspects of the marvelously complex relationship between the two literary critical traditions, call them for the sake of convenience Sudanese and English, brought together by global trade relations, colonial dominance, educational and cultural exchanges, and the emergence of specific technologies and revolutions in literary form that they entail.

But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers.

Raph and I are constantly shuttling between these two aesthetics as we weigh which stories will faithfully represent the Sudanese literary scene while also appealing to a small, self-selected English readership. On the one hand, our scholarly training helps us to appreciate the Arabic literary context in which these stories were first imagined and now circulated and consumed. We pick up on stylistic nods to Classical Arabic, the use of characters and imagery from modern Sudanese folklore, Qur’anic allusions, political jokes, jabs at other writers and schools of thought, and so forth. We have both spent time in Sudan and the wider Arabic speaking world, and recognize some of the broader societal and historical factors that continue to influence the development of Sudanese literature.

The current atmosphere of political repression, for instance, has transformed protest literature from the category of kitsch and sentiment to a powerful act of witnessing, and implicitly objecting to, moral wrong-doing. The writer as social critic and moral voice is a vital element of the Sudanese literary aesthetic, one that helps to explain the preponderance of political satire and critique in the short stories we’re reviewing. If you dig further back, you’ll find that many major literary figures from the late 1920s onwards were writing nationalistic poetry, frequently with an anti-colonial slant. In an ironic post-colonial twist, the very state those earlier poets were demanding is now, two generations later, the object of routine critiques by their literary progeny. This does not change the fact that many Sudanese literary figures and their readership see a deep connection between politics and literature. For us, the question is how to translate such works to an English reader who lives – and reads – in the comfort and safety of a Western life.

Regardless, it is an arena in which creativity trumps the emulation of past forms, individual psychological characterization is valued over ideal types, and images that confirm the deepest liberal biases (biases I should say that I personally share) for individual freedom of expression, human dignity, and the inherent value of subversion.

In other words, we must keep in mind the expectations of the publisher, a small progressive press in the UK, about what comprises a “good” story. In part, they want the book to adhere to a principle of multiculturalism, both in who they publish and the overarching portrait of Sudanese society that emerges from our anthology. Hence, we want to include female writers and those representative of ethnically and politically marginal voices in Sudan. The ultimate aim of the book project, however, is to give voice, an English voice, to writing that is technically good. It conjures up notions of novelty, of subversion and resistance, perhaps of great beauty and certainly of extraordinary creativity. This is the bar – and I must admit it is one that I admire, in principle at least, insofar as it treats Sudanese writers as equal contenders in the arena of literary excellence. In practice, that arena is – and perhaps should be – an unabashedly English one. Regardless, it is an arena in which creativity trumps the emulation of past forms, individual psychological characterization is valued over ideal types, and images that confirm the deepest liberal biases (biases I should say that I personally share) for individual freedom of expression, human dignity, and the inherent value of subversion.

Shuttling between these two aesthetic sensibilities has helped me appreciate some of the larger questions at the intersection of the study of literature, literary history, and aesthetics. In the essays that follow, I will try to make my musings on mediocrity and translation more concrete by discussing those short stories that made the cut–and why.

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