This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
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Yesterday, ArabLit posted about a new Mohamed Choukri International Award while making only slight mention of the circumstances under which Choukri’s internationally acclaimed al-Khubz al-Hafi was translated into English. Indeed, calling it a translation is perhaps inaccurate:
Addressing this issue is Nirvana Tanoukhi’s “Rewriting Political Commitment for an International Canon: Paul Bowles’s For Bread Alone as Translation of Mohamed Choukri’s Al-Khubz Al-Hafi” (2003).
Any translation will differ from its original, absolutely. And any translator and author may well differ in how they read the book and how they understand what makes a (good) literary work. But the Choukri-Bowles collaboration is an extreme case for several reasons. First, Bowles didn’t read classical Arabic (fos7a) at all, and had only a limited knowledge of Moroccan colloquial Arabic (darija). The translation thus took place verbally, by way of Spanish, some French, and a bit of darija.
But this is perhaps not the central issue. The central issue, as Tanoukhi posits it, is that Bowles’s translation rewrites — or attempts to rewrite — Choukri’s original as a “third world” text (oral, pre-literate, pre-nationalist, apolitical) for inclusion into a Western-centered world literature canon.
Bowles — perhaps like other writers gathered in Tangier in the early 1970s — saw illiteracy and “primitivism” as a privileged state. Although Tanoukhi notes that Bowles’s interest in oral culture has been praised as an attempt to decenter the Western canon, she paints it as more akin to an interest in the “noble savage.” Bowles’s focus on the “preliterate imagination” was central. Indeed, all the other Moroccan writers who Bowles “translated” — all except Choukri — were illiterate storytellers. Bowles also envisioned Choukri as somehow more-or-less illiterate, since he hadn’t learned to read and write as a child, but as an adult.
Tanoukhi writes: “Bowles’s collaboration with Moroccan storytellers has been seen by his admirers to exemplify an equal partnership by which a sympathetic interlocutor gives voice to an illiterate native.” We won’t go into the fraught territory of “giving voice,” but you can well imagine that these writers already had their own voices, thank you very much.
Five years after For Bread Alone‘s English-language publication, Tanoukhi writes, Bowles wrote about the tension behind their collaboration. Why tension? Tanoukhi writes that:
…a careful examination of the Bowles translation, For Bread Alone (1973), and the Arabic text, Al-Khubz Al-Hafi (1982), shows that there are significant differences between the two versions that recur in recognizable patterns and point to diverging horizons of expectations.
In the end, Tanoukhi argues, the two works were no longer sisters, but perhaps cousins separated at birth and raised on separate continents. Cousins who might not much like each other if they met at a party.
Bowles wrote, five years after the publication of For Bread Alone:
Had I known how difficult it would be to make English translations of Mohamed Choukri’s texts I doubt that I should have undertaken the work [. . .]. When we were translating his autobiography For Bread Alone, he sat beside me, in order to see that I was making a word-for-word translation of his text. If he noticed an extra comma he demanded an explanation. I was driven to reiterating: but English is not Arabic!
It sounds fair enough. English isn’t Arabic, and comma patterns vary. But Tanoukhi suggests not an overprotective author and reasonable translator, but instead that, “After having had the freedom to ‘translate, edit, and to cut’ other storytellers’ material, Bowles was impatient with Choukri’s desire to control the textual integrity of the work.”
This is all relatively well-known. But it’s the details that are not just eye-opening, but open a lens through which to look at other translations. Tanoukhi writes that one text addresses a “politically committed social realist paradigm” (the Arabic) while the other was “unconcerned with politics” (the English).
Whole passages are missing, Tanoukhi writes. For instance: “They spent many days without food. They did not want to beg their neighbors for food. So they built a door on the inside of their house from rocks and clay, locking themselves in until they died.”* This passage, which establishes a causal, political link between hunger and later actions, is erased.
Also, sexuality is positioned very differently in the two texts. When Mohamed’s aunt demands an explanation of why he had sex with a boy, in English, his response is, “I don’t understand myself.” In the Arabic: “In Tetuan, the thighs of prostitutes were available to me in the Saniya Bordello. But here, who can I desire? Am I supposed to desire your thighs? Monique’s thighs are her husband’s. Yours are your own husband’s. And what about me?”
Another pair of passages on sexuality:
From the Arabic: “I felt his teeth on me. What if he bites it? To speed my ejaculation, I imagined raping Asiya in Tetuan.”
From Bowles’s English: “The idea cooled my enthusiasm. To bring it back, I began to imagine that I was deflowering Asiya in Tetuan”
Next, in the Arabic, after the above encounter: “I was overcome by the desire to cry. What do I do with this old man who just sucked me?”
And the English: “Are all the maricones as nice as he was?”
In one version, as Tanoukhi writes, economic need pushes Mohamed toward illicit sex — with a young boy and an older man. In the other, it’s the confused search for erotic pleasure.
Economic need is erased elsewhere as well. The explanation for why Mohamed wasn’t brought to school as a young boy in the Arabic: “It’s just that we’re too poor, and learning costs a lot [in Tetuan].” And in the English: “I don’t know. But he didn’t ever take me to any school.”
The Arabic was published nearly a decade after the English, and while Choukri said he made only minor edits, it’s possible some of them are found here. In any case, the differences between these two versions are extreme, and most contemporary translators wouldn’t go quite so far in re-crafting a book. But pointing toward a different horizon of expecations is important, as even much smaller changes in tone and wording can have a broad effect.
Also, if the issues with Choukri’s estate are now cleared up, it’s time for a new translation.
*All re-translations by Tanoukhi.
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