Translated by Phoebe Bay Carter.
He was by no means handsome. He was, as I’ve said, skinny and irritable. But his eyes had a certain charm that drew women to him.
If the 20th of February, 2011, represented, for many Moroccans, the squandered opportunity for the buds of the Moroccan Spring to bloom and for the train of comprehensive reform to leave the station full steam ahead, it was, for Mohammed, the day he said goodbye to his work at the bar and shut himself up in his house for good.
That evening, the French bar owner had come in accompanied, for the first time, by her daughter – that blossoming rose of seventeen springs. Mohammed was working the bar when they walked in, so he brought her the glass of cognac she always opened her evenings with when she came in, and the glass of orange juice she’d ordered for her daughter, despite her daughter’s protests. That evening, his colleagues kept winking at him, nodding towards the young woman who’d fixed her gaze on him as he went to and fro. And, that evening, the young woman followed him with her gaze until he went to the bathroom, then got up and followed him in, bolted the door behind them, and let her dress slip to the floor.
He did nothing.
His heart raced, but he did nothing.
Yes, he desired her, but he did nothing.
A green bird alighted on the bathroom windowsill, and he noticed how its eyes shone like Fatima’s. He felt his water flow and the earth tremble beneath him. Then he passed out.
That evening was his last shift at the bar or at any other job. He sat in the house, immersing himself worship. If you were to ask him about it, you wouldn’t get an answer – not about the bird or the fainting or how either of them led to his flight to the prayer mat.
Two whole years went by, and he forgot about his old life entirely. He was to remain a captive of his prayer mat until another evening came along when he would find himself before a woman’s dripping body. And this time there would be no green bird with eyes shining like Fatima’s.
Notes from the translator:
As you may have noticed, each chapter of this novel borrows its title from a work of world literature. Nearly all of these works, if not originally composed in English, have published English translations, so I have tended to use whatever title the published translation has. (In the case of the English texts, like The Man in the High Castle, and The Dead Zone, the Arabic titles are themselves translations which I “return” to their original, so to speak.) In most cases, a title’s translation is pretty straightforward: Yūtūbīyā, a 2008 novel by Egyptian cult hero Ahmed Khalid Towfiq (as well as the satire written in Latin in 1516 by Thomas More) becomes Utopia; Dhākirat al-Jasad, a contemporary novel by Algerian novelist Ahlam Mosteghanemi was published in English as Memory in the Flesh. But sometimes translators, authors, or editors decide to change a book’s title entirely, for artistic or marketing reasons. Such is the case with this chapter’s titular work, ‘ābir sarīr, another Mosteghanemi’s novels. English commentary on the novel has often translated the title as “bed hopper” (sarīr being “bed” and ‘ābir” being an active participle meaning “one who passes by”). When the novel itself appeared in English translation, however, it was under the title The Dust of Promises.
What should I title this chapter, then? If I went with the more literal translation, the intertextual reference is more likely to be lost on the Anglophone reader (the first page of google results for “bed hopper” consists of Urban Dictionary entries for the term and the like; “bed hopper novel” does return one result with Mostaghanemi’s novel, towards the bottom of the page). However, the book isn’t so widely known in the Anglophone literary sphere that The Dust of Promises would evoke immediate recognition anyway, in the way that, say, A Thousand and One Nights would (more on this title momentarily). As one of the most popular contemporary novelists in Arabic, however, her titles – even in English gloss – would be recognizable to a lot of readers with a foot in the Arabic literary world. For these readers, the reference to Mostaghanemi’s novel would probably lost with The Dust of Promises.
How important is that reference, though, really? To me, very. Yes, this novel is about a young man named Jawad who one day awoke to find himself transformed into a putrid insect. Yes, this is a novel about a family’s proverbial skeletons in the closet. But it is also a novel about novels, a story about storytelling. And so the literary world it locates itself within through reference to other texts, and the conversations it creates with them, are as fundamental to the story as Malabatta Beach and the bar and Mohammed’s downtown apartment. And within the structure of the novel, connections between titles create clusters of chapters: Bed Hopper/Dust of Promises is the final installment of a trilogy. The first two books in the series are Memory in the Flesh and Chaos of the Senses – the titles, you may recall, of the preceding two chapters which begin Mohammed al-Idrisi’s tale
But the title is, also, the title of a discrete chapter, and so should fit its contents. Once, I’d finished translating the chapter, however, I saw that both titles fit different aspects of it, and lent it a different tenor. “Bed hopper” is an apt descriptor for Mohammed’s womanizing tendencies, emphasizing his past and alluding to his future. “The Dust of Promises,” on the other hand, focuses more on the fallout of his past actions and his impending betrayal of Fatima. It has a more moralizing tone, and a more philosophical one.
If you’ll allow me a bit of a digression: the philosophical bent of Mosteghanemi’s works seems to be something the English translator or editorial team wants to emphasize in their construction of her authorial image in English. Another novel of her that, in Arabic, is titled nisyān.com – which could have been translated as forgetfulness.com, or oblivion.com – appeared in English as The Art of Forgetting. The author of Bed Hopper and forgetfulness.com would seem to be a very different author than the one who wrote The Dust of Promises and The Art of Forgetting.
Such drastic title changes in translation are not all that uncommon in and beyond Arabic literature. Often, we can blame publishers’ desires to capitalize on “Western” readers’ desires for an exotic Orient. (People have compiled whole lists of titles and cover art that reflect this trend in Middle Eastern literature in translation. A particular example that springs to mind is a book by Nawal Saadawi, the famous Egyptian writer, doctor, and feminist, called al-wijh al-‘ārī lil-mar’ah al-‘arabīyah – that is, “the naked face of the Arab woman” – which became, mystifyingly, The Hidden Face of Eve in the published English translation.) Other times, the translator or author or both decide on a change to pick up on the new connotative possibilities afforded in the language of the translation. (A good example of this is Paula Haydar and Nadine Sinno’s translation of Rachid al-Daif’s Taṣṭifil Mīrīl Strīb, which they titled Whose Afraid of Meryl Streep. Their discussion of this choice in their translators’ preface is one of my favorite examples of the peculiar genre of translators writing about translation.) And sometimes, it’s the author who decides to change the title, because a new translation is a chance to revise one’s previously published work. (Sinan Antoon self-translated his novel Waḥdaha shajarat al-rummān [the Pomegranate Tree Alone] and, in the process of translating, realized that the title he really wanted the novel to have was The Corpse Washer. And so that’s how you’ll find it in English.)
And now to return to the case of A Thousand and One Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights/The Thousand and One Nights/A Thousand Nights and A Night/Alf Layla wa Layla), arguably one of the most famous pieces of world literature and the work that lends its title to Chapter Eight of Kafka in Tangier: a new translation was published last year not under any of the above titles, but as The Arabian Nights. The translator, Yasmine Seale, fought for it to be called One Thousand and One Nights to more accurately reflect the stories’ title in Arabic and just about every other language than English, and to do away with the Orientalist, anachronistic, and inaccurate epithet “Arabian.” Here is the reasoning she sent to Norton (and shared on Twitter after the publisher won out):
I bring this up here because – well mostly I bring it up here because I feel like ranting a bit in solidarity with Yasmine Seale and on behalf of translators everywhere whose translational choices are bulldozed by wrong-headed publishing houses – but also because thinking about how to translate the title of this chapter got me thinking about how much one’s own translation choices are figured by previous translations. Often, when there is a direct or indirect insertion of another text into the text I’m translating – like in Chapter 8, which quotes from the muallaqah of Imru’ al-Qays, or Chapter 10, which references Surat Yusuf from the Qur’an – I’m very grateful to be able to draw on the work of translators who have engaged seriously with the whole text, rather than having to do my own cursory translation of an out-of-context fragment. And all the better when, as is the case with the muallaqah and the Qur’an, there is a wealth of translations that I can choose from.
Yet this lack of a definitive text in translation is both a boon and a loss. The Qur’anic language that Hjiouij plays with in certain moments of the text creates echoes that many readers would pick up on because of the specificity of the language of the Qur’an. That specificity is lost in English (though, in the previous chapter, I did try to give a sense of this by providing a quote from an English translation of Surat Yusuf, and then using similar language in my translation of the scene).
Other times, however, there is a sense that a translation has become definitive – and that, therefore, I am stuck with a past translator’s (or editor’s) choice. That was a bit how I felt at first about the published title of The Dust of Promises. I think Bed Hopper is a much better title and was kind of peeved with whomever was behind the choice of alternate title. But once a title or term has gained currency in translation, if you want readers of your own translation to pick up on the reference, you will probably want to use the common translation, even if you disagree with it. Think about, for example, translations of Freud’s terminology, which has become ubiquitous in English: “ego,” “super-ego,” “id,” and so on. James and Alix Strachey, the couple responsible for the first English translations of his work, translated Freud’s Ich and Es as “ego” and “id” instead of choosing the more obvious and quotidian “I” and “it.” Since then, writers and translators dealing with psychoanalysis in English will most likely follow the terminology established by the Stracheys, writing “ego” and “id” instead of “the I” and “the It,” unless they want to make a specific intervention into the discourse of psychoanalysis.
The disagreement between Seale and Norton also demonstrates the sticking power of the first translation. Norton’s argument is that the text is known in English as The Arabian Nights, and so the new translation should follow precedent in order to be recognizable. Seale’s rejoinder is that sometimes we do need to intervene in what has become familiar, and retranslate already-familiar names, titles, and terms.
As for my own choice of title for the chapter, I’m rather pleased with the effect of including both titles, separated by an “or” – I like the productive tension it elicits between a bed hopper and the dust of promises he leaves in his wake, and between the published and the possible English translations of Mosteghanemi’s novel.
I feel the title 'Bed Hopper' best captures this chapter.
Your notes on title translation are interesting.
There have been title changes on books not translated either eg. Vikas Swarup's Q&A to Slumdog Millionaire. In the case of an English book, I feel it just leads to confusion.