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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Translator Update #3: Making Sausage

It may or may not have been Bismarck (or a member of the Illinois legislature) who said something to the effect that “the making of laws is like the making of sausages—the less you know about the process, the more you respect the result.” But what is true of laws and sausages is no less true of translations, and especially of literary translations. By and large, it’s not a pretty sight.

For me, translation is a collaborative, even symbiotic, process, not only in the usual way of consultations with author and publisher (both of whom are miracles of cooperation and patience), but also in the sense that the text and I have to work together to get as close as we can to what we both want. It’s an organic undertaking—not one paragraph, page, or even chapter at a time but a fluid back-and-forth throughout the entire text as it unfolds in its new language. There’s a dizzying amount of switching horses in midstream and scurrying back to the drawing board, and that’s even before I place my efforts into an editor’s capable hands—or into my own, after I’ve put on my stern-faced editor’s hat and taken red pen in hand.

To say anything much about the plot of Hawk at this point would trigger a blizzard of spoiler alerts, not to mention jeopardizing the Hitchcockian humdinger of a twist that hits as the narrative draws to a close. Here, in the third and last book, the reader stands side-by-side with the hero in the thick of a vast historical storm, with no foreknowledge of what will come to roil the lives of the long-suffering actors and victims the next year, the next day or even the next hour. But, although Nanidat Maniakh harbors no false modesty as to his role and significance in it all, this is still an intensely personal tale. An effortlessly observant narrator, Maniakh sees and registers the sparks that fly from a campfire, the quirk of a companion’s thin smile, a light illuminating the crown of a tree from below, the way a camel rises from a resting position (which is not the way you’d think, unless you know more about camels than I do).

And, for all the privations he has endured, he still loves his creature comforts—clean clothes, soft beds and, not least, good food. The aromas and flavors of dishes both simple and elaborate drift through the story, engaging the reader’s senses across the centuries. Some of his more refined meals have been eaten in the company of, or were owed to the good offices of, the elder statesman Barmak, but in one scene, he shares a picnic lunch provided by a most unexpected host in a most unexpected place. Right in the middle of what he knows very well to be a momentous conversation with a mover and shaker of the world that is now his, the food comes, creating a pause that may not refresh but at least cuts the tension a little.

Mansur, the would-be builder of the world’s greatest city (a recurring theme in this book), has been sharing his surprisingly detailed plans with our hero:

I broke the long silence at last. “And what do you say it will be called, your city?”

“Ma-di-nat-as-sa-lam,” he said, spelling it out for me as though I were an idiot.

I shook my head. “I see. . .  And you want that name to be repeated around the world? Maybe something shorter, then. What name has all this now?”

“None” was Mansur’s dour reply.

But I would not leave it be. “What about that little village, the one nearest to us? Surely it has a name?”

“Ah,” he said indifferently, striving to shield his face from the blowing dust. “That village. . . It once had a temple in which stood an idol . . .  their god . . .  and so the village is called Gift of God, God-Given. Baghdad.”

“Now that’s a good deal easier to say,” I observed. “And, you see, it’s the name everyone will use in any case.”

Mansur looked at me and said again, expressionless, “The city will be Madinat as-Salam.”

I chose not to argue.

Because a far more serious conversation lay ahead.

On the river bank, at the water’s edge, rugs had been spread for us, and efforts were being made to hang an awning to shade us from the sun. It kept wresting itself out of the boatmen’s hands, though, and threatening to fly off into the glittering water.

“And now you must be properly fed,” the treasurer of the House of Abbas said, with a wry smile. “As Barmak has reminded me.”

The wheat stew known as harisah, bread that could be fresher, water from the Tigris and something more, prepared especially for a convalescing veteran, I thought. Maybe it will even have the faint fragrance of meat.

I erred in one thing only, which was that instead of a humdrum harisah, we were served a light pilaf with fruit, mostly dried, that had been brought from nearby.