Ali Almajnooni is a writer and translator from Saudi Arabia who is completing his doctoral studies in Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at Binghamton University. In his free time, he writes commentary on literature and art in both Arabic and English. You can follow him on Twitter @AliAlmajnooni.
Saud Al-Sanousi’s novel Saq al-Bambu (‘The Bamboo Stalk’, 2012) exemplifies a work of literature that uses translation to capitalize on difference, and to confront the troubled and unequal multiculturalism of the Arabic Gulf region. The protagonist of the novel, José Mendoza, is stranded between two divergent identities: he was born to a Kuwaiti father and a Filipina mother who once lived in Kuwait and worked for his father’s family as a domestic servant. From the onset, difference plays out even in the protagonist’s name: José in the Philippines, and Isa in Kuwait. As Isa/José moves between the two countries, he is also racialized differently. In the Philippines, he is called an ‘Arapo,’ and in Kuwait, he is ‘the Filipino.’ José returns to Kuwait but the family of his father- and Kuwaiti society by extension- does not give him the recognition he wants. Convinced that he will never be accepted into Kuwaiti society because of his obvious difference, he goes back to the Philippines and writes his story in retrospect.
Intriguingly, the whole novel is written in a way that makes it appear as if it is an Arabic translation of a novel written originally in Tagalog by the protagonist, and this novelistic ploy plays out in numerous gestures. First, the inside cover page features the Tagalog title of the novel and the name of the protagonist as its author. In addition, the page lists the name of the ‘translator’ who, the reader later finds, is actually a character in the novel. Secondly, the novel features a preface in which Ibrahim Salam, the fictional translator, introduces the text and briefly talks about his translation process. There are also footnotes from José Mendoza, the novel’s fictional author, the fictional translator, and another fictional editor, José’s half-sister. These footnotes both provide important contextual information and constantly remind readers that they are reading a work in (fictional) translation.
Saq al-Bambu is, then, a text that performs translation. Its theme, topography, and narrative technique are spun around translation. However, the 2015 English translation of the novel by Jonathan Wright does not pay great attention to the novel’s performance of translation and how it manipulates translation to map alterity. The English translation leaves out the Tagalog-language title page and the fictional translator’s preface. It incorporates all the footnotes back into the body of the text. The English translation does away with the fictional translator, and obliterates that imaginary space of alterity promised in the Arabic text. In the translation, it looks as if the Filipino protagonist was just a character recounting his life though the first-person perspective.
Originally, Isa/José is given not only the first-person voice, but also the perspective of an author writing in Tagalog. In the English translation, however, he is only given the narrative perspective. Part of his character is entirely lost in translation- or perhaps, more accurately, erased in translation. Two other voices are erased as well: the fictional translator’s and the fictional editor’s. They are all either abolished or grouped together, forming a transparent unity to which the original text has no claims, and reducing the novel’s multiplicity of voice. The literality of the novel, its texture, and its style, all are affected in a fashion that undermines the very practice of translation. Wright also radically alters the conclusion of the novel by excluding a small- yet highly significant- detail.
The last chapter of the novel is written in the format of an afterword from Isa/José. In it he describes watching a football match between Kuwait and the Philippines with mixed feelings, as he sees himself belonging more or less to both teams. While the main text tells us that the match is still even as the novel concludes, the fictional translator’s footnote tells us that the Kuwaiti team later scored the winning goal. Wright, however, does not include this footnote, and so the novel ends with the match tied. The Kuwaiti team winning the match functioned as a reflection of the triumph of exclusivist social norms over tolerance and inclusion in the Arabic Gulf region. Dismissing the footnote is yet another example of how the English translation remaps difference and reconfigures alterity. It does not indicate any of the inequalities involved in the relationship between the two competing teams, which can be read as symbolic representations of two competing identities.
In Saq al-Bambu, successful cultural coexistence is not achieved, nor even imagined. Nevertheless, translation is depicted as the initial practice in the direction of greater understanding. Its merit resides in alluding to the social and political problem of inequalities which shape cultural identities. In this sense, it is a positive gesture of recognition toward the other. Ironically, it is a gesture that resembles Wright’s own practice as a translator. In other words, Wright performs in the world what he obliterates in the text. The question to be asked, then, is the following: wouldn’t it support his position to maintain the fictional translator and the rest of the translation-as-performance narrative technique?