Workshops’ blog


Posts on the workshop series 2019-2020 by Eleanor Myerson

Eleanor Myerson is a CHASE-funded PhD candidate at Birkbeck College School of Arts, researching the transmission of ideas and objects from Syria to medieval England. She previously took her MSt in Medieval Literature at Oxford University, where she held the Jeremy Griffiths Memorial Studentship, and her BA in English at Cambridge University, where she received a number of awards, including the Derek Brewer Prize for Medieval Literature and the T.R. Henn Prize for Original Composition. She is currently learning Arabic.

24th January 2020, workshop: Glow of the Senses: Women Writing of Love and Loss

Huzama Habayeb and Hanan al-Shaykh

Our third workshop welcomed two acclaimed authors, Huzama Habayeb, the Palestinian novelist, journalist and poet, and Hanan al-Shaykh, the Lebanese novelist, journalist and playwright. Each writer is lauded for her ability to convey women’s experience with candour and pathos – indeed with such erotic candour that both have had their works banned in the past.

Huzama Habayeb read to us from her recent novel, ‘Velvet’. The novel focused on a single day in the life of Hawwa, our protagonist, whose memories of abusive relationships continually resurface as she goes about her business in Baqa’a Camp, Jordan. What is remarkable about Habayeb’s writing is that her unflinching descriptions of abuse and suffering are paired with equally evocative passages in which the everyday luxuries of fabric, food, colour and music are foregrounded and celebrated. We see the doors of residents’ dwellings, painted painstakingly with mustard yellow, apricot lattices, pistachio designs and amber edges. We are invited to smell velvet, its warmth, its depth, its sensuality. And perhaps most of all, we hear the voice of Fairuz, whose music is quoted throughout the text. Huzama Habayeb sang rather than read Fairuz’s lyrics – ‘My home is yours, I have no one’ – and many others in the room joined her. Participants shared their own associations and memories of Fairuz: for one, her voice conjured the smell of burnt milk.

In Hunan al-Shaykh’s short story, ‘The Land of the Sun’, a car becomes a dot of green colour in the Saudi desert. The scene described is one of horror: a burning vehicle. The attention to the visual both enhances and distracts, both renders the image fixed in the mind and offers us a lifeline of alternative associations.

It is often the nonverbal element in literature which gives rise to its affect: the illusion of touch or smell prompting the reader’s own – sometimes disparate – memories and feelings. The nonverbal can aid the process of translation: after all, if the impact of a text is not contained by language, then this impact should carry easily across from one language to another. At the same time, translating the senses brings other challenges. The memory of burnt milk immanent for one reader in a line of Fairuz is entirely absent for a reader who has never heard her songs. How would this latter reader be brought to appreciate the text as much as the former?

The answer is surely that the process of reading must become one of sensory immersion. The transnational experiences of taste and touch can lead the way into a text in translation. Habayeb and al-Shaykh invite us to see and to feel beyond language, to empathize, that is, in a fuller meaning, requiring all our senses.


6th December 2019, workshop: The Poetics of the Tale

Yasmine Seale & Robert Irwin

What does it mean for a woman to translate the Arabian Nights into English? On the 6th of December we were privileged to welcome a number of people who must be among the best placed to answer this question.

Yasmine Seale’s translation will make her the first woman to translate the complete Arabian Nights into English. In so doing, Seale fulfills an urgent need: the Nights are framed as Shahrazad’s tales: a woman’s voice ripples through them. It must be remembered that the ‘first’ always follows in others’ footsteps, as Wafa’ Tarnowska – one of the participant to the workshop – was able to remind us all in person; Tarnowkska was the first woman to translate a selection of the Nights into English, in a version aimed at children and enjoyed by all.

Of course, the question of what the ‘complete’ Nights might comprise is itself a complex issue. At the workshop, Robert Irwin was on hand to offer his expert insights into the history of the manuscripts and editions of the Nights, providing the essential grounding for our discussions. The Nights were formed through unfolding processes of written, oral and scribal interventions in tradition: ‘completion’ is not to mean ‘closure’.

As appropriate for the subject, then, the workshop was highly performative. Wafa’ Tarnowska read to us from the original Arabic, replete with dramatic voices and rapping on the table. Yasmin Searle next read her new translation of ‘The Story of the Porter and the Three Women’: the first public reading, a rare treat for all who were present.

Indeed, in this story the question of women’s relationship to language is given a playful prominence. The porter is welcomed into the women’s home, where they tease him in turn, naked, each asking him to guess the correct name for – well, to quote from Seale’s version: “Your womb”, guesses the porter, incorrectly. “Your mound”, “Your cunt”, “Your sting”, “Your dip”, “your dingle, your disclosure” are all roundly dismissed. So what is the correct answer?

For the woman known as “the keeper”, it is her “Basil of bridges”. For “the buyer”, it is her “sesame seed” (“Hallelujah!” cries the porter). For the third woman, it is “Hotel happiness”. The women gesture gleefully to the variety in their embodied experience, the unknowability of another’s sexuality, the ridiculous imprecision of language with respect to the body, the twofold games of speech and gender.

Seale’s translation has an immediacy and a fluency which will make it a must read text. The never-finishing fluidity of the tales is reflected in her rippling sentence-less writing: Seale avoids full stops throughout the whole text, from beginning to end (if there is indeed an end…). The result is a voice which demands continued performance; which invites us to listen, read and participate: to feel the Nights are ours.

Shahrazad’s voice is thus given another lease of life in English, undoubtedly benefitting from translation by an author who knows what it means to perform womanhood, to speak a woman’s voice into being. But as Seale reminds us, one woman’s “sesame seed” is another’s “hotel happiness”.


8th November 2019, workshop: Pilgrimage and Beyond

Haifa Zangana & Wen-Chin Ouyang

The first workshop of this series saw Haifa Zangana in conversation with Wen-Chin Ouyang, before opening out into a collaborative group translation exercise. Fluent Arabic speakers and those without any Arabic at all were able to contribute alike to a discussion which gravitated around ideas of place and the act of translation.

Haifa Zangana, Wen-chin Ouyang and Marina Warner in the Keynes Library with the other participants to the first workshop of the 2019-2020 series

These themes are captured in Haifa Zengana’s short story, “There is such Other” (1999), translated by Wen-Chin Ouyang, which sees Ghada on a “literary journey” to Dylan Thomas’ house in Swansea. “This neighbourhood reminds me of High Gate in London,” she remarks as the group walks along. The casual remark is taken seriously: “The German asked her with great concern: ‘Are you homesick?’ ‘No, not at all!’” Ghada responds. “It’s my way of getting to know a place.” Her companion is not satisfied: “‘You’ll miss something important if you do this,’ the German responded. ‘you won’t feel the excitement of discovery because you’ll be transforming new places into familiar ones.’”

Zengana’s scene clings in the mind, an ostensibly brief moment which leads into many of the pressing questions which occupied us during the workshop. What does it mean to ‘transform’ a ‘new place’ into a ‘familiar one’? Should an English translation retain local, Arabic idioms? or should the translator substitute English phrases, foreign to the text but familiar to the reader?

We continued our investigation through reading an excerpt of Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller: his journey from al-Majar to Bish-Dagh, describing the Sultan’s moving camp. The extract is crammed with different words for place: ‘mu’askar’, a camp; ‘mahalla’, a site; ‘jāwarahā’, neighbourhood; ‘manzil’, a settlement (rather than, as in its contemporary usage, a house). The group split to discuss and analyse the text, and regathered to read out the translations we had produced. Variously interpreted around the room, we found ourselves ending with the same issues with which we had begun. Ibn Battuta’s places are necessarily transformed as they move from Arabic into English, from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. So how ‘new’, or how ‘familiar’, should Ibn Battuta feel to the reader accessing his words in translation? And what will the reader ‘miss’, if Bish-Dagh begins to feel too much like home? The questions, of course, remain unanswered – to be continued, next month.

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