On Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator

The Butterfly Dream

Fawwaz Haddad, The Unfaithful Translator, Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008, 488 pages

In the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly – so vividly that when he wakes, he wonders if he may in fact be one. In that case, he reasons, at this moment I must be dreaming that I am a man, which would make me a butterfly all along.

Zen koan, Sufi riddle, nursery rhyme: the trope has proven particularly popular in the post-modern literary imagination, where the constructed and the factual tend to intersect and overlap at a rudimentary level.

In the case of Al Mutarjim Al Kha’in or The Unfaithful Translator by the Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad, improbable events and brazenly forced plot turns – one could draw up a whole inventory of accidents and coincidences – keep the artificial side of the exchange near the surface of consciousness, a la Brecht, but at the same time, intimate descriptions of the cafes and streets of Damascus, true-to-life dialogue between the characters and the way they respond to public events like the fall of Baghdad are historically rooted and empirically tenable – to the point of being exact.

This potentially jarring medley of fact and fancy jazzes up a more or less predictable story line and gives the fundamentally moral message of the book subversive zing. But, more importantly, it manages to do so without upstaging the idea of a dual world in which dreams can be confused with reality:

Carried away by his creation, the writer wonders if the characters in his book might actually be creating him. He wonders if the alternate reality presented to him by literature might not turn out to be the real world, and his own life an invented fiction.

Like Bishop Berkeley’s claim that the tree would cease to exist if there were no one to perceive it, the Butterfly Dream is a quaint, insolvable question of little application. Yet by producing one of the language’s first coherent, full-length meta-novels, Haddad gives that central idea unprecedented and culturally specific edge. Finally the Butterfly Dream has been nationalised.

Zhuangzi, a more or less mythical figure, is now reincarnated as the Damascus-dwelling, post-millennial literary translator-cum-cultural editor-cum-ghost writer Hamid Salim (whose silent doppelgänger is of course Haddad himself): a no less mythical (or at least mythicised) figure. In his own very different way Hamdi recalls the one statement to which the Chinese philosopher’s entire contribution tends to be reduced:

“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

***

As a budding poet Hamid is discouraged by the establishment critic Mohsin Ali Hassan, an autocratic Ustaz who rides the wave of “engagement theory”, making his name and gathering around him an obsequious circle of acolytes by promoting literary engagement as “a life raft to save literature from the communist octopus”. Mohsin advises Hamid to write novels, but instead the young intellectual – unbeknown to the older critic and to his chagrin – turns to the age’s most relevant intellectual endeavour: translation.

Despite his bookish inattention to matters of immediate concern – which results in his wife leaving the house (taking the children with her), and gives him the undeserved reputation of a suspicious snob among his neighbours – by the time the book opens Hamid has had a relatively successful career as a translator of English works of fiction. He is widely believed to be competent, and makes enough to support himself and his family.

The translator spends his time tortuously labouring over every last phrase in the book he happens to be working on. His talent, imagination and sense of cultural, not to say national identity force their way into the process in the form of perilously creative glosses on the original words, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections of the book he is “transporting”, to borrow a traditional Arabic expression for translating.

But no one seems to notice that the results are inaccurate or compromised. (The dual implication is that few critics know enough English to realise, and that they would not care if they did, so long as there was nothing about the realisation to advance their careers or help them promote the party line.)

Then, in a moment of postcolonial fervour, Hamid alters the ending of a novel by an African author that he has been translating. He makes the hero break up with his western partner and return to his country instead of marrying her and staying on in the west (as he does in the original). But even then, it is only by coincidence that his climactic act of betrayal is exposed: the novel happens to win an international prize and it is consequently summarised in the Arabic press, so people notice the discrepancy between the original and the Arabic version they have read.

However cooped up in his ivory tower, Hamid has been unable to avoid the small-mindedness of the establishment, and a few months ago he defended himself against an unprovoked attack on the part of the influential if patently ignorant journalist Sherif Hosni (at some level, the Syrian equivalent of a party hack). This is Sherif’s chance to pounce back.

Sherif sets about discrediting Hamid, and he proves so efficient that in a matter of weeks Hamid can no longer find work anywhere. For a while he goes hungry because he cannot afford to buy food.

And so, through a string of encounters, reunions and recollections, amorous and detective scenarios, assumed names and identities, Hamid embarks on a series of secret jobs under three different pseudonyms (Halafawi, Hafalawi, Halafani), which take on the form of alter egos whose overbearing presence increasingly torments him.

Finally, on the point of throwing the last of his secret employers, the long unproductive author Samir Farout, over a bridge, Hamid is approached by a man who manages to stop him in his tracks. When he asks where that man came from – in the meantime Samir has managed to crawl away – the reply is, simply and shockingly, “Reality”. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that this visitor from outer space is Haddad, the author, but it is tempting to read the ending as if it were.

Now I do not know whether I was then Haddad dreaming of Hamid, or whether I am now Hamid, dreaming of Haddad.

***

And yet there is more to this enormously multifarious book than the Butterfly Dream. The notion of translation is a strong metaphor for what it means to be an intellectual in the Arab world: someone who is able to bring otherwise inaccessible culture or truth into the arena of the everyday.

Perhaps a more effective rendition of the title is Translator Betrayer (Arabic does not differentiate between the adjective and the noun), since the book is less about Hamid’s betrayal of the texts he works on than the Arab intellectual betraying his “historical role”, to borrow an expression from the nationalist rhetoric Haddad targets with his satire.

Irony upon irony: Hamid is betrayed by the Literary Mafia represented by, among others, the critic Jamil Halloum (according to Hamid’s old friend Sami, an uneducated middle-man with connections in criminal and intelligence circles, they are capable of murder in their relentless drive to cut short the rise of any genuine talent that may threaten their position).

But members of that mafia may in turn be betrayed by someone like the university professor Hakim Nafie (a possible ally whose agenda does no always chime with theirs).

Hakim becomes Hamid’s first secret employer when his scheme to improve the grades of one of his female students in return for sexual favours is discovered by Hamid’s deformed friend Mahmoud. So Mahmoud forces Hakim to employ Hamdi in order not to expose him.

Mahmoud is only a beggar- or criminal-turned-Muslim fundamentalist, but he is capable of turning this insane hierarchy on its head (at least for a while, until he is taken in by the police, apparently because another of Hamid’s employers wants him out of the way). He can threaten the personal safety of someone like Nafie.

Mahmoud is a kind of guardian angel who, wandering around the streets of Damascus, his unbearably hideous face wrapped in a scarf, gathers critical information simply by overhearing people speaking to themselves or thinking out load – as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

***

Translation is intrinsically a betrayal whether or not the translator betrays the text, but so is the charge levelled at social and political renegades in the police states of the Arab world: by breaking with the party or the leader, they become khawanah (the plural of kha’in), betrayers of the nation and, more crucially, of their own well-being. They become ostracised and go hungry.

Haddad’s main purpose in this book is to expose, through a self-referential parable sufficiently panoramic to cover the full genus of Arab Intellectual, the corruption and impotence of its full range of species. But hischoice of translation as the profession of his protagonist goes beyond its metaphorical significance. Hamid’s access to English allows Haddad to place his Damascus-bound theatre within a new-world-order context.

He juxtaposes the incredibly pan-Arab biography of Hamid’s childhood love Lailah Shouman with an imagined novel by a fictional American author named Elisabeth Markend:

Laila, also known as the new-wave poetess Lamis Abbas, author of an erotic collection poems, was married to a Palestinian freedom fighter who took her to Beirut and then Tunis, and after he was murdered she returned to take up with an Iraqi sculptor.

Translating Markend’s The Jailed Virgin, a tour de force of global espionage, western-Islamic strife and complicated love that reflects Laila’s “real-life” biography, Hamid is finally defeated by the first of his alter egos, Afif Halafawi, who manages to impose his plan to produce an accurate, almost literal translation against the betrayer’s will.

Before he forges the final plot twist, taking the whole symphony several abrupt octaves up through the paradoxically satisfying anticlimax of someone appearing from reality to prevent a fictional murder, Haddad manages to weave together all three strings of the book:

1) the satirical critique of the Arab Intellectual, a creature unable to translate culture or truth while he attends to his principal task of building petty personal glories by colluding with brute force, whether in the form of dictatorship or crime;

2) the many metonyms for this narrative term, which include Kafkaesque , Joycean and Noir registers, embodied by a cast of archetypes including, poignantly, the ostracised author Samih Hamdi, who is still working on an endlessly gargantuan novel when he dies – the cue for his one remaining heir, his spinster sister, to promptly burn the manuscript; and

3) the idea that reality, especially a reality that revolves around literature, is practically interchangeable with imagination: only through their imaginative capacity for identifying with corruption and oppression, Haddad seems to suggest, do Arab intellectuals become corrupt, oppressed and oppressive, but ultimately powerless to pursue their raison d’etre except at the most hollow rhetorical level.

Considering the size of the undertaking, Haddad’s consistency of tone and the subtle pacing with which he maintains the action, balancing each element against the other, is no mean feat.

***

Since the 1960s, at least, big fat novels like The Unfaithful Translator have been read reluctantly and frowned on for their sheer size. Notwithstanding the popularity of the short story and the novella until the 1990s, the idea is that the full-length novel is a thing of the past, reflecting societies and ways of being – French and Russian if not pre-modern – that are so temporally or geographically distant as to be irrelevant. Whether or not you share this view, there exists a pragmatic argument for not writing them: they do not encourage reading, and so they help to keep the readership small.

This may not be entirely true; the counter argument is that dedicated readers – the only kind who read novels – are unlikely to be put off by a long book; they may even treasure an accomplished intellectual project of this kind once it has captured their attention. The Unfaithful Translator is no breezy read, but the point to be made about it is that it could not have been any shorter: its power resides in the way it weaves together three apparently disparate literary projects, for only against the backdrop of Haddad’s critique of the intellectual community is the Butterfly Dream adequately incorporated into Arabic literature; and only the many intersecting dramas make the critique readable and convincing.

Somehow, despite remaining essentially a work of the mind, The Unfaithful Translator manages to leave a haunting – and naturalistic – impression in the mind. Like many Arab intellectuals in real life, there is something of the Kafkaesque arthropod about its hero, the solitary little man: lacklustre, droning, alienated and alienating. Hamid leads an isolated life, he seems to exist solely within a mental space he carved out for himself, sealed off from physical experience, human contact, and memory. Yet his sheer existence embodies a deep yearning for these very things.

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4 thoughts

  1. Hello,

    I am currently translating ”The Unfaithful Translator” into English and wanted to make sure this hadn’t already been done?

    Please email me if you know if this book has been translated into English.

    Many thanks,

    David

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