Translating the Literature of the Middle East

It’s traditional for every visiting faculty member in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College to organize some sort of major project during her year on campus, and for mine I decided to put together a symposium along with some of my colleagues in the program. We picked the literature of the Middle East as a topic because we wanted to tie in with the college-wide “Year of Turkey” theme (there’s a different national focus on campus every year), but we also wanted our topic to be broad enough to appeal to a wider audience. Then it turned out that Archipelago Books was interested in collaborating with us, and that Lebanese star author Elias Khoury, who is published in English by Archipelago, was now teaching at NYU – and then all the cards began rapidly falling into place. We invited Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born novelist and poet who also happens to teach at NYU and translates the work of the great Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, who until his death in 2008 was a frequent collaborator of Khoury’s. We decided to spend a chunk of our budget flying in Aron Aji, who won the 2004 National Translation Award for his translation, from the Turkish, of Bilge Karasu’s Garden of Departed Cats. We invited Barbara Harshav, a distinguished translator from the Hebrew who just stepped down as President of the American Literary Translators Association and teaches at Yale. We invited some favorite local colleagues: poet and translator (from the Turkish) Murat Nemet-Nejat, and translator (from the Persian) and editor Sara Khalili; CUNY colleague Ammiel Alcalay, a poet and scholar who translates from the Bosnian and Hebrew; and two distinguished editors of translations, Edwin Frank of New York Review Books Classics and Jill Schoolman of Archipelago. In all, we will be featuring writers and translators working in the literatures of Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Israel.

The symposium will begin with a reading by graduate students and culminate with a keynote address by Elias Khoury. I just finished reading Khoury’s enormous novel Gate of the Sun, and am still reeling. What a masterful book. In these 550 pages, Khoury relates the story of the Palestinian struggle, but the novel is anything but a history book, even though it contains a huge amount of history. Khoury weaves a complex web of interconnected stories ostensibly being told by a generally somewhat befuddled doctor-who-isn’t-really-a-doctor at the bedside of a hero of the Palestinian resistance, who is now old and in a coma after having had a stroke. Telling story after story in the hope of effecting a “talking cure,” our almost-doctor patches together a portrait of a people and their homeland that is constructed of fragments, rumors and legends. The book is set in a very specific historical milieu, and filled with the sights, sounds and smells of Galilee, but at the same time there is something about the writing that transcends time and place; parts of it, in Humphrey Davies’s translation, read like snippets of fairytale, and yet there is nothing coy, fanciful or twee about a single sentence anywhere in the book. Khoury has a sharp imagination and vision of the world, and he manages to portray the beauty of a lost Palestine (the olive trees, the worms in the ice atop Mount Meron) without succumbing to cliches of nostalgic mournfulness. His characters mourn their homeland matter-of-factly.

Khoury has written over a dozen other books besides this one, and several of them exist in English translation. I look forward to reading them and to hearing him speak about his work at our symposium, which will be held on Wednesday, March 28. I am posting the schedule below. The full program and notes on the participants can be found on the blog of the Queens College MFA Program’s website.

Interwoven Worlds: A Symposium Celebrating the Literature of the Middle East

(All panels prior to 6:30pm keynote address located in
President’s Conference Room #2)

11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Reading by MFA Students, introduced by Nicole Cooley

12:00 p.m. – l:00 p.m.
Lunch break

1:15 p.m. – 2:45 p.m.
Workshop: Editing Translations, introduced by Susan Bernofsky

Jill Schoolman (Archipelago Books)
Edwin Frank (New York Review Books Classics)

2:45 p.m. – 3:15 p.m.
Coffee Break

3:15 p.m. – 4:45 p.m.
The Politics of Translation – On Navigating Cultural (Mis)understandings

Aron Aji (Turkish)
Sara Khalili (Persian)
Barbara Harshav (Hebrew)
Roger Sedarat, moderator

5:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
The Writer as Translator – Multilingual Writer/Translators on Cross-Pollinations in Their Work

Sinan Antoon (Arabic/Iraq)
Murat Nemet-Nejat (Turkish)
Ammiel Alcalay (Hebrew)
Susan Bernofsky, moderator

6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Rosenthal Library 230 (2nd floor auditorium)
Keynote Presentation: Elias Khoury (Arabic/Lebanon): A Writer’s Journey

To be followed by light reception and book signing.

And here’s how to get here:
Queens College is located at 65-30 Kissena Blvd. in Queens, and is best reached by taking the E/F trains to Forest Hills (exit near the center of the platform) and transferring to bus Q64, which picks up right in front of the subway exit. This bus stops at Kissena Blvd.; cross the street and walk two blocks down Kissena to the main gate of the college. The trip from midtown Manhattan takes around an hour. All events will be held in Rosenthal Library on the main quadrangle (easy to find because it has a very large clock tower attached to it).

I hope you’ll join us for some or all of these events.

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