A few days into my residency at the BCLT, I submitted my first full-length non-fiction project: What Have You Left Behind – Voices From a Forgotten War, a collection of forty-three accounts of war from Yemen, recorded by the author and activist Bushra Al-Maqtari.
It was my first encounter with translating a veritably traumatic piece of work. Naively, I hadn’t prepared myself for the effect it would have on me. Translating this work was akin to being stuck under the icy surface of a frozen pond, holding my breath, clawing to break free.
I only formally recognised the effect that translating these accounts had on me in a workshop. I brought in an account that I had read and reread at least four times over, without much of an outward reaction. But when I started reading it aloud at the workshop, I started sobbing. Upon reflection, I think I felt guilty for feeling traumatised by this work when the actual individuals recounting the horrors they have endured cannot escape them. I could shut my laptop, physically distance myself from the work when necessary, while they are living with the violence inflicted upon them day in and day out. It felt selfish to allow myself to feel anything at all.
But this approach wasn’t sustainable because within, silently, after translating each account, another weight would be placed on my heart, and I was slowly beginning to distance myself emotionally not only from the text but also from my family as a sort of self-defence mechanism.
Before becoming a mother, whenever I read the news of a child being killed in a war, my chest would tighten. But now, after becoming a mother and spending endless hours in the middle of the pandemic taking care of my baby without any outside help, I can’t even begin to process how a soul into which you have poured so much of yourself can be blown up in an instant, or buried under rubble after a missile attack. The sleepless nights, the endless blur of days, the hours of shrill crying, the excruciating back pain – all for what? The thought of losing a child now paralyses me.
The turning point came after I took part in Jenna Tang’s workshop on Translating Violence and Trauma, which frankly was a Godsend. I recognised that it was okay to feel, and if anything, allowing myself to feel helped me better reflect the sentiments expressed in the accounts themselves. We talked about the importance of finding activities or spaces that help calm you down, or anchor you, or give you joy.
Even after this workshop, though I would have days where I would sink back into wondering if how I felt even mattered. Who cares how I feel when I’m bringing across the words of mothers, brothers, wives, fathers, grandparents, nephews and neighbours, all of whom have witnessed and experienced death to a degree that one can’t even begin to fathom?
I really don’t have all the answers, but thought it might help some other translators to hear about my journey, which is still ongoing. I’ve submitted the manuscript, but the edits will come back soon and I’ll have to once again face what I’ve managed to shut away for the past week. In preparation for this next stage of the translation process, I’m going to watch this talk, which looks like it will be very helpful: www.centerforthehumanities.org/programming/translating-trauma
I’ll share on Twitter @sawadhussain what I learn from it, in case you don’t have time to watch it yourself.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic translator and litterateur who is currently co-chair (with Rebecca DeWald) of the Translator’s Association. She was co-editor of the Arabic-English portion of the award-winning Oxford Arabic Dictionary (2014). Her translations have been recognised by the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, English PEN, the Anglo-Omani Society and the Palestine Book Awards, among others. She has run workshops introducing translation to students and adults under the auspices of Shadow Heroes, Africa Writes, the National Centre for Writing, the British Library, and Shubbak Festival. She has forthcoming translations from Fitzcarraldo Editions, Neem Tree Press, and Restless Books. She holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from SOAS.