Sunday Story Society is a monthly review feature where I write about a recent story that’s been published online, and invite you to join in via the comments. This month’s instalment is a week later than planned, but here we go…
Perhaps a good place to start with Mona Awad’s story ‘No Translation’ (Carve Magazine, Fall 2013), is with the author’s comment which appears at the end:
I didn’t want to talk about identity per se as much as I wanted to talk about translating identity, making it honestly comprehensible to a curious outsider who’s going to be excluded almost accidentally, almost by nature. The idea that translation, the inherent conspiracy of it, is an act of storytelling itself…
(This is an extract from a longer interview with Awad which appears in the print version of Carve, but I am limiting myself here to material that is freely available online.)
The particular individual whose experience is mediated for us in ‘No Translation’ is Ahmed, a Cairo fruit-seller. List the bald events of the story and they seem ostensibly quite straightforward: Ahmed gets into an altercation with a young policeman who wants to see his permit, and finds that the money which usually helps to grease the wheel doesn’t work with this guy. But Awad’s narrator (as the author’s comment above suggests) seeks to make clear that behind even this apparently simple exchange lies a more complex reality, which requires interpretation that will necessarily be partial.
Right from the start, we are reminded that a third party is bringing this text to us:
I am letting you listen to Ahmed’s thoughts. It’s important that you know this, because he only speaks Arabic, he only thinks in Arabic, and that’s not a language you understand…He doesn’t have any special interest in talking to you. I’m the one who thinks you should know.
Though Awad’s narrator expresses a desire to make things as smooth as possible for us, it can’t be done: there are differences of understanding that the unsuspecting reader might never twig, which are here brought out and examined. What might seem just a fanciful way for Ahmed to think of Cairo (‘She cries his name in car horns, and she’s always screaming like she’s giving birth feet first’) turns out to be a pun on the Egyptian name for the city (‘Umm al-Dunya, or the “Mother of the World”’). The narrator’s barbed question ‘Does saying it help with the joke?’ underlines the distance which has been revealed between reader and subject, a distance which exists in any translated work.
As a means of getting us readers to examine and dismantle our starting assumptions, this is sharply effective. So too is the way in which the city is described, in direct opposition to any stereotypical notions of ‘exotic’ glamour. Take the example of the pomegranates on Ahmed’s stall: ‘No sinful jewel-red here. Just the grit of exhaust that’s on them like the grit of exhaust that’s on everything in Cairo, and there are flies because there are always flies.’
When the policeman arrives on the scene, Ahmed thinks he knows the score. The policeman asks for Ahmed’s permit (‘These were the words Ahmed knew this guy was going to say, and they get said, on time’); Ahmed doesn’t have one, ‘but he lies because that’s what’s done.’ The fruit-seller then goes through the performance that he expects will see the official satisfied and on his way… but none of it works. Ahmed wonders, ‘Is [the policeman] a part of the New Egypt?’ This is Ahmed’s own moment to experience a difference of understanding, where the behavioural ‘language’ he’s always used in these situations is not understood, and he can’t see where the other party is coming from.
As the story concludes, Awad returns to where she began, though things have now changed:
…[Ahmed] cradles his brow, not thinking.
It’s the not thinking that’s the important part.
Do you understand?
As with the opening paragraph, this is referring to Ahmed’s thoughts and the reader’s understanding; but I think the emphasis is subtly different. It seems to me that the beginning is more general, more about establishing the distance between Ahmed and the reader on the basis that the implied reader does not speak Ahmed’s language. The ending feels more deeply personal, a way of underlining that you, the reader, cannot truly comprehend what the events of the story mean to Ahmed – that it’s beyond words, beyond the reach of any translation.