June 13, 2024
Yazbek’s Where the wind calls home: “On Translating ‘Small, Shining Moments of Crystalline Beauty’ – Read translator Leri Price’s interview!

Yazbek’s Where the wind calls home: “On Translating ‘Small, Shining Moments of Crystalline Beauty’ – Read translator Leri Price’s interview!

An interview by Tugrul Mende, for ArabLit, June 12, 2024

Earlier this year, World Editions published Samar Yazbek’s Where The Wind Calls Home, translated by Leri Price. It centers a young soldier as he lays dying from his wounds; we witness his memories and see through his perspective, getting to know him better with each page.

Here, Price discusses her work on the novel and how Samar Yazbek situates herself in the literary landscape.

When did you first hear about Where The Wind Calls Home and what were your initial thoughts about this novel?

Leri Price: I was approached for a sample by Samar’s agent, the incredible Yasmina Jraissati, roughly when the book came out in Arabic. I was totally drawn in from the first paragraph, of course—Samar’s writing is so compelling—and I just wanted to know more about this disembodied voice. As the book progressed, I became aware of an ache for the increasingly rare corners of beauty that are being so brutally destroyed.

How does your previous translation of Samar Yazbek’s work differ from this novel?

LP: The narrative voice is different from Planet of Clay. Clay was narrated by Rima, so the whole book was in her distinctive voice. Where the Wind Calls Home is told from Ali’s perspective, but not in his words, so there was more attention paid to “who” was speaking. Ali wouldn’t necessarily verbalize his reactions to the natural environment; he responds to it instinctively with this depth of sensory immersion, but without formulating the poetic sentences that Samar uses to convey his experience. The main difference, then, probably lay in how to navigate the narrative voice.

If you could explain to an outsider the content of the novel, how would you describe it and what genre does it fit into?

LP: The genre is literary fiction. In a nutshell, the book explores the inner life of a wounded soldier over the course of a day, and in a parallel narrative we are shown the history that has brought him to this moment. The two parallel plots – Ali’s life up to the explosion, and then his progress throughout the day as he makes his way towards the tree – mirror each other, and we see how Ali’s life has been dominated by forces he has no control over or understanding of. And yet, all the time, we see his dignity and his humanity. He carves out refuges for himself and inhabits them fully, creating intimate moments of elation and tenderness in the midst of ignorance and violence. I read the book partly as a plea to protect the things that are overlooked in our stampede for power: the natural world, the small, shining moments of crystalline beauty that exist in every life, however hard and overlooked it is.

What did the translation process look like? How would you characterize the language used in the novel?

LP: The translation process was similar to my others, in that I make several drafts and then consult extensively with Samar. We spoke several times on the phone, for hours at a time. I can’t express how grateful I am to Samar for her patience with me! Samar’s language is so poised and precise, I wanted to make sure I conveyed that as closely as possible.

You write that your favorite parts were reading about Ali’s world; what were the most interesting things to translate?

LP: I learn something new with every novel and WTWCH was no exception. I read up on the history of tobacco farming in the Lattakia region, which was totally new to me. I also found it fascinating to read about the Alawites, and to learn more about the customs in that part of the mountains.

How does this novel situate itself in Samar Yazbek’s overall oeuvre?

LP: Samar has always been concerned with justice. Whether in her earlier novels, her war reportage, or her later novels, she writes about people who are at the mercy of systems, forces or events outside their control, and which threaten to overwhelm and crush them. Samar has mentioned in interviews that she has been asked why she wrote sympathetically about a soldier fighting in the Syrian army, but this book shows her deep compassion for all victims of the regime. We see how Ali is a victim – of class, of war, of other people – and how he has been forcibly separated from the mother and the life that sustained him. This novel continues Samar’s work of throwing light on the brutality of power and the powerful, and demanding empathy for those left behind.

What difficulties did you face while working on the novel?

LP: The subject matter is quite difficult, although not as distressing as some of the scenes in Planet of Clay. I think the hardest passages to translate were the disorienting opening chapter. And, because it is so central to the work, making sure I wrote correctly about the landscape and its features. And, as mentioned, making sure the narrative voice was positioned in the right way.

And how does Samar Yazbek find herself in the literary landscape?

LP: She should find herself at the forefront of it, although I think being translated, and translated from Arabic, she is often positioned a “voice of Syria” rather than being judged on her merits as a writer. Although translated literature has moved on considerably in stature over the past decade, most notably through the heroic efforts of translators and editors such as Sawad Hussain, Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and others, it is still not really given its proper place in the literary world. And there is still very much the attitude that Arabic literature explains the region, rather than being a body of literature that is formally and technically innovative. In Samar’s case, this resulted in many of the allegorical or fantastical aspects of Planet of Clay being read literally – the narrator’s inability to stop walking, for example! Perhaps linked to that, I believe there is some resistance to storytelling that operates outside Western norms, where any difference is instantly seen as a flaw. Luckily, this can be addressed by publishing more translations, especially from outside Europe! I think Samar is one of the most extraordinary writers working in any language.

What are you working on next?

LP: Nothing in particular, as I am focusing on academic work at the moment. There are a few things in the pipeline, so hopefully that will become something concrete in the next year or so.

Tugrul Mende is a frequent contributor to ArabLit. You can also find him hosting a podcast for the New Books Network.