Translator: Lara Vergnaud | Author: Ahmed Bouanani | Work: L’Hôpital | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction
Et même lorsque le miracle s’opère, qu’une faible lueur déchire le rideau de la chambre et que je me revois prostré sur une peau de mouton tachée de henné, mimant une des cinq prières quotidiennes avec la ferveur d’un être craintif, mes yeux clignent, tout à coup embués; le reflet de mon image encadrée dans le rectangle ovale du miroir se dilue alors dans la chaleur du mirage. L’enfant interrompt sa prière, redresse la tête. Des plis brisent la sérénité de son front. Pendant un moment – ce laps de temps perpétue le vol d’une mouche – il s’interroge, un goût de sel sous la langue. Quelque chose s’est rompu dans le silence, avec une brutalité immobile.
And even when the miracle works, when a faint glow pierces the bedroom curtains and I see myself prostrate on a sheepskin stained with henna, miming one of the five daily prayers with a frightened fervor, my eyes blink, suddenly damp; the reflection of my image framed in the rounded rectangle of the mirror then softens in the heat of the mirage. The child stops his prayer, lifts his head. Lines interrupt the serenity of his forehead. For a moment—an interlude that prolongs the flight of a fly—he searches himself, the taste of salt under his tongue. Something gave way in the silence, with a motionless brutality.
This passage isn’t the most difficult to translate in The Hospital. Bouanani revels in long, winding sentences that can stretch for well over a page to describe the contained and claustrophobic universe of an unnamed hospital on the outskirts of an unnamed city. These challenging segments, used to mark the narrator’s frequent descents into hallucinations and dreams, are often stocked with obscure references to Moroccan history and culture. Yet the more concise, poetic sections that reflect the narrator’s lucid states, easier to digest at first glance, proved just as tricky to translate. The excerpt cited above was one of many shorter fragments to trip me up. The passage comes early in the work, when the narrator is recounting a decisive moment in his childhood: his younger self is kneeling on a rug, in the middle of performing his daily prayers, when he questions his Islamic faith, and sees “God’s grand stature fissure, crack without majesty.” This scene is critical to understanding the narrator’s strained faith. And yet this important moment is described in a mere five lines – brevity which makes each word especially dense. Take the clause in bold. What the narrator is really saying is something like this: this revelation occurred to the child in a split second, the time it takes for a fly to flap its wings, but seemed to stretch on for an eternity, that’s how mind blowing it was, thus freezing or immortalizing that fly’s flight. A beautiful image, but quite a mouthful. After testing several iterations, I settled upon: “the flight of a fly captured in time.” (Actually, my first attempt was “the flight of a moth captured in time,” so initially bothered was I by the alliteration of the “flight of a fly.”) But when I began writing this blog post, I decided my translation was all wrong. First off, while I liked the sound of “the flight of a moth,” the figure of the fly is too important in this work, and crops up later as a metaphor for the patients in the hospital waiting for death to “gobble” them up. Furthermore, I had transformed the clause from active to passive – the fly was frozen now, instead of fluttering its wings in constant flight – diluting its impact in the process. I had also removed the parallel to a contradiction in the next line: “Something gave way in the silence, with a motionless brutality.” So, again, all wrong. I started over, playing with verbs that could convey the idea of perpetuity: carry on/make last/perpetuate/prolong/immortalize/eternalize. I liked the sonority of that last option, and the links to the larger themes of time, memory, and eternity in the book, but I decided against it. If Bouanani had wanted, he could have used the verb immortalizer for the same reasons. I ended by choosing “prolong” and, following a suggestion from a translator friend, “interlude.” In so doing, I inched back towards Bouanani’s original phrasing. Author knows best, right?
Lara Vergnaud has a BA in French and History from the College of William and Mary and a MA in French-English Literary Translation from New York University. Her co-translation of Marie Monique-Robin’s Our Daily Poison is forthcoming from the New Press, and her translation of Zahia Rahmani’s France, story of a childhood is forthcoming from Yale University Press.