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Barbara Romaine

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(2015 - Translation)

Excerpt from translation of A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore by Mohamed Qandil

[translated from the Arabic]

The Nile is among the most extraordinary rivers in the world. The summertime, when rivers run dry, is when the Nile used to defy the laws of nature and flood its banks. Beset by winds blowing from north to south, its current runs contrary, flowing north, descending from the highlands of distant Africa, bellowing like a king. Heedless of the dense forests, the vast and scorching desert, it traverses immense boulders, massive and solid, and confronts the resistance of six cataracts. It fills the still forests with it clamourous roar, bubbles with foam and sends out its spray to create rainbows that never dissolve. It passes through stands of acacia, ebony, willow, and sycamore. It wanders like a sad poet amid the wastes of the desert, undeterred by hills or sand dunes or mountains of granite. It tumbles violently over Camel's Neck Cataract, its waters bubble and froth at Marjan Cataract, and then it slows down to catch its breath before plunging into the cataracts of Beit al-Abd, al-Macfour, and Harek. Along its arid track it encounters but little of the dark waters of Atbara River. The sky does not lavish it with rain, nor do the snows melt to refresh it. It is surrounded only by great masses of black stone, which share with it the secrets of eternity; and the river, in turn, takes care not to erase the relics they bear: the inscriptions, the scarab images, the cartouches.

Temperamental, the river rushes on, carrying the mud of first creation, containing something of the Blue Nile's playfulness, something of the White Nile's wisdom. It rises and falls, dividing and spreading at times to lose itself in the swamp beds, only to reassemble in the form of its principal, unified artery. It does not settle down or assume a character of dignified sobriety until it espies the crowns of the palms south of the valley of Egypt. The oldest palm trees known to humankind, they have stood for eons resplendent upon the riverbank, sown by pharaohs and cultivated by Copts; their dates fed the soldiers of Rome; the Arab conquerors knew the secrets of their seeds and propagated them.

The waters of the river subside, their power diminishes, but the irrigation systems pursue it, blindfolded bulls ceaselessly turning the water wheels. Behind each bull there sits a small boy, who holds a stick with a rope tied to it looking much like an ankh, and who urges the bull, calling "Aa, aa"  The wheel turns, its buckets ascending, bearing magical fountains of river water and depositing them in the canals that branch and branch again across the face of the land, like veins of the body, blood-red at the time of the floods, while the earth is black as musk, the crops as green as emerald, the wheat as yellow as jasper-stone. Fava beans, corn, barley, lentils, gourds, watermelons, tomatoes, eggplants, and green beans all vie for place in the irrigated fields, while the palms rise up like the arms of the ancient gods, their roots deep in wet soil, their heads arising well up in the blazing sky.         

The river continues its course amid the silence of the valley until the sound of chanting can be heard, and the columns of the temples, the obelisks, the church spires, the minarets appear. Flocks of doves scatter across the sky to feast their eyes upon the sight of the emerald waters before returning each evening to their nests.

Original in Arabic

About Mohamed Qandil

Among the most resonant themes in Mohamed Qandil's decades' worth of literary work is that of tyranny, whether Arab against Arab, or as a function of foreign imperialism. He brings to life his depictions of corruption and cruelty in high places by refracting them through the experiences of not only historical luminaries, but also ordinary people, his central characters. Accordingly, the rape scenes in A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, for example, might be understood as a metaphor for the experience of political prisoners, in the systematically manipulative way in which the assaults are carried out. Qandil speaks eloquently to contemporary and historical reality in the Arab world.

Barbara Romaine thinks of herself as an accidental Arabist. Having started out as a classicist, she found herself in Egypt on a work-related assignment in 1987, and within two months of her return to the U.S. she had enrolled in her first Arabic language class. Five years later she went back to Egypt on fellowship to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo, and while there began her first full-length translation project, Bahaa' Taher's novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, which was published in 1996. Romaine began teaching Arabic in the early 1990s, has taught at institutions from Virginia to Vermont, and is currently on the faculty of Villanova University, outside Philadelphia. In 2007 she held an NEA fellowship for the translation of Radwa Ashour's semi-autobiographical novel Specters, and that translation, published in 2011, subsequently placed second in the Saif Ghobash-Banipal international competition.

Photo by Najib Elkhadri

Translator's Statement

In Act V, scene ii of Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry the Fifth, Princess Katherine declares that, “les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies,” which King Henry translates as “the tongues of men are full of deceits.” Since it is his blandishments to which Katherine is cannily responding, she presumably means that men's words are not to be trusted, particularly when they are after something they want--in this case an advantageous political alliance through marriage. But her statement has layers below the surface, and could be understood also to mean that language itself is a slippery thing--as indeed it is. Once, for an article I was writing, I asked three friends each to “translate” two very different English-language passages--one from Shakespeare and the other composed in contemporary urban dialect--into what they considered modern standard English. The texts they produced were distinct in ways that illuminated the nuances of the translation process: the sly tromperies with which language is so richly freighted, and which must be approached with subtlety and sensitivity, not merely linguistic ability. The Arabist Marilyn Booth has observed that literary translators have tended to be regarded as “derivative servitors rather than creative artists,” and translation as “a mechanical exercise” (“Author versus Translator,” the Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2007). Thanks in part to the advocacy of organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, this perception is changing. Literary translators are beginning to be respected both for opening borders that would otherwise be closed and for bringing to that effort considerable creative energy, rather than mere bilingual competence. I am ineffably grateful and honored to be the recipient of the NEA's recognition of my own endeavors in this sphere.