Found in translation
In March Bachir El-Sebaie received the annual Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi Award for best translation published by the National Centre of Translation, for his translation of the French historian Henri Laurens's six-volume La Question de Palestine. He spoke to Sayed Mahmoud on the occasion
Bachir El-Sebaie received the National Centre of Translation prize (LE100,000) at the Translation and the Challenges of the Age Conference (28-31 March), generating much enthusiasm among those who have kept up with his work. To date Sebaie has produced 65 volumes from Russian, French and English, from non-fiction to poetry. Many are indispensable classics, and their authors include, as well as Timothy Mitchell, Alain Gresh and Andre Raymond, Tzevtan Todorof, Charles Baudelaire and the Egyptian surrealist poet Georges Henein. Sebaie, who also writes poetry which he publishes irregularly, is among the most familiar faces in Egyptian intellectual circles. Daily moving in the downtown Cairo haunts, he is nonetheless deeply dedicated to translation, intent on resuming an intellectual project no less significant than creative endeavour. Sebaie's choices reflect the more universal humane urge to spread knowledge and eliminate misunderstanding among people as well as generating a broader space for communication.
Born in 1944 to an agricultural engineer who wrote and regularly published poems, held a regular salon in the Delta town of Damanhour and owned an extensive home library, Sebaie sees his principal motive as having been "to spread progressive ideas". After becoming a Trotskyist since early adulthood, it was this that drove him to seek out the foreign sources of these ideas. One anecdote he recounts, beaming, is that the first book he translated -- which was well-received by his political comrades -- was Class Struggle in Egypt, a classic of Marxist literature written originally in French by Bahgat El-Nadi and Adel Rif'at, who coauthor books under the pseudonym "Mahmoud Hussein". Yet the translation, which remained in manuscript form -- like many books by (and for) political activists -- was never widely published; Sebaie lost the manuscript following the publication of a Lebanese translation of the book. But it was the positive response to this manuscript that drove Sebaie to resume his work and become a professional translator. Through his youth he specialised in works that illuminated the Trotskyist standpoint on a range of intellectual issues of concern to his generation. One particular work of Russian Orientalism -- first published by the Beirut-based Dar Ibn Khaldun in 1978 and reprinted some 20 years later with the Sharqiyat Publishing House in Cairo -- made Sebaie's name.
Some 30 years after he embarked on this career, Sabaie -- a lifelong avid reader as well as a committed agent of change -- feels he has accumulated indispensable intellectual and cultural experience: "The translator is by default an intellectual; he never stops developing his knowledge or his technique." Nor were his choices "improvised". More than ever now he sees the books he opted for as making up, collectively, an intellectual project of precise form -- progressive and revolutionary -- the foundations of which he is confident he has laid and to which he periodically added. In tandem with his work in translation, from 1967 until he retired a few months ago, Sebaei worked at the Information Department translating news and press reports. While translating for the press is generally regarded as routine and a waste of time, Sebaie feels his own experience of this line of work was beneficial at more than one level: it gave him the skills required to translate efficiently as a professional, on a daily basis; and it helped him "acquire everyday political knowledge through following the wires". Thus he did was not locked up in the intellectual's ivory tower of events and transformations. Working in the press enabled him to engage with those events by translating books that sought to explain or prophecy them.
Sebaie's immersion in translation has undermined his poetic career. He has not stopped writing poetry, but he has rarely published since the mid-1990s. There exist to date three collections of poems to his name: The Silence Troubadour (1994), Mirrors of the Intelligentsia (1995), and The Hope Principal (1996). Sebaie no longer seems as eager to translate poetry -- a passion of his in the past -- but he categorically refuses to concede this line of thinking: "Most of my translations were intellectual, generally related to the humanities, especially in history and political philosophy to do with Egypt. Thus I was not a literary translation in principal, but due to my interest in the cultural community in Egypt I started working on the work of Francophone Egyptian writers and poets like Georges Henein and Ahmad Rasem and Joyce Mansour -- to rectify the faults of the literary history in Egypt and highlight avant garde sources." Indeed no one familiar with Egyptian writing in the last 20 years can deny the influence of these translations -- they were seminal to major transformations that occurred through the 1990s, breaking with norms that had persisted well into the 1970s -- a fact noted, among others, by the critic Richard Jacquemond. Sebaie also played a major role in uncovering the legacy of the Al-Fann wal-Hurriyya group, which emerged in the 1940s; with Hisham Ishtah, editor of the alternative literary journal Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, he supervised bringing that legacy back into print.
"The Nineties poets interacted with what I presented of the largely unknown work of Egyptian surrealists," Sebaie remarks on the enthusiasm evidenced among young poets for these seemingly outdated texts, "perhaps because it inspired them and confirmed their decision to opt for renewal and change. By my assessment the process had positive consequences. Young people felt they could find forebears who were not necessarily nationalist, and perhaps they believed what Georges Henein said, to the effect that, where literature and art are concerned, there are no foreigners." Sebaie denies an accusation frequently levelled at him in the early 1980s and 1990s, at the time when, together with the poet Ahmad Taha (editor of another alternative literary journal, Al-Garad ), he sought to nurture and help establish these emerging voices: that the two figures were actually trying to enlist young poets in underground Trotskyist organisations. "That accusation really was rife," he laughs, "but it was completely unfounded. These young writers' interest in Trotsky makes sense, since Trotsky was for absolute chaos, rejecting any restrictions on thinking or creativity. Trotskyism as you know does not favour any one school over another but rather sides with artistic honesty."
Sebaie is particularly proud of his translation of Fleurs du mal, the book generally regarded as the foundation of the prose poem the world over. Sebaie points out that he published selections of his translation in Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhrah in 2001. Later he found out about an Iraqi translation of the book that was deemed inferior to his (published by the German-based Iraqi Dar Al-Gamal and Afaq, Cairo, simultaneously in 2007). It remains the definitive contemporary source despite the subsequent appearance of other translations by Mohammad Ahmad Hamad and the Rifaat Sallam (whose work is as yet unpublished). Sebaie feels that translating poetry is akin to producing it, and should be counted among his own poetic work. Fyodor Tyutchev, for example, included his translation of selected French poems in his complete works. Speaking of which, I mention to Sebaie that he has not produced as many translations from Russian in recent years, working increasingly on French. He agrees: "Bringing new Russian books to Egypt is no easy task. Most Soviet writings on the Arab world during the Cold War, governed as they were by prohibitions and modes of compromise to do with Russian-Egyptian relations at the time, was more or less substandard." The prize reaffirmed Sebaie's hunch that taking five years to work on Laurens' monumental tome -- the best that has been written on the Palestinian question, in Sebaie's view: a truly exhaustive document as well as a work of scholarship -- was not, after all, a futile endeavour.