Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 July 2011
Issue No. 1057
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A window on the world's true colours

The translator Hala Salah El-din Hussein talks to Rania Khallaf about her work and her internet review

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Hala Salah Eldin Hussein

Hala Salah Eldin Hussein, 33, is a graduate of Tanta University and a professional translator. She is also the publisher of Albawtaka Review, one of the most promising independent cultural ventures in the field of translation today. Interviewing Hussein was an interesting and refreshing mission, and I came away with a sense of being uplifted by her inspiration and enthusiasm.

When did the idea of Albawtaka Review first come to your mind, and why did you feel it was necessary?

In December 2005 I read in Al Ahram a short article by the Egyptian novelist Youssef Zeidan. He wrote of how convenient the internet was for delivering news, and since I had been translating stories for about six months but failing considerably to get them published in magazines because they were so long, it hit me that the internet didn't count words or think in numbers and I could easily publish long stories to be delivered to people's inboxes in a matter of minutes. Of course I was so naïve I thought I could set up a website and design it all on my own; more importantly I thought, quite wrongly, that the whole thing would be a walk in the park. I set up the site after four arduous months of teaching myself design languages such as html and php. Canadian writer Alexi Zentner, one of Albawtaka Review's contributors, says it seems there is something to be said for the confident energy that naiveté can bring to a project. Albawtaka Review is the delightful product of such naiveté.

Does Albawtaka as a title have a special significance to you?

Albawtaka is an Arabic word meaning The Crucible. When I first embarked on the project, I thought for a couple of hours about a resonant name that would sound gloriously "literary". The word Albawtaka was hovering over my teenage days. I remember back at school I wanted to make a social group called Albawtaka, which implied putting all of us together in one milieu to live the same experience. The teacher thought it was too weird. I remembered the incident and I thought I could have my long-awaited wish. The act of translating is much like putting precious metals into one pot and melting them sown to reach a new form of rarity. And you seem to see life from a different perspective once you finish some of these stories; you have been melted down and re-shaped.

What is your criterion when choosing short stories?

I don't follow any clear-cut rules, only the widest possible routes of creativity. Every story is a unique case, and there is a different reason for choosing it. I let my imagination run away with me. But I generally like a story to tell me something about humanity, to share with me feelings identified by all human beings, raw feelings that have no sophistication. I'm interested in works that make the invisible seen, that give voice to the voiceless -- works that impart a message fthrough aesthetic experience.

I also seem to be attracted to well-knit narratives. I hate sloppy sentences; they are nails in my tyres. A novelist can get away with completely shabby paragraphs, but a storyteller has to be extremely concise with words. Saying too much is a sin. I never translate a story that has no secrets. I'm fond of layers and layers of narration, one seemingly visible plot and various other multiple, intricate sheets lying beneath the narrative, lurking there to be discovered. Spending more than a month with one text can be a serious punishment unless you are in awe of every piece of it.

Why did you focus in the first place on American short stories? And why did you specifically choose short stories as a genre, especially at a time when the novel is the prevailing and most popular literary genre in Egypt and the Arab world?

Novels can't be our only window to fiction. This is missing out on the beauty of brevity; we are shamefully ignorant of how short fiction has taken long strides towards fresh techniques and tools. Talking about American stories, we are actually talking about so many cultures that it can quite possibly include the whole world. British, Canadian and African fiction is there in the review. The European and Asian contributions light up the review with their charm and wisdom. The English language IS a "crucible".

Albawtaka Review is the voice of the outcasts and alienated souls so typical of the short story form, but I would not say that fiction should be brandishing any stark social or political message. It's just that short fiction is, I believe, a solitary genre, where an individual is bent on a lone struggle with himself, or others, or life itself; whereas novels strile me as a more social form.

How has your unique project developed since 2006 in regard tothe nature of your job and the reactions of readers?

Albawtaka Review was launched in April 2006 as a monthly review, and then starting from July 2007 it became a quarterly review. The current issue marks my fifth anniversary. The review has published twenty-nine issues and presented the biographies of 70 English-speaking writers and the translated texts of a novel and 79 stories. I began relying heavily on American short fiction, presenting characters from all over the world: Israel, Morocco, India, China, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Japan and Hong Kong, all written by American writers. I have recently veered toward Canadian and African fiction. I've also started to put the spotlight on genres that are not perfectly mastered in Arabic fiction, like science fiction and fantasy.

Most of the readers who contact me are those already involved in literature, culture and the arts. They have encouraged me over the years, and given me a lot to think about with every email and phone call. The first print anthology of Albawtaka, Sharp Senses is actually dedicated to Albawtaka ieaders. I don't think I would have continued without their support. It's hard to go on working for nothing for more than five years. Literary reviews, as you know, are financially very fragile. One goes bankrupt every single month all over the world.

Will you talk a bit more about this transitional period in the life of Albawtaka Review, that is from an online magazine to a published quarterly book? What made you decide to found your very new publishing house?

I think I set up Albawtaka Publishing House because I'm plagued by this sense of individuality. I was keen to choose just the perfect paper for the book, and the most expressive covers you can find, and design the inner pages as I pleased. The print version of Albawtaka Review will actually go hand-in-hand with the online version. The print anthologies are not an alternative to the online review.

I don't value books more than online pages, but I have persistently been asked by colleagues and readers to open a new frontier for these stories and issue print versions of them. It's understandable that some readers won't yet get the idea of reading online. However it was hard for me to risk my already-small means on another printundertaking, so when I was given a grant by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in March 2010 it was my chance to take the step. The grant made it possible to print three anthologies of translated short stories: The first anthology, Sharp Senses, takes on the issues of self discovery, the pains of war and the bumpy route of maturity. The second book, Ghosts With No Maps, is teeming with real or figurative ghosts; it is a mosaic of figures perceived as dead or seemingly gone to another world. Surreal fantasy, excruciating realism, cutting sarcasm and pangs of nostalgia are combined in the two books truly to express what the American critic Edward O'Brien calls "the artist's power of compelling imaginative persuasion

As the youngest female publisher in Egypt, how do you evaluate challenges facing publishers in general and female publishers in particular?

I've got to tell you that lack of funds and the difficulty of distribution are the two biggest obstacles in the field of publishing. Female or no, the challenges are the same. Of course you will find some of the people working in the print shop giving me looks, but it only lasts a few minutes and then I will just be treated as a publisher regardless of my gender. I have serious reservations about seeing my profession from a feminist point of view. I don't go hunting for feminist stories, for example. I was flattered at first, but I came to regard readers extolling me as a pioneering female entrepreneur as an insult. What should be so extraordinary about being a female and a pioneering entrepreneur? I can't afford to be self-conscious of my femininity in a male-organised world. If you do, you will always be treated as a sexual being. On the ground, walking bold and straight-backed into the print shop will erase the idea that a female is in the house.

As a completely self-administered manager of a new cultural venture, how do you get financial support?

I have very limited means, but I am masterful at playing them. The review does not post any advertisements. Arabic advertising agencies force their agendas on Arabic sites, which I cannot allow. Since I am surviving on a limited budget I have to do everything on my own. I design the web pages and maintain them. I choose the stories and translate them. I correspond with agents and authors. Basically, I cooperate with other establishments in translating tasks to cover Albawtaka Review's expenses.

As a professional translator and a publisher, what do you think are the tools needed to advance in the translation sector in Egypt? And what do we need to translate now, in this revolutionary era?

I find the key is to practice, practice, and then practice. Reading about translation theories is cool, but it will not make a genius out of you. So I would very much encourage the organisation of workshops for translators where they get to share experiences, and learn from ther mistakes. Budgets are crucial, but three good books are more vital to the world than a dozen messed-up ones.

I have recently been contemplating the value of literature in these times, where your step in Tahrir Square -- protesting and demanding civil rights -- should be more valuable than translating fiction. Can fiction really take second place after revolutionary activism? How can fiction help us in a time of political unrest? Should I stay in my office finishing this marvelous piece by Susan Straight, or should I just go out with my fellow countrymen, six hours or more every day, in the square? It seems that translating political articles will be of more use to the revolution, but for the time being I'll keep the belief that a day translating Lorrie Moore or Edward P. Jones will teach me how to be a better human being, I'll get to see the world in its true colours, I'll learn about myself, others and humanity.

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