Saturday, 3 July 2010

Writers making the world legible

Imagine trying to write a book in Arabic or Cantonese and your mother tongue is firmly English. This is what it is like for writers who are forced into exile. Not only must they learn a new language but if they cannot suppress their desire to write then they must also try to create fiction in their adopted language.
Once the book is written, what chance of translation into English? Only 3% of the 150,000 or so books published in Britain each year are literary translations.
 English PEN's remit since its foundation in 1921 has been to "give a voice to the voiceless." This year The Writers' in Translation programme is celebrating its fifth year of supporting authors, especially raising the profile of authors at risk.

Amanda Hopkinson, Professor of Translation at the University of East Anglia and founder chair of Writers in Translation, stressed the importance of this work at an event for two supported PEN writers, Eli Amir and Atiq Rahimi, in the Islington Waterstones in June. Amanda told the audience that the writers of the first two books which were translated have been killed since publication. In many parts of the world it is a dangerous occupation being a writer.
Atiq Rahimi, pictured here with his translator flew in specially from Paris for events this week. Originally from Afghanistan he was exiled to France and wrote his novel,The Patience Stone, in French. Atiq told us that writing in French was very liberating. "Language is like a skin. Living in exile away from your own country, language becomes an obsession." Atiq's novel challenges the taboos around women in Afghani society He is not readily accepted into the Afghani exiled community in Paris, let alone in his home country. "I know I cause pain when I write of these matters but a writer must challenge the edges of received views."

Eli Amir was born in Baghdad into the Iraqi Jewish community. As a teenager he went into exile with over 90% of his community who all left within a year, "unprecedented in the history of refugees," Eli told us. "Only one place would take us, Israel." He went on to become a ministerial adviser on Arab affairs and immigrant absorption.
 Eli's first language is Judeo-Arabic and he only "technically" wrote his novels in Hebrew. He heard the book in Arabic in his head, in the voices of his mother and father arguing in Arabic and so in his novels, "I wrote down what they said."

In The Dove Flyer Eli Amir recreates Baghdad in the 1940s. He describes a society in chaos, as if in the middle of an earthquake and everyone has a dream. But ultimately like the wings of a dove the dreams of the main characters are broken as they go into exile. "I write to show the pain, the sorrow, the insult of losing a homeland,"  says Amir.The Dove Flyer is the first in a trilogy about the interface between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Eli feels that The Dove Flyer will help people to understand what erupted in Iraqi society in the 1940s. "I could smell it in the air. Within 10 years all the leadership was gone." The Jewish community was forced into exile. "The difference between Atiq and me," Eli told the audience," is that he has the privilege now to visit Afghanistan. I cannot return to Baghdad because I am the enemy. They will kill me."
I have published a more extensive interview with Eli Amir which you can read here.

So what is it like to experience your work in different languages?
Atiq told us, "Language remains a mystery." His choice of language has a huge impact on the rhythm of his work. For this new novel he chose French over Persian for just that reason.
Eli was asked in Germany, "How did you feel hearing you book read in German?"
He smiled and said, "In my left ear was German, in my right ear was Arabic, my father's voice and I followed in my Hebrew version of the book from right to left."
Ultimately Eli wrote his book so that his children will know where he came from and also so that they would understand their grandparents background. "I wanted to recreate the city of my childhood which I loved so much and to keep it with me so I can hang it at night like I hang the book," he said.

Leila Kogba, Director of Strategy and Partnerships in Islington, introduced the evening which was a part of Refugee Week.Herself a refugee from the Biafran War she said that she had never thought of herself as a refugee until she read about the war in  Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. "Writing is the most powerful way to tell a story," she said.

English PEN has produced a marvellous book, Making the World Legible, to mark five years of Writers in Translation with extracts from all the writers. You can download the book here.

Writers in Translation is a powerful force for good in the world.
                     Andrew Motion

A vibrant border-crossing revelation of contemporary international literature...what writing is all about.
                    Ali Smith

What a wonderful and indispensable project this is.
                 Amit Chaudhuri

How can there be peace without us knowing each other? 
                  Eli Amir speaking in Cairo.

Listen to a radio interview with Eli Amir.


  1. Fascinating blog post, Miriam, and I love the new photo of you too!

  2. Thanks Sue, thought I'd have a freshen up and glad you liked the post too.

  3. An excellent, thought-provoking blog. I'd never really considered how hard it must be for refugees to write a whole book in a foreign language. All those subtle innuendos of style and grammar are not available to them as they would be if they were using their home language.

    I bought The Dove Flyer after reading one of your blogs, Miriam, and found it a very moving read.

  4. I'm so pleased you have read The Dove Flyer, Ros, we'll have to discuss it sometime.

  5. Miriam, thank you so much for posting this blog. I am eternally grateful to English PEN for Writers in Translation and hearing Eli Amir and Atiq Rahimi at Waterstones was one of the most moving and inspirational experiences I have had. My only regret was that I bought only two copies of each book - I want to give them to everyone I know!


  6. Hi Miriam,
    An interesting post, particularly where you quote amir telling the audience "I cannot return to Baghdad because I am the enemy. They will kill me."
    Whilst I am aware of the terrible sectarian violence going in there, it was my understanding that it is not directed against jews and that there are safe areas of baghdad and dangerous areas of baghdad, just like any other city in the world. am i wrong?

  7. Lela : Yes, it was a wonderful evening.
    Ittay : I only know of two Iraqi Jews who have visited Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Both were told not to speak Judeo-Arabic in the streets and had full protection from the government. One day I believe Iraq will welcome Jewish visitors again but currently it is not a safe destination for Jews. That is what Eli Amir refers to.

  8. Miriam, thank you for posting this blog and for highlighting the work of English PEN's Writers in Translation programme. As you say, we work to promote literature in translation; in particular, we support writers who address issues of intercultural understanding and freedom of expression that lie at at the heart of the PEN charter. We are very proud to support Eli and Amir, two enormously talented and interesting authors. We do hope that everyone will go and buy the books and will also be inspired by the extracts in 'Making the World Legible' to discover other voices and other worlds.

  9. ----- Original Message -----
    From: Cathy Aitchison
    To: Miriam Halahmy
    Sent: Monday, July 05, 2010 2:38 PM
    Subject: Refugee Week Radio interview and your blog

    Dear Miriam
    I came across your blog and your report on the English PEN writers event at Waterstones in Islington during Refugee Week this June.

    Our reporter Andrea recorded interviews there, and we've published the one with Eli Amir on the Refugee Week Radio website here:
    Refugee Week Radio is a project from the charity London Link Radio, co-ordinating and publicising RW events and issues using audio and the web.

    We've made a link to the report on your blog - I hope that's OK, but if not just let us know and we'll remove it. Your work sounds very interesting.

    With best wishes
    Cathy Aitchison
    Refugee Week Radio / London Link Radio


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