Thanks to the brilliant work of our many translators, it’s easy to forget that the plays presented at IVP weren’t written in English. Robert Myers and Nada Saab, the translators for The Dictator had an especially hard job of it. I contacted Robert to find out more about the work he and Nada did on The Dictator, please enjoy the interview.
The Dictator was originally performed in Beirut in 1968, it was even censored at one point by President Fouad Chehab. The play’s relevance has reasserted itself in the current political climate in the Middle East, so I was curious how he discovered the play:
How did you find The Dictator?
The play was recommended by my collaborator, Nada Saab, who had studied it in a contemporary theatre course at AUB [American University of Beirut]. She thought it was one of the most significant contemporary plays--especially political plays--from the Arab world.
Mahfouz is one of the best known Lebanese playwrights, and has been performed all over the Arabic speaking world, but there are others as well:
Who are other contemporary Lebanese playwrights? Does anyone else write like Mafouhz?
“Among contemporary Lebanese playwrights, the most significant, besides Mahfouz, is Ziad Rahbani, who did parodies of Lebanese village life and clever satires of politics. Other important contemporary playwrights from the Egypt and the Levant include Sa'dallah Wannous, from Syria, whose plays and essays Nada and I are translating for Yale University Press's Margellos World Republic of Letters series, and Tawfik al Hakim, from Egypt, who wrote a number of absurdist and allegorical plays. He has been compared to Kafka.”
Not only does Robert speak English and Arabic, but he also speaks Spanish and Portuguese, and translates works from those languages as well:
I know Arabic is your fourth language, what else do you speak? Have you translated works from those other languages as well? Which has been the most rewarding piece to work on?
“I have translated a number of literary essays and poems from Portuguese, and I translated a poem by Cabrera Infante, the Cuban writer, for The New York Review of Books. The most interesting were the literary essays, by a Portuguese literary critic, comparing the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa to Walt Whitman and to "mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria.”
Listening to an interview (link here) Robert did when the play was performed in New York in September last year, he describes the challenges in translating a play not written in Standard Arabic:
Interviewer: “I would love to hear some of the challenges you faced in the process of translation”
Robert: “...this play was in vernacular. And in that sense Mahfouz is a very revolutionary literary figure... for example the use of everyday speech on the stage. So our greatest challenge here was to a) preserve the humor, because it’s full of very dark humor. The other is demagoguery is investigated through language, Mahfouz uses lots of games, language games, some of which are virtually untranslatable.”