x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Expressive tango

Saloon Tracing the Abu Dhabi-Nobel connection.

Tracing the Abu Dhabi-Nobel connection In 1976, Herta Müller started a new job. She had recently graduated from the University of Timisoara, in Romania, where she studied German and Romanian literature. And, like humanities students through the ages, she had quickly discovered that reading well - even in multiple languages - doesn't pay the bills: the job was at a tractor factory, and her primary responsibility was to translate German-language equipment manuals into Romanian.

After three years on the job, Müller was offered another position: as a collaborator with the Securitate, the secret police of the Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu. Specifically, Securitate agents wanted her to inform on fellow members of the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a cadre of German-speaking writers who actively opposed government censorship of artists. Müller refused. The Securitate offered again. Müller refused again. "You'll be sorry," her recruitment officer told her. "We'll drown you in the river." Soon afterwards, Müller was sacked. Her translation career was over.

Wahid Nader's, however, had not yet begun. The Syrian poet was 24, and he had just won the school-wide poetry prize at the University of Damascus, where he was simultaneously studying engineering, literature and philosophy. While Müller was teaching kindergarten, giving German lessons, and writing her first short stories, Nader was pondering what to do with himself and his love of literature after graduation.

Both artists ended up being drawn to West Germany. Müller, who was tired of being hounded by the Securitate, was receiving a great deal of critical notice there following the uncensored publication of her first short story collection, Niederungen (eventually published in English as Nadirs), by a German press in 1984. That same year, Nader published his first collection of poetry. He wanted to keep going to school and writing, but academic fellowships for Arab poets were few and far between. He had, however, been accepted to a German doctoral programme in mechanical engineering. "But that's just what academia wanted," he recalls today. "My true passion has always been literature and poetry."

Nader emigrated to Germany in 1984; Müller and her husband, the novelist Richard Wagner, followed suit three years later. For the last 25 years, Müller has been revisiting life under the Ceausescu regime in novels, poems and essays. Nader - now a German citizen - has been writing more poetry, contributing to German and Arabic magazines and newspapers, and bouncing around German academia - he currently teaches Arabic full-time at the University of Magdeburg. He's also done some translation work - both German to Arabic and vice versa - on the side, mostly poetry, sometimes articles. It doesn't earn him enough of a living that he can stop teaching, but he loves it: "I do translation every day," he states. "Words yield texts with souls... I don't think I can escape."

In January of this year, Nader received a phone call from a representative of Kalima, the translation initiative of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Nader still isn't sure why they called him: perhaps, he speculates, some friends from the German Writer's Guild passed his name on. They were looking for German-to-Arabic translators for some upcoming fiction, including the new Herta Müller novel, a story of a young Romanian-German man sent to a Soviet gulag after the Second World War. Müller, they warned, had never been translated into Arabic before, and her German was notoriously difficult.

Nader had never translated a novel before, but the sound of the book intrigued him; he spent two months studying an almost-complete draft, then accepted. Kalima's plan was to launch his translation alongside the German original at the Frankfurt book fair. So, on March 23, the day Müller handed in the final draft of Atemschaukel (published in English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me, her publisher also sent a copy straight to Nader. He worked on the translation for five months, two of which he took off from teaching altogether. "Sometimes I worked 15 or 16 hours a day," he recalls. "Sometimes I would get 10 pages done in a day. Other times I'd spend two days trying to figure out one passage. I had to contact her on several occasions to ask her what she meant by certain words and expressions."

"Her book is basically a gorgeous long poem... Her language is extremely dense and totally new, not only for myself but for native German speakers as well. She has her own lingo, you know - you can't find what she says in a dictionary." After handing in the final draft of his translation in August, Nader settled back into a normal routine and made tentative plans to attend the Frankfurt launch. Last Thursday he was teaching all day, so he had his phone off. He arrived home around 8pm, turned his phone back on, and soon after received a call from a poet friend: Herta Müller had won the Nobel Prize.

Nader is proud of Müller, happy that Atemschaukel will be the talk of Frankfurt, and optimistic that his translation will receive significantly more attention as a result - as will, perhaps, the overlooked art of translation itself. "The translator must uncover the very soul of the text," Nader explains, "and be able to relive the moment that the writer lived when they were writing. Otherwise it will just be a succession of words that fail to generate any romantic or existential atmosphere. So to some extent, you must be a littérateur to do literary translation. As they say in Arabic: give the bread to the baker to bake, even if he eats half of it."

* Peter C Baker