Bahrain: why translation matters
March 30, 2012
For so small an island, Bahrain has an impressive place on the world literature stage. It is thought by many to be the site of the mythic land of Dilmun, featured in ancient masterpieces such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Legend also states that it was the location of the Garden of Eden (a claim reflected by the somewhat anachronistic Tree of Life that flourishes in the middle of desert land there). As such, it has a claim to call itself the cradle of the world’s bestselling story, The Bible.
Sadly, when it comes to contemporary books in translation, Bahrain’s record is not nearly as impressive. As it turned out, I struggled to find anything at all that would qualify as Bahraini literature in English. In the end I asked author Lucy Caldwell, whose excellent Dylan Thomas prize-winning novel The Meeting Point is set in Bahrain, to see whether she had come across any contemporary Bahraini writers during her research.
She said that she had found very little, but that there was a writer she had heard about but not read herself. A colleague who grew up in Bahrain also gave a suggestion, mentioning an author who was the first Bahraini author to write and publish work directly in English. They were both talking about Ali Al Saeed.
Published in 2004, Al Saeed’s novel QuixotiQ explores the emptiness of modern existence through the eyes of a series of characters seeking to turn their lives around. When violence rips through their orderly hometown Okay, a place so stable that the local psychiatric clinic has gone out of business, the characters are set on a collision course. The resulting combustion uncovers a chain of corruption that links up through every level of society, right to the very top.
The basic premise is good but it is let down by the execution. Grammatically odd, peppered with strange expressions and veering between tenses often in a single sentence, the text makes the reader very uneasy from the start. This is not helped by the strange rootlessness of the narrative, which seems to be set in some mysterious, non-existent mid-Atlantic state, where characters such as ‘Conrad Spitfire’ and ‘Randy Challenge’ rub shoulders on streets with names like ‘Elmo Avenue’.
At times, the outlandish registers and malapropisms reach comic proportions. ‘Should he keep finagling?’ one character asks himself, while someone else walks about ‘feeling exacerbated’ and the narrative voice confesses ‘The way this whole shenanigan unfolded was a mystery’.
More worrying still, are the holes in the plot, which see characters acting without cause and often questioning their own motivations. ‘I suppose I could have taken the bus’, muses one to himself as he drives off in the car he has just stolen. In addition, the great revelation at the end is more than a little deflated by the observation: ‘How Patrick knew that, nobody knew’.
Al Saeed seems conscious of this. In fact much of the final section is given over to defensive comments that ‘sometimes things do not have to make any sense to be true’.
This awareness points to an authorial sense which suggests that, writing in his mother tongue with more revisions and better editorial support than self-publishing company iUniverse could offer him, Al Saeed might have made much richer capital out of his promising raw material.
It would be interesting to know why he felt he had to opt for a Western setting and for writing in his second language. But then again, given the track record for translating contemporary Bahraini literature into English, perhaps it doesn’t take a genius to work that one out.
QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed (iUniverse, 2004)