Literary Translation
Jonas Lüscher in Cairo: When author and translator join forces

Lüscher in Kairo
© Goethe-Institut

The Swiss author Jonas Lüscher and his Arabic translator Moataz al-Maghawari spent five days end of September to clear up last questions about the philosophical, political and cultural context of Lüscher's recent novel "Kraft" and to fine-tune the style of the Arabic translation.
A workshop report by Isis Elsherbini

Jonas Lüscher’s sophisticated, philosophical text is about Richard Kraft, a professor of rhetoric, who not only must face the ruins of his marriage, but financial ruin as well. When his old friend István, a professor at Stanford University, sends him an e-mail invitation to participate in an essay competition that promises a million dollar reward for the winner, he sees a chance to solve all of his problems in one fell swoop.
His task: find the best answer to the old theodicy question: How can evil exist in the world when there is an almighty and benevolent God? Lüscher's protagonist, Kraft, is an intellectual in the midst of a midlife crisis, a brooder who has a most idiosyncratic view of things. With a mixture of tragic solemnity and biting irony, "Kraft" inspires the reader to question one’s own convictions and to reflect on the central problem of the novel and underlying concepts of divine omnipotence, human existence, good and evil.

Jonas Lüscher was awarded the Swiss Book Prize in 2017 for his multidimensional novel. In the same year, the rights to publish the Arabic translation went to Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing in Cairo. Through the initiative of the publishing house and with the support of the Litrix program of the Goethe-Institut and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, Jonas Lüscher spent a week in Cairo at the end of September 2018 to work on the Arabic translation of "Kraft" together with his Arabic translator Dr. Moataz al-Maghawari, Lecturer in German at the Faculty of Linguistics at Ain Shams University, and Al Arabi's team headed by publishing director Sherif Bakr.

This five-day workshop offered not only a crucial step for the translator Moataz al-Maghawari to perfect the Arabic translation of "Kraft”. The discussions, which were held in German and English, aided in parsing the linguistic and cultural richness of the novel for a wider audience.

The first day began with a discussion with the author of the basic translation strategy, before dealing with a number of pivotal and particularly difficult passages in the novel. Questions included the novel's title "Kraft" and the word’s relationship to the main character, as well as the philosophical theories underlying the discussion of the competition question in the novel. References to the political history of Germany also were examined. The expert, Dr. Samar Mounir, Lecturer for German language at the Faculty of Linguistics of the Ain Shams University, also took part in this discussion.

On the following day, a wider circle focused on challenging passages and their transferability to Arabic culture.  Several lecturers from Ain Shams University, in particular Dr. Ola Adel, who translated Jonas Lüscher’s literary debut, “Spring of the Barbarians", were invited as experts to this second round of discussions.

On the third day, the al-Arabi team read central chapters of the novel together with Jonas Lüscher in German, English and Arabic to assess the accuracy and quality of the translation into Arabic. Lobna Diab, Project Coordinator in the Information and Library Department of the Goethe-Institut Cairo, also took part in this reading. At the end of the session, Lüscher gave an interview to journalist Aisha Elmaraghy of the newspaper Akhbar al-Adab.

The fourth day dealt primarily with checking the quotations heading the individual chapters. The meaning of the quotations for German and Arabic readers was also discussed. Lüscher mentioned that the rights to use one of these quotations had cost him 2000 dollars. At the end of the workshop day, Lüscher gave an interview to Nedal Mamdouh of the newspaper al-Dustour. They discussed the reception by Arabic readers of Lüscher's books.

Mamdouh asked whether, for example, Lüscher liked the "chaos" in Egypt. He replied that chaos might also have its advantages compared to the merciless order in other countries such as Switzerland. Afterwards Jonas Lüscher participated in the broadcast, “Haduta Masriya" on Nile Culture, where he spoke with the moderator Ziauddin Hamid - and thanks to the translation by Moataz al-Maghawari – was able to speak about his novel and its Arabic translation. Lüscher said it had been important for him to come to Egypt for these meetings and that it helped clarify the cultural, political and philosophical references in “Kraft” as well as iron out possible misunderstandings: "It's always best if you can do it directly together. That has already paid off very well. You can talk about language, about rhythm and difficult elements like puns for example.” Even if the story seems simple at first, the novel has philosophical dimensions. It’s about "optimism and pessimism", but above all, it deals with the question of the competition, how can God, “who is almighty and at the same time benevolent, allow suffering in the world.”

On the fifth and final day, the author, translator and the Al Arabi team worked on the stylistic subtleties of the translation to ensure that the Arabic comes as close as possible to the original and that the text also works for the Arabic target culture. This joint effort has brought a demanding and intensive translation process to a happy end. The Arabic translation of "Kraft" will be published at the end of 2018, and will be available in time for the International Book Fairs in Jeddah (26.12.2018 - 05.01.2019) and in Cairo (23.01 - 05.02.2019) and thereafter in all Arabic countries.
Translated by Zaia Alexander