AUTHOR:MARJOLIJN DE JAGER
TITLE:Translating Assia Djebar's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement: Listening for the Silence
SOURCE:World Literature Today v70 p856-8 Aut '96

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    For the translator of Assia Djebar's writing, the ear must be(come) most instrumental "tool," for there is more involved here--more so than with other literary texts--than interpreting the meaning of words, images, phraseology alone, than resurrecting the sound of a different tongue into one's own (which may or may not be one's first, native language): there is the necessity of being continuously aware of the meaning of Djebar's silences, which also implies the necessity of seeking to understand the meaning of silence in general. The silences, whether they be forms of "severed sound" or of willfully chosen muteness, more often than not are filled with looks, woman absorbing with her eyes what lies outside of her only to make it her own.
    Djebar, who started out as a historian, is also a filmmaker, has done much research in music ("passionate about ancient songs"), listens to the oral histories of women, particularly of the older Berber women, and in her writing reflects all of this: sound spoken and sung, sound unspoken and unsung, and whatever the eye sees, which includes the eye of the other returning the gaze. In an interview which forms part of Clarisse Zimra's "Afterword" to Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, Djebar states: "The prior film experience ... brought to my writing a moviemaker's gaze. Film gave my writing a vision; French became my camera" (WA, 174).
    As in a symphony, themes are established early, then intertwine, are given to the various instruments in turn, move away from each other, come back together again, brought to a close often within a deep translucent silence, one of those ombres translucides ("shadows translucent") that, although in quite a different context, opens the story "Day of Ramadan" (WA, 119). Women are silent, grow silent, prefer to remain silent, speak under their breath, their voices break, women weep, disappear out of a room to weep alone, they disappear into their silence, they listen to one another's silences--"I was listening to Mother avoid answering" ("There Is No Exile," WA, 71)--or would like to speak but haven't found the words (yet): "To tell the truth, even if I'd known, what could I have answered?" (73-74). Heard or unheard, sounded or silent, women's voices are the instruments that play the symphony.
    Djebar's voice speaks not for herself alone but for all Arabic women, all silenced women, and in the end for all women. Her voice sounds across cultures and time, across histories and continents; hers is truly a universal voice. In the "Overture" to this symphony that is Women of Algiers she writes in the very first sentence that she is "on a journey of listening."

I could have listened to these voices in no matter what
language, nonwritten, nonrecorded, transmitted only by
chains of echoes and sighs.
Arabic sounds ... but always in feminine tones, uttered
from lips beneath a mask.
An excoriated language, from never having appeared in
the sunlight, from having sometimes been intoned, de-
claimed, howled, dramatized, but always mouth and eyes in
the dark.
... Words of the veiled body, language that in turn has
taken the veil for so long a time. (WA, 1; italics in original)

    Djebar herself states in the interview with Zimra that the "Overture" enabled her "to raise the issue of a woman's language, the circulation of woman's voice, my relationship to Arabic, and it helped me define my own kind of feminism" (WA, 175). In the collection of stories, every woman has a voice, for even her silences speak volumes, speak for herself, speak for and of all the generations before her, of those women whose sounds were indeed severed, truly and traditionally imposed by the patriarchy--"confinement and death of she who will not conform" (WA, 205)--or whose sounds were severed again after the Algerian War, despite the fact that during those eight years she was not only permitted nonconformism but encouraged to speak, to act, on behalf of freedom and at the risk of imprisonment, torture, at the risk of her own life. It is almost as if, during that war, she were in reality merely playing a part, being given permission to step onto the stage to play the role of a "liberated" woman who could put on the "costume" of Western dress, who could wear the "wig" of her hair now cut short, who could undertake breathtakingly dangerous and difficult tasks, who could socialize with men openly and unveiled, who could speak and act because the script called for it. Once the tragedy had been played out, she was to get out of costume, cover her face once again, and return to within the interior walls of her father's or her husband's home, thereby also returning to silence, the silence imposed by the same men who had called for her solidarity and help during the years of war.

In Women of Algiers, every human experience, even the
social experience, must be explored through the body.
There is simply no other way for women whose society,
enforcing female modesty and its corresponding taboo on
verbal expression, has denied them access to any lan-
guage other than that of the flesh. The female flesh has
its specific drives as both lived reality and transcenden-
tal symbol. It functions as a metaphor for that other,
nonsubjugated female self that language, the preserve
of men, cannot access. (Zimra, "Afterword," WA, 206;
italics mine)

    Not only is woman neither to be seen nor heard, to be appropriated in every way, to move around ghostlike, fully veiled when outside, sequestered when inside, but she is to be silent everywhere. It leaves women with nothing but one another, and other women are then the only ones with whom and upon whom she can begin to experiment with the sound of her own voice. Among Djebar's characters this will be done falteringly for some, passionately for others. It is this that becomes the ultimate challenge for the translator of her work: the silences between the lines, the pauses between the notes, the downcast eye between the open gazes, the quiet that follows the death of a woman of earlier generations and lies between it and the birth of her great-granddaughter who will water and tend the centuries-old memory of woman.
    Two years before Women of Algiers was published, Djebar was making her first film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. In "Femme arable I" from Vaste est la prison (1995) she describes the first take (the first scene she had ever shot in her life): "A man in a wheelchair, come to a halt on the threshold of a bedroom, is watching his wife who lies sleeping there ... the immobilized husband is watching from afar. He cannot enter the room: there are two steps up that prevent his wheelchair from moving forward" (VP, 173). The camera then becomes the eyes of the husband, turning ever so slowly around the bed, dancing the "dance of helpless [impotent] desire," as she calls it.

I said the word "Action." I was overcome by a new
emotion. As if, together with me, every woman in every
harem had whispered: "Action." ... From here on in,
their gaze is the only gaze important to me....
You cannot exist outside: the street is theirs, the
world is theirs. Theoretically you have equal rights, but
"inside" only, confined, in your own quarters. Incarcer-
ated....
All of us, all of us who come from the world of
women in the shadows, are turning the direction
around: at last it is we who are looking, we who are
making a beginning.

    The ear of the writer and the "musicologist," the historian's insights across centuries, the intense emotional and physical awareness of shared woman-hood are completed through the eye of the filmmaker. Women of Algiers "is about looking," is about women looking, as is Vaste est la prison, Djebar told me in an informal interview last year (March 1995). For her translator, a European-born and -raised Dutch woman who has spent most of her adult life in the United States, the greatest difficulty lies in not having seen what Djebar has seen, and never with the same eyes, in not having heard the silences and sounds Djebar has heard, and never with the same ears. Ostensibly we share little, either in experience or in culture. What we do share (besides the year of our birth) is the deep-seated sense of solidarity with women, which goes beyond the question of gender alone. I am convinced, as Djebar has said about women, that there is a knowing we have about each other--if we allow ourselves to be open to it--that supersedes cultures and borders, race and religion. Yes, that supersedes even gender, though this may well be the weightiest of all the obstacles.
    In A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, a book of great beauty and eloquence as well as of historical and emotional power, Susan Griffin writes:

I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that
all history, including the history of each family, is part
of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a se-
cret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about
the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made sud-
denly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of un-
spoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like
stones; our own history and the history of the world
embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and
cannot weep until that history is sung. (8)

    The "unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth" is what Assia Djebar lays bare in everything she writes, whether those truths come out in images of almost crystalline lyric beauty, in harsh and unforgiving dialogue, in terrifying dream sequences, in grave biblical allusions, in sections of historical scholarship, or in the tender and gentle gestures of women alone with one another, women who feel far more strongly than "the wish to be integrated into a patriarchal society ... the terror of severance from a primal female bond that, obliterating time and history, transcends the political," as Zimra states in her "Afterword" (WA, 201).
    In the title story that opens Women of Algiers Sarah remembers her time in prison during the Algerian War, remembers that she heard of her mother's death while she was in prison. She is recalling all this out loud to her French friend Anne; the Western woman Anne who also "was listening," who "during the pauses didn't say anything, was even careful not to budge" as Sarah describes her mother's life.

"My dead mother.... Her life in which nothing
happened. One tragedy only: she had me, no other
child, no son, no one else. She must have lived in fear
of being repudiated then, I suppose. I didn't think of
that until later, after she died, while my cell mates were
trying to console me.... It was as if my mother, seated
and motionless, had joined me in prison. Before, at
home, in the big low house we had in the suburbs, she
would be silent and work all day long. She never
stopped. She'd scrub her kitchen; when everything was
done, she'd soap down the flagstones, the walls, she'd
air the mattresses, wash the blankets again. She's pol-
ish and clean and scrub....
... Every evening when my father came home, my
mother would arrive carrying a copper bowl full of hot
water and she'd wash his feet. Meticulously.... That's
how my mother died: silently, following a simple chill. I
understood then that she would never have her re-
venge. And I was truly unable to accept it." (WA,
48-49)

    These are the truths that have been unspoken and that must, at last, be heard. Surely it is not a "reading into" when we hear Djebar's voice speaking through Sarah's words a little later on in the same story.

"For Arabic women I see only one single way to un-
block everything: talk, talk without stopping, about yes-
terday and today, talk among ourselves, in all the wom-
en's quarters, the traditional ones as well as those in the
housing projects. Talk among ourselves and look. Look
outside, look outside the walls and the prisons!" (WA,
50)

    It is a call to refusal to be victimized. Djebar's women will not feel excluded from the world because they are forced to hide behind veils. No, they will start to use the slit in the veil as a camera, as an observer of that very world that is incapable of seeing them. And when the images have been laid down, the sounds and silences recorded, the film replayed inside their heads, they will articulate what they have seen and heard, they will speak for themselves, they will sing themselves and they will sing one another. And they will write what they have seen and felt and heard. The "history embedded in us" will be sung at last because the sorrow can be wept. And they too will "speak for a personal freedom that would liberate women and men from the shackles of tradition, wherever and whenever these features hinder their mental and physical well-being" ("Afterword," WA, 211), as Assia Djebar has been doing throughout her work, as she continues to do today, thereby enriching each one of us.
    Re-creating the words and the silences of Djebar in another language is a translator's most formidable challenge. It is, for me, also one of the great enchantments and privileges that the art of translation--all too rarely!--brings.
    New York, July 1996
    Added material
    MARJOLIJN DE JAGER is the translator of more than a dozen books by and on francophone writers, including the novels Before the Birth of the Moon and The Rift by V. Y. Mudimbe, the novels Loukoum: The Little Prince of Belleville and The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me by Calixthe Beyala, The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman by Ken Bugul, the play The Herd by Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenamanjato, and the prose collection Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar. The last title was honored by the American Literary Translators Association as one of the ten best literary translations of 1992.

ASSIA DJEBAR, CIRCA 1979
       Courtesy: Des Femmes
    When you dive deep enough into experience you come to a place where we share our lives. And so in language there is something underneath our languages which is shared and this is curious, this is subtle, this is a secret and also this is known to all of us.
    Muriel Rukeyser

WBN: 9628900066020