Abstract

This interview with veteran Egyptian translator and interpreter Nehad Salem is preceded by an introduction that situates her biography and formation in relation to the key, interconnected international/internationalist forums in which her career unfolded. A dedicated Third Worldist, Salem participated in crucial events of the liberation period, including the resistance in Port Said during the Suez War, and taught in Algeria in the wake of decolonization. Spotlighting her work in institutions such as the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization, the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, and UNESCO, the interview addresses issues of gender and agency in relation to the translator/interpreter, and the poetics and politics of literary translation. The interview traces details about the literary history of the liberation period through Salem's work in the journal Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings, edited by, among others, the Egyptian writer Edwar al-Kharrat, and her translations of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the Egyptian poet Salah Jahin.

Introduction

“The Spirit of Bandung”—a motto that encapsulates the vigorously mobilizing project of the moment of liberation.1 If the 1955 Asian-African Conference, or Bandung, officially launched the “Third World as an idea,” that idea had a prehistory, for instance in the first conference of the League against Imperialism in Brussels, held in 1927, and the 1949 Conference of the Women of Asia in Beijing.2 Against the backdrop of the Cold War and despite its inevitable impingements, the Bandung conference staged an encounter, in the Third World itself, among representatives of twenty-nine newly decolonized Asian and African states, with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and Indonesian president Sukarno playing leading roles. The conference upheld the ideals of anti-imperialism, self-determination, resistance to racism, cooperation among participating countries, disarmament, and world peace. The ten-point “Declaration on the Promotion of World Peace,” with which the conference's Final Communiqué closes, was “in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”3

Earlier, key players from countries in the process of decolonization had helped shape the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Recent scholarship has “nuanced” the account that primarily accords central credit to Eleanor Roosevelt and the French legal scholar René Cassin for the idea and design of the UDHR, by suggesting that “a wide range of participants outside the Western bloc,” including Indians and Egyptians, “made significant contributions to the construction of the most elemental international standard of human rights, and [that] they were aware at the time of the significance of their words and deeds.”4 Bandung and a series of meetings and forums in various ways descended from it “rehearsed the major arguments within the Third World project so that they could take them in a concerted way to the main stage, the United Nations.” Among the gains secured on that stage, one of the most significant was pressuring “the United Nations to create institutional platforms for their Third World agenda: the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNICTAD).”5

The variously overlapping conferences and forums that followed on the heels of Bandung include the First Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference in Cairo (1957–58) and the First Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Tashkent (1958), foundational events for the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization (AAPSO) and the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association (AAWA), respectively. The Cairo Declaration made at the 1957–58 conference affirmed AAPSO's adherence to Bandung's ten-point “Declaration on the Promotion of World Peace,” and asserted that the “Afro-Asian peoples . . . want to work together and to help each other in order to struggle for the welfare of the Afro-Asian peoples as well as that of the whole of human kind.”6 Undertaking a variety of acts of solidarity, particularly in countries still under colonial rule, AAPSO shared aims with its sister organization, AAWA, which worked in a more specifically cultural and literary key. The establishment of these two institutions was followed by the Non-Aligned Conference in Belgrade (1961), which inaugurated the Non-Aligned Movement; and the Tricontinental, or First Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America in Havana (1966), which established the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

All these forums—with the idea of the Third World at their core—call for less top-down, more culturally oriented scholarship, of the kind that has begun to be produced recently. Narratives that foreground leaders are inadequate to account for the diffusion and enactments of the idea of the Third World. What is required, as I have suggested elsewhere, is scholarship attuned to “unregistered minutiae,” “accounts of hushed debates” in conference corridors, and the “marginalia of actors” in order to recapture “something of the quotidian agency” of the Afro-Asian as well as of other internationalisms of the period.7 The critically unremarked memoirs, and memories, of less visible administrators in such institutions are one place to look; another related, and virtually unexplored, area in which to seek out the agency of actors in that project is in the work of the translators and interpreters, who are essential to the machinery of international and internationalist forums.8 A hinge between prominent figures and cadres of employees, translators and interpreters have access to off-the-record or in camera negotiations, shoulder a heavy burden of (linguistic, occasionally bordering on diplomatic) mediation in sometimes fraught situations that might put them at risk, and develop hands-on expertise in the politics of translation. Long before “Arabic was introduced as an official language of the UN on 18 December 1973,” it had become “a language of international conferences as early as 1955 with Nasser's leadership at the Bandung Conference.”9

Both AAPSO and AAWA were premier forums for the formation of cadres of translators/interpreters, many of them graduates of literature departments, a few even working with all three of the official languages of the two institutions, Arabic, English, and French. That a quite substantial number of the translators/interpreters were women complicates long-standing and long since critiqued (Western) gendered metaphors for translations as “les belles infidèles” and “translators [as] handmaidens to authors.”10 The Afro-Asian movement involved support for women, evidenced in conferences—such as the Afro-Asian Women's Conference (Cairo, 1961)—and awards to female writers. The positionality and everyday practices of female translators/interpreters in AAPSO and AAWA thus offer occasions for probing the Afro-Asian movement's discourse on women.11 AAWA's most lasting legacy, in my view, is undoubtedly its trilingual quarterly Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings—issued in Arabic, English, and French starting in 1968—which supported the emergence of an anti-Eurocentric mode of literary comparatism among Third World countries, all the more remarkable for featuring interventions on translation and language politics by writers and intellectuals.12 Tracing the practices of translators involved in the workaday production of the journal promises valuable insights into the translational issues and relevant editorial policies they negotiated on the job in relation to published discussions of the subject.

Nehad Salem (b. 1933) served for several years as a translator and interpreter in both AAPSO and AAWA in Cairo. Undoubtedly, one of the two institutions’ most exceptionally gifted translators, particularly of literature, Salem has long been an actor in the production of the idea of the Third World. Not unlike several translator-colleagues of hers in the movement, Salem comes from an elite background. She is part Turco-Circassian upper-class on her mother's side, and her father, Ahmad Salem, is credited with being one of the first Egyptian aviators and with having founded the film production company Studio Misr at the behest of the nationalist economist Tal‘at Harb. Her formation—the solid grounding in European languages/literatures gradually followed by increasing competence in literary Arabic, partly acquired in the Afro-Asian context—is virtually identical to that of several translator-interpreter colleagues of hers I interviewed. In this sense, among others, the Afro-Asian movement offered its actors something of a Bildung.

Salem conjoins her translational practice with a politicized praxis spanning a broad spectrum of Third Worldist solidarity beyond her involvement in the Afro-Asian movement. In the introduction to her highly accomplished English translation of the Egyptian poet Salah Jahin's Ruba‘iyyat (quatrains) written in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, she describes the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt as “a time of miracles and a time for miracles,” a time when education became available to all, when the country supported “many a new independent African state” and worked to secure Arab unity.13 Together with her second husband, ‘Ali al-Shalaqani, a lawyer and “very devoted militant,” in her words, Salem joined the popular resistance during the Suez War. A response to President Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, the war waged by England, France, and Israel against Egypt in 1956 initially resulted in an Egyptian military defeat, the bombardment of the canal zone, and landing of French and British troops. This was followed by a forceful resistance and a diplomatic victory. While many women, as well as several different groups in Egypt, joined the resistance, aided by the Egyptian military, alongside the people of Port Said, Salem and her husband participated under the banner of the communist party they belonged to, HADETU (the Arabic acronym for the Democratic Movement for National Liberation).14 This was also a period of strong Egyptian solidarity, at the government level as well as on the left, with the Algerian struggle for independence. Several Cairo-based representatives of the Algerian revolution received support from the militant Lotfallah Soliman, whose bookshop and publishing house, Dar al-Nadim, were among the hubs for their cause; indeed, al-Shalaqani would issue his book Thawrat al-Jaza'ir (The Algerian Revolution) under the Dar al-Nadim imprint.15

After working at AAPSO and AAWA for a spell, Salem would interpret at a variety of notable forums, including the (then) Organization of African Unity and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Both of the Afro-Asian institutions unflaggingly championed the Palestinian cause; among AAWA's Lotus Prize winners were Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani, and Lotus prominently and regularly featured Palestinian texts. It is no wonder that Salem received full support from both AAPSO and AAWA whenever she took time off to do pro bono interpreting for the PLO. Having worked for a few years at the African Football Confederation, Salem would begin interpreting at the United Nations, later specifically at UNESCO, where she served as interpreter from the mid-1970s into the 1980s. This was a stretch in which two consecutive Directors-General of UNESCO—the French René Maheu (1962–74) and the Senegalese Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow (1974–87)—were known for their support of the Third World.

In person, Salem (known as “Nana” to family and friends) has a commanding presence and impeccable, rather emphatic elocution in Arabic (interspersed with quaint locutions, such as the title Bey), French, and (Oxbridge-tinged) English. The text below, radically abridged and redacted for reasons of space, draws on three face-to-face interviews in Egypt and some telephone calls—conducted largely in Egyptian colloquial Arabic and some English, punctuated with moments of code-switching—between 2017 and 2019.

Hala Halim:On the phone, you mentioned that you never compiled a CV. Would you provide a biographical note on yourself?

Nehad Salem: It used to be the case in Egypt that translation was taught only at al-Alsun [school of translators, later included as a faculty in Ain Shams University]; in the past, universities took no interest in teaching translation. Later al-Alsun also offered training in interpreting. I'm one of those people who received their training in translation on the job. I was fortunate thanks to my parents. My mother was very keen that I should receive a French education, whereas my father wanted me to receive an English education. When they separated, I played a game of tennis between French and English schools, with three years of one followed by three years of the other—which was very beneficial, the happenstance that allowed me to be proficient in two European languages.

I studied English literature at the American University in Cairo [AUC], and I also took all the Arabic literature courses on offer. And then I obtained my BA, and I went on to do my MA. Politically speaking, I'm seen as progressive, or left-leaning. During the 1967 War, when I was completing my MA, I enjoyed good relations with my American professors. I solicited their signatures on a statement condemning Israel. However, AUC essentially said, thank you very much, but we do not permit politicization on campus (which is perfectly normal), so you should take unpaid leave. I was doing my MA on a scholarship, since I couldn't travel abroad because I had two children; I enrolled in university after my children started going to kindergarten.

HH:This is when you first started working as a translator at AAPSO, right?

NS: It [translation work] began in the Afro-Asian. When I left AUC, I worked for AAPSO, first, because it promoted issues that I believe in and second, because it was the institution where there were the most openings for translators. When I first joined AAPSO, it was as a translator and not as an interpreter. But at AAPSO I received encouragement from the late writer Edwar [Idwar] al-Kharrat, may he rest in peace, who supervised the secretariat. One day, the chief interpreter fell ill, so al-Kharrat ordered me—didn't ask but ordered me—to fill in. I was very reluctant because the job was what they call “consecutive” interpreting; it was the first time in my life I'd do this work, and on stage, after Youssef el Sebai [Yusuf al-Siba‘i; Egyptian military man, writer and secretary-general of both AAPSO and AAWA]. Frankly, I found that it was not such a difficult task, and Mr. al-Kharrat encouraged me. So I worked as an interpreter in all the AAPSO conferences, which allowed me to visit India, Pakistan—before the troubles—all of Africa, and so on.

HH:So you started working at Lotus, published by AAWA, as soon as it was founded. Would you give a sense of the cadre of translators at AAWA, especially the journal, and their ideological positions? Was there a sense of commitment to a cause, or was it about earning a living?

NS: I was permanent staff at AAPSO, working among a handful of permanent translators/interpreters. There were no permanent translators at AAWA. Al-Kharrat would call upon some of us from AAPSO, those who had aptitude. Whenever there were conferences abroad, he'd also enlist freelancers. No, I doubt it [that there was a sense of commitment], apart from al-Kharrat, who was originally a leftist, a Trotskyist, and me—the rest, forget it!

HH:At Afro-Asian conferences, did translators/interpreters experience any political pressures? What about Soviet pressure, the Sino-Soviet split, and so on? How did these affect the two institutions, AAWA and AAPSO?

NS: Don't forget that Youssef el Sebai, may he rest in peace, could hardly be considered a leftist. [Laughter.] No, there were no pressures of any kind. The idea originated in Bandung; it [the Afro-Asian movement] adhered to the demands of Bandung, working toward the rapprochement of the peoples of the Third World. It is perhaps to its credit that, at this first stage after Bandung, something came out of Bandung, even if a small tree. But I cannot say AAWA played a political role. The Soviet Union was represented in it, but no, they did not manipulate—absolutely not. People who worked there were all leftists—or a large portion of them were leftists, or past-leftists, or present-leftists. So of course that influence showed; but we cannot consider it pressure at all. They [the editors of Lotus, one of whom was al-Kharrat] were inclined to accept works that reflect the principle on which the organization was founded, but I cannot say that was exclusively the case—there were love poems, short stories about unrelated themes.

HH:Were there discussions with the translators in the Afro-Asian context about how to go about translating, or was it simply practice?

NS: No, al-Kharrat made a really big effort with the translators to make sure the translation was sound. His Arabic was very beautiful, may he rest in peace, and I can aver that I learned many things from him. I used to translate from French into English and English into French, because I didn't write in Arabic—I often wrote in French, or in English.

HH:But you also translated from Arabic into English, right? You worked with the three languages.

NS: Yes. I still remember the time al-Kharrat gave me a dressing down for an error [in Arabic] in the declension of the feminine sound plural in an object position!

HH: Afro-Asian Poetry: An Anthology, the volume you co-edited with al-Kharrat in Lotus's three languages, was drawn from the journal's pages. But to what extent did the journal receive previously unpublished texts?

NS: There were new texts—poems, short stories, and so on—sent to Lotus so that they'd be translated and would reach a readership. There were people who wrote specifically for Lotus, though not many. And the editors would solicit texts from African and Asian writers. For example, in commemoration of President Nasser, an issue of Lotus carried all the elegies for him, some by Africans, others by Indians and Arabs. I remember the title of [prominent Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish's poem, “al-Rajul Dhu al-Zill al-Akhdar” [“The Man with the Green Shadow”]. I interpreted it simultaneously and then wrote the translation.

HH:That poem has been repeatedly translated since, but your translation remains exceptional. Was the event at which you interpreted it the poetry reading held on the occasion of the Fourth Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in New Delhi in November 1970?

NS: Yes, on that occasion a mushaira [an evening of poetry reading] in memory of Nasser was held in Delhi in a huge theatre that could accommodate hundreds. Nasser was very beloved. He played a very big role in the liberation of several African countries; he helped materially and with infrastructure.

In Delhi, all the Afro-Asian poets who loved Nasser were there to deliver elegies. Darwish was there—this was the occasion of “The Man with the Green Shadow”—and so were [the Palestinian poets] Mu‘in Bisisu and Samih al-Qassim. El Sebai and al-Kharrat chose the Arab poets. I never expected to be asked to do simultaneous interpretation of poetry; I said, show me the poems in advance. But I wasn't shown any of them, except for Darwish's—written for the mushaira—which I saw an hour beforehand.16

HH:You were friends with Darwish, right?

NS: We were very good friends. He had a marvelous sense of humor. Once I pleaded with him, and interceded with the UNESCO people, for him to give a poetry reading in Paris: his recitation was exquisite.

HH:How much latitude were you given in selecting texts you translated for Lotus? For example, was the Palestinian poet May El-Sayegh's poem “Fateh on the Day of Karama” your choice?17

NS: I cannot give you a categorical answer; mostly, I selected the texts I translated, for the simple reason that if you're doing literary translation, you cannot have things imposed on you. They did give me a bit of choice. When the editors would receive new texts, I'd go from Manial [district, where the headquarters of AAPSO is located] to Qasr al-‘Aini Street [where AAWA's offices were located] to choose. If I'd say to Edwar, I don't like this poem, sometimes he let me get away with it, and sometimes he'd force my hand; but [in these cases] I rarely did it.

May El-Sayegh's poem was probably my choice; yes, it would have been one of the texts I was given, probably by Darwish, at the PLO. I used to translate pro bono for the PLO. In the 1970s, I started to work as a freelancer for international agencies and received a UN request to go to Paris to do a simultaneous interpretation exam. All this was on the occasion of Arabic's inclusion in the UN in 1973—because Arabic hadn't at first been one of the UN languages. After the 1973 War, the Arabs called for its inclusion and offered to cover expenses of Arabic translation, on the understanding that the UN would become financially responsible for it afterwards. I attended the UN General Assembly of 1974, at which Yasser Arafat [then PLO Chairman] delivered his historic speech, “The Gun and the Olive Branch.” An amusing incident occurred on that occasion. I'd be seated in the English booth; and, as you know, there are always two interpreters in the booth. But since Arabic wasn't yet established, I'd sit behind the two interpreters just outside the booth and the minute the announcement of an Arabic speech would be made, I'd have to leap to get past the two of them. It was very awkward. In any case, the chief interpreter was asked to select an interpreter for Arafat's speech, and he nominated yours truly. Two hours later, the people from Arafat's delegation went back to him and said, we feel that, since Yasser Arafat is an Arab political personality, to have English-language listeners hear his speech in a woman's voice is not appropriate! The chief interpreter laughingly asked me if I could make my voice deeper to sound like a man, and I said, alas, no. First of all, the text of the speech was already translated by Arafat's delegation, so it was actually an exercise in reading, and there was no room anyway for revision and improvement. They had a male colleague—let's not name names—read it out. And because he was very tense—since this was Arafat's first visit to the United States, his first time in the UN, and Jewish demonstrators were waiting outside the building for the Arab delegations, to get at them—he was one paragraph faster than Arafat. This is just to say: a man's voice, a woman's voice—what's the point?

HH:As a female translator/interpreter in international forums, were you often exposed to such discriminatory behavior, or is it your sense that this was an exception?

NS: An exception, of course. Never did any head of state . . . I interpreted for African heads of state, in France, in the UN, in the Security Council. It never came up—never. For example, the Security Council is one of the most difficult meetings in the UN because it discusses very sensitive matters, which are sometimes decisions concerning the future of a state. I was always in the Security Council. Never—this was an exception.

HH:You must have a metaphor for translation. What do you compare it to?

NS: No, it's incomparable, because it's a very special job, interpreting.

HH:And translation per se?

NS: No, I don't, and I don't believe that you can have a metaphor for a job. You can say, this carpenter is an artist in his own field, but no job is like another. Also, literary translation is totally different from translation as such. In literary translation, you have to render more than just the meaning of the words. As I said, poetry has four components. If you don't come up with the four components in your translation of poetry, it won't do. It can be very precise. When you read [Persian poet] Omar al-Khayyam, one of the most well-known translations in English—the original Omar al-Khayyam into English—it's poetry. There are several translations that are very beautiful, very interesting, but they are not poetry. There are one or two components that are missing. The components of poetry are: compression, emotion—“recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth put it, but the emotion has stabilized itself and you can now express it—the imagery, and the music.

HH:I saw an article by you in the Guardian about the Suez War.18Would you address your activism, and what led you to become a leftist?

NS: Unfortunately, the Guardian asked for 1,000 words, and this was not enough for the experience. What led [to my becoming a] leftist was the situation of the country. I come from a feudal family. A peasant who passes in front of my uncle's house gets off the donkey out of respect. And there are people who are very rich, and others who are very poor. That was the beginning. And then I had several cousins and friends who were leftists, and I used to see a lot of them. At a very early age—fifteen—I read Marx and Engels; I read some articles and some books by Lenin. And I thought that socialism was a very good idea. A socialistic society—more fairness.

So when the [1956] war broke out, and Egypt was attacked by three countries, I felt it my duty, and so did my husband, to be part of that resistance. And Nasser was intelligent enough—when the army failed—to say, give weapons to the people and let them resist the occupation. Many officers from the intelligence went into Port Said; they organized the resistance there. Then they needed ammunition and information and lots of things. My husband I went to a training camp in Sharqiyya [governorate] for all sorts of people—there were several journalists, several professors—who wanted to take part in the resistance. One day, two people who led and organized the camp came to my husband and told him, listen, we need someone, preferably a woman, to take these things and go into Port Said and deliver them to our people there. And they said, we think that Nehad, your wife, would be willing and capable of this mission, if you would allow it. He said, I will allow it. They got a fisherman on Lake Manzala—he was called Abu Iskandar, Christian—and told him to take me in his boat and deliver me outside the city of Port Said, in a place called ‘Izbat al-Khanazir [Pig Farm]. They gave me two boxes of ammunition and some documents, and said that I was to go to a bookshop in the morning when I reached Port Said to deliver them to a man who was to tell me where I was to go after that.

I took the boat with Abu Iskandar, and we started. I was dressed as a fellaha. I picked up my galabiyya—I had taken normal clothes with me in a bundle—and I went down into the mud with Abu Iskandar to push the boat wherever the lake was too shallow. Finally, we reached ‘Izbat al-Khanazir and headed for the house of one of his colleagues, another fisherman. He put me with his wife and daughters in bed, mud and all, and sat with Abu Iskandar making tea. Anyway, the British soldiers came in, and said, we saw someone coming in. He said, no, I'm here with my brother and my son, inside there's my wife and there are my daughters. So they left. We got up and had tea and British biscuits that the soldiers had given him. Early in the morning, his wife took a basket with chickens inside it, and we put a basket on my head, and put the boxes under this. We walked to Port Said and reached it at seven o'clock in the morning.

When the bookshop opened, I went in without the basket and gave the man the password that they had given me. He said, I don't know anything about that. I told him, listen, I won't go back with what I have, so please listen to me carefully, I'm giving you the password. So he realized that he had to assume the responsibility, and said all right. He got me a horse-drawn carriage, we put the boxes in, and he took me to the people I had to contact. Port Said was divided into two areas, the Arab quarter and the European one. It has always been like that. In order for you to pass into the European area, they used to stamp your hand. I had to change my clothes, so I went to [communist leader] ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Shatla's, and put on a tailleur, and he took me to the next point. We reached a building where I was supposed to stay. There were two French soldiers who saw me going in. One of them said to the other, did you see that girl? The other said, yes, after the curfew, we'll go after her in the apartment. So I decided not to stay there; it was an empty apartment belonging to people who had fled. Since I had gone to Port Said several times when I was a child, because my mother was married to the governor of the Canal, I went to a friend's house. Curfew was at five o'clock. I was at the door of Tante Dawlat at about 4:45 p.m. She was flabbergasted—what I was doing here? I told her, let me in first. My husband, ‘Ali al-Shalaqani, may he rest in peace, joined me a few days later, but he came via land, as a vegetable salesman. And we stayed until the evacuation.

HH:You mentioned having taught in Algeria after decolonization. How did that come about?

NS: That was in the mid-1960s. It started with an invitation to my husband, ‘Ali, and myself to celebrate independence with the Algerians, since we had helped them in Cairo during the struggle for independence. [First president of Algeria Ahmed] Ben Bella intervened with Nasser for the release of three detainees from a concentration camp—my husband, Lotfallah Soliman, and [leftist writer and editor] Lutfi al-Khuli. Ben Bella offered ‘Ali a post in the presidency as an economic and legal advisor. When the children and I caught up with him, the prefect of the capital of Kabylie, Tizi Ouzou, offered me a job in a one-room school, to teach Arabic. The girls over twelve would be seated in one area; another group of students between the ages of eight and twelve would be in another part of the classroom; the youngest ones would be in a different corner. I'd spend an hour with each group teaching them writing. Kabyle used to be a spoken language only. I discovered that the Jesuits—you know, they're very good educators—worked out its grammar. In my spare time at night, I studied Kabyle, which was very interesting. I did informal interpreting for Nasser for about ten minutes when he arrived in Algeria. That was the occasion when the Algerians welcomed him by carrying his car.

HH:Didn't you interpret a speech given by President Ahmed Sékou Touré at a conference in Guinea?

NS: Yes. There had been a storm in a teacup. A dinghy with three foreigners on it, probably gathering intelligence, had been caught in the waters of Guinea. Sékou Touré considered it an attempt at invasion. A year later, on the same date, he convened a conference of Afro-Asian peoples. I was recruited by the World Peace Council whose secretary-general was Mr. Romesh Chandra, alongside some of their permanent interpreters. Egypt sent one delegate to represent it, the then speaker for the parliament.19

HH:It seems you interpreted for Nelson Mandela, too.

NS: That was a conference—unfortunately, I cannot remember the year or the institution—at which Mandela, Fidel Castro, and others gave speeches. On our way out of the hall when it ended, I summoned the courage to say to Mandela, may I please shake your hand? He said, of course, and shook my hand. I was daring and said, may I please kiss you on both cheeks? As he leaned forward, he said, I should have thought of it first.

HH:Would you happen to have photos of yourself at international conferences where you did interpreting?

NS: You know, at these conferences the interpreter is a background figure, an unknown soldier. Once, [later President Anwar] Sadat aggravated me very much. It was in the wake of the [April 1970 Israeli attack on the School of] Bahr al-Baqar incident. An Italian communist politician and [Indian politician and diplomat] Krishna Menon came to Egypt and, with [leftist politician] Khalid Muhi al-Din, went to visit the school and serve as witnesses. A meeting such as this, for example, I'd never accept remuneration for. I traveled with them at four a.m.—I had the flu and was running a temperature. We stopped all over the place in the Delta; each would give a speech and I would interpret. On our way back around midnight or one a.m., I was totally exhausted; everyone was. I'd finished all the Kleenex in the car. Krishna Menon gave me his handkerchief—I kept it. Krishna Menon was a very great personality, of the caliber of Gandhi. He rested his head against a cane he had with him, for something like five minutes. When he looked up, I felt he was ten years younger. I said, what's this miracle? Can you teach me? He said, it's a miracle that took about sixty years of meditation.

Sadat had requested to meet Krishna Menon—not the Italian communist and not Khalid Muhi al-Din. He was told it would be inappropriate not to meet with the other two also. No one [among the interpreters] had Italian, English, and Arabic except me. I went. He spoke with them, and there were questions both ways. And then it was time for photos, so I got up. Usually, when we reach this point, I consider my task done. I heard him [Sadat] saying, with utter impudence, let's not have the woman translator, let's not have a woman in the picture. I said, Your Excellency, if you noticed, I got up to leave.

HH:What was the occasion for this photograph? [Salem was showing a few photos.]

NS: It was a meeting I went to in Palestine. I was [working] at UNESCO—another amusing story. It was a Friday, and my chief interpreter Paul Tolstoy—the nephew of Tolstoy—called me at home in the evening and said, Monday morning there's a meeting with the Director-General of UNESCO, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow. Can you go? He's sending a fact-finding mission to Israel, and I'm sending you as the interpreter. I said, I'm sorry, I can't go. Would you please tell M'Bow that I can't? He said, no, I'm sorry, you go and tell him. I spent a sleepless weekend. On Monday morning, all the members of the mission—[prominent Egyptian intellectual and writer] Taha Hussein's son who was a UNESCO employee, a Spaniard, an Englishman, and a fourth person—and I went into the office of M'Bow. I respected him very much, that man. I said, Monsieur le Directeur, I'd like to speak to you for five minutes. He said, absolutely, Mme Salem, after the meeting. He said to the members of the mission, every year I send a fact-finding mission and receive reports to the effect that all is normal; this year, it's very important that you bring back an investigation of two matters: first, the Judaization of Jerusalem; and second, what is happening in educational institutions, the revisions to curricula and history. I won't have that history erased; it's our responsibility. They left.

I was so tense I burst out crying. I don't usually cry easily, and certainly not in public. M'Bow patted me and said, calmez-vous! I will listen to whatever you have to say. And he gave me his handkerchief—it seems I was destined to borrow handkerchiefs, once for the flu, and another time for tears! I said, first, my son-in-law, a beautiful human being who's like a son to me, was killed in the 1973 War; second, I am pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, and all the Palestinians you hear about are my friends. I belong to a party in Egypt [al-Tagammu‘] that, bluntly put, is leftist and boycotts Israel. I said, I know I've signed a contract [with UNESCO], and I'm ready to relinquish the job, but I cannot go to Israel. He said, now that I've listened to you, hear me out. I'd like you to contact your Paris-based Palestinian friends and run the idea by them. They may be able to propose names of people who do not feature on the list of people that the Israelis have prepared for the committee to meet with. I'll give instructions that the committee meet with the people you name. If your Palestinian friends say that going may be useful, then go; if they say don't, then don't; and forget about the contract, there will be no consequences.

I was very touched, of course. I did in fact contact my Palestinian friends and they all said, of course you should go. I traveled on my UN passport.

HH:When you look back at the liberation era and the UN's role in the Third World in light of all that is unfolding today, would you say it was all in vain?

NS: The UN, or rather the League of Nations . . . was supposed to be for the purpose of putting an end to all wars. Most unfortunately, it was the beginning of dividing up wars into smaller wars, all of them in the interest of the West—all. Africa, Arab countries—I could say I've been in the kitchen of the UN, which is the General Assembly and the Security Council, in the most difficult times, including the time I vowed I would never return to New York—after what was done to Iraq in 2003. I interpreted for the Security Council at the time and then spoke to the chief interpreter; I said to her, don't request my services again because international politics have taken a very obvious path. It had a very bad psychological effect on me, and my blood pressure rose during the Security Council sessions.

HH:And what of the period of Third Worldism—ending roughly in the early 1990s—in which you were a participant?

NS: It was very promising, and it is very sad that it has come to an end without achieving what we hoped for our countries. But with a little bit of optimism, we can consider it a period of rehearsal. We will not be there to witness it, but we hope that the younger generation will continue what we began.

HH:What are your current plans and literary translations?

NS: I've written my autobiography, in both French and English, and am editing it. I wrote it not as me personally, but as a witness to an age. I've also started translating poems by [Egyptian colloquial poet] ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi. I should mention my other translations—including Cynthia Nelson's Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart. The word “apart” gave me trouble—I rendered it as mukhtalifa [different], on the grounds that she differed with Nasser; and mukhtalifa carries the sense of apart.

Salah Jahin was a very dear friend, very intimate. He had shown me the first of the Ruba‘iyyat [quatrains] he wrote. To this day, I remember the first one I read [recites it in Arabic]. I loved it so much, I translated it into English then and there, while we were together:

I with the impossible fell madly in love,
Saw the moon in the sky and jumped up above—
Reached it or not, what do I care?
The ecstasy was in the love affair.

He liked it so much he sent it to the New Yorker, and they published it. And he said, you really must translate all my Ruba‘iyyat. I'd promise and break my word—the job, travel, and so on. When he died, I felt I must fulfil my promise. I translated all the Ruba‘iyyat. And then there's my translation of Gamal al-Ghitani's short story, “Ma Jara li-Ard al-Wadi,” as “Chronicles of What Happened in the Valley,” for Peuples Méditerranéens.20 The editor asked me to do it in twenty-four hours. I'd like to retranslate it someday. Words are very important. As the Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Acknowledgements

I thank Nehad Salem for reading and fact checking the interview. Some additional information about interpretation from and into Arabic in international forums was obtained from Hossam Fahr, Egyptian novelist and former chief of the United Nations Interpretation Service.

Notes

1.

Eslava, Fakhri, and Nesiah, “The Spirit of Bandung,” 6; see also Prashad, Darker Nations, 45. Salem's family name may be transliterated as Salim, and her first name sometimes appears in print as Nihad. I reproduce the spelling of certain names as they have been rendered in print in Latin letters.

2.

Prashad, Darker Nations, xvii, 16–30, quotation from 13; Armstrong, “Before Bandung.” 

8.

I draw here on my two presentations, “Lotus Journal” and “Translating the Afro-Asian.” 

9.

Hossam Fahr, email communication, August 6, 2019.

13.

HSalem, “Introduction,” n.p. A shorter version of Salem's translation of this collection was first published by Elias Modern Publishing House in 1988.

14.

See ‘Ashmawi, “al-Muqawama al-Sha‘biyya,” esp. 361, on Salem, al-Shalaqani, and their comrades.

15.

See al-Shalaqani, Thawrat al-Jaza'ir. Information drawn from a telephone interview, April 28, 2019, with leftist literary critic Ibrahim Fathi, who worked as an editor and translator at Dar al-Nadim in the 1950s. Soliman was also associated for a while with the avant-gardist group Art et liberté. See Halim, “Scope for Comparatism,” 438–40.

16.

See Darwich, “The Man with the Green Shadow” [trans. Nihad Salem; name omitted], and Darwish, “The Man with the Green Shadow,” trans. Salem, in Afro-Asian Poetry. On this mushaira event, see al-Kharrat, Tabarih al-Waqa'i‘ wal-Junun, 96; and Halim, “The Pre-postcolonial,” 90.

19.

This would have been in 1971, and the chief Egyptian representative would have been Rif‘at al-Mahjub. See Touré, Address of President Ahmed Sekou Toure. This text, which carries no translator's name, may have been Salem's translation, based on her interpretation of the speech. In 1971, two texts by Ahmed Sékou Touré were published in Lotus: the essay “Three Concepts of Theatre” and the poem “Man of Africa,” the latter being in Salem's translation.

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