‘I strived to be even more attuned than usual to subtle choices in language.’
Author Adania Shibli and translator Elisabeth Jaquette speak about the 2021 International Booker Prize-longlisted Minor Detail.
Hi Adania, what has it been like to be longlisted?
It allowed me to witness mainly from the reactions that reached me, how much literature, and translated literature, still matters to so many people, and that there are so many people out there reading, discussing and sharing thoughts and impressions around literature.
How would you summarise Minor Detail in one sentence?
How the fragility of language may not be defeated.
Tell us about the two narrators of the book.
I like them, as long as they remained in a book.
How important are minor details to our understanding of past events?
Taking literary writing away from historical writing, and in view of the colonial attacks on the colonised narratives not being ‘verified’ or ‘accurate’, there remains only fiction as a trusted domain for fictional writing. This is on one hand. On the other, one wonders what is left there for the colonised after the multiple destructions they endure, and which could not be included in an archive, or which the coloniser missed seeing, noting, or articulating, and so destroying or appropriating. These can only be unimportant, minor details that emerge within a language, Arabic in the context of Palestine, that is being attacked, deleted, submerged with spelling and grammatical mistakes by Israeli official laws and non-official practices. It is thus expectedly that such minor details emerging linguistically turn as the ultimate realm for writing, to writing a minor text, which is in truth, need to skip the attention of the powerful.
With these thoughts in mind while writing the novel, a close friend of mine directed my attention to the work of micro-historian Carlo Ginzburg. That text examines the potential role for minor details in excavating the truth. So it was amusing that the exact tools I came to realise as necessary for writing fiction away from the non-fiction of history, are also adopted by history itself, albeit a microhistory. After the publication of the book, I also became aware of the work of Saidiya Hartman, which felt like holding my writing hand and soothing it, and the fiction it stubbornly held onto as a way to face the violence of writing non-fiction, of writing history.
Hi Elisabeth, what has it been like to be longlisted?
It’s absolutely thrilling, and a real honour to be longlisted alongside such incredible translators and authors.
What did you enjoy about translating Minor Detail?
How it required me to pay such very close attention. Adania worked on Minor Detail for more than a decade before publishing it, and there is not a word out of place. As the title suggests, the details which one might consider ‘minor’ – a dog barking, shadows moving across sand – are in fact the book’s most constitutive elements. So I strived to be even more attuned than usual to subtle choices in language, and even more precise in how I recreated those elements in English.
How did you adjust the tone to distinguish the book’s two narrators?
The first time I read Minor Detail, the switch between narrators felt so stark it was almost dizzying. With the first narrator I was very careful to use neutral and unembellished language; on the sentence level it could feel almost drab but the cumulative effect creates this quiet tension that I found very unsettling and powerful. The second narrator had such a vivid voice that when reading the Arabic I could immediately hear her in English: her cadence as she rambled, what verbal tics she might use. I must have read the opening pages aloud dozens and dozens of times, trying to get the voice right!
What’s your favourite thing about being a translator?
Readers of international literature are my favourite thing about being a translator. Whenever I’m lucky enough to speak to a reader about a book I’ve translated, I inevitably learn something new about it or see something in a way I hadn’t before – even after living inside the book for months or years while translating it, even after choosing (and likely agonising over!) every single word of the English translation. Realising new dimensions to something I thought I knew inside and out is always a gift.