About a cat…

Since hearing from Said Hassanieh about the post I made concerning “filthy animals“, my interest in finishing reading The Hunger Games in Arabic has been renewed. I started over, this time paying closer attention to the story and how it is being told. This post concern’s Buttercup, a cat Prim rescued and brought home and Katniss was going to drown rather than feed.

As I have said, I aspire to translate literature someday. I know that when I do, any other translator will be able to pick on my work and find little things like this to pick on. When someone does, I will feel like an idiot and question why I ever set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I admire the courage, skill, and artistry of those people who brave the world of literature. I have been impressed by the first by Said Hassanieh’s translation, and once I finish reading through this series I will be picking up some of his other translations. His Arabic is wonderful, clean and easy to read, and very expressive.

That said…

The paragraph introducing Buttercup struck me when I read it. It comes in right at the beginning of the first chapter, and I think it sets a lot of tone for the story. In this chapter we learn the following bits of information about Katniss:

  1. She loves Prim and will give her nearly anything. We don’t know it yet, but the family is subsisting barely above starvation; Katniss hunts and they eat her game to supplement their rations, and Katniss sells anything extra to buy the things they need.
  2. Katniss is in charge. Prim stopped her from drowning the cat and begged to be allowed to keep the cat. Katniss let her, and mom took care of the cat’s health.
  3. Katniss is willing to make hard choices and values things that pay their own way.

I’ll go into a bit more detail after the text especially about why I think these things are important and what happened in the translation.

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named her Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin, and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

جلس أبشع هرّ في العالم على ركبتي بريم، فبدا وكأنه يحرسها. رأيت هذا الهر بخطمه المنتفخ، كان فاقداً لنصف أذن، أما لون عينيه فيمثل لون الكوسى الفاسدة. أطلقت بريم اسم الحوذان على هرّها هذا، وأصرّت على القول إن لون فرائه الأصفر الداكن يماثل لون تلك الزهرة النضرة. يكرهني هذا الهرّ، أو دعني أقول على الأقل إنه لا يثق بي. أظن أنه لا يزال يذكر ذلك اليوم الذي أحضرته بريم إلى المنزل، كان ذلك منذ سنوات عدة، عندما حاولتُ إغراقه في دلو مليء بالمياه. كان هرَاً صغيراً وهزيلاً يمتلئ بطنه بالديدان، وتتنقل البراغيث في أنحاء جسده. كان آخر شيء أحتاج إليههو فم إضافي ملزمة بإطعامه، لكن بريم توسلت إليّ بشدة، وحتى إنها بكت، كي أدعها تبقيه في المنزل، فرضخت لمطلبها. سارت الأمور على ما يرام في ما بعد لأن والدتي تمكّن من من تنظيفه من تلك الحشرات، فبدا وكأنه ولد من جديد، حتى إنه تمكّن من اصطياد الفئران بين الحين والآخر، كما اعتدت أن أطعمه أحشاء الفرائس بعد تنظيفها، لذلك كان يتوقف عن المواء عندما يراني.


Back-translation (translated as though it were an Arabic document, and I am trying to make it read as well in English as I can):

The ugliest cat in the world sat at Prim’s knees. It looked like he was guarding her. I saw this fat-muzzled cat that had lost half an ear, yet its eyes were like the color of rotten zucchini. Prim gave this cat the name of the buttercup, insisting that its dark yellow fur looked like the color of that bright flower. This cat hates me. Or, let me at least say that it has no confidence in me. I think he still remembers that day, when Prim brought him to the house several years earlier, when I tried to drown him in a bucket filled with water. He was a small gaunt cat, his belly full of worms and fleas moving all over his body. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged me, she even cried, so I would let her keep him in the house. I gave in to her request. Things were alright after that because my  mother was able to cleanse him of the vermin. It seemed like he was born again. He was even able to catch mice from time to time, and I used to feed him the entrails of my kills after I cleaned them. That is why he stopped meowing when he saw me.

Alright. Before I start with the critique: the first time I read the Arabic was well over a year after I read the English. The cat is not a major character in the story, though he has some value (as I listed above). The larger part of that value is retained in the translation – it was an ugly little sick kitten that Katniss had tried to kill but ended up letting Prim keep it (showing Katniss was in charge, not mom). It is in the last couple of sentences where some of the impact is lost, and that is where my focus is going to be. Keep in mind that this is a bit of foreshadowing; the cat will be taking over Katniss’ role as guardian and a hunter when she goes off to fight in the Hunger Games.

One major note: This novel, in English, is written in the first person, present tense. This voice is generally used to make the reader feel as though they are going through the experience with the narrator. I haven’t read enough Arabic literature to know the justification (do Arab authors avoid that voice?), but the translator changed the whole thing to first person, past tense. Is this a big deal? I do not know, but I feel like I need to find out, especially if I ever plan on translating an Arabic novel into English – or if, someday, I stick my neck way out and translate an English book into Arabic. Why? Well, here is the question. If I find a sci-fi or fantasy novel written in Arabic in the first person and past tense, would it be appropriate to change it to the present tense in English? It is a global decision that impacts the entire work.

The physical description of Buttercup is alright. I could argue about fat (the Arabic) vs. mashed-in; but since I am not a native speaker of Arabic, I can’t be sure that this is not the perfect word to describe the shape of a cat’s muzzle for those breeds that have flat faces, like Lizzy here:

Red Persian

Were the assignment mine, I think I would try to find a cat fancy web forum in the Arab world and see if there is a technical name for it, or (more appropriately) a nickname that pokes fun at this look.

Buttercup. That’s what Prim (named after a flower herself) names the cat. In my translation below, I’ll show you how I would have done it differently; but the short version is that I feel the definite article doesn’t belong. By making “buttercup” (الحوذان) definite, it changes the structure from an indirect object (Prim named the cat…) to a possessive noun construct (Prim gave the cat the name of the…). The easiest fix would have been to put the name in quotes, but one of the many things that makes me a fan of Hassanieh’s work is that he avoids all of those cheap tricks and writes in a very clean style that is easy on the eyes.

Alright. I’m going to stipulate the rest of the description, and Prim’s pleading, Katniss caving in, and mom healing. The translation is very solid and keeps all of the points and impact that the author is expressing.

The next thing I take issue with is the cat being “born again”. This is a case where I think the translator simply misunderstood the English. Buttercup was “a born mouser”. This means he was a natural hunter of mice, driven by instinct, and that he was good at it. Good enough that from time to time he caught a rat (much larger and generally more inclined to fight back than a mouse). I think it is important to get this phrase right because of what it shows us about Katniss’ character. She can make hard decisions; as a hunter she regularly kills and cleans animals, and she was prepared to euthanize this bedraggled cat. She has a soft heart; she gave in to Prim’s pleas. She has deep appreciation of people (and cats) that are able to pull their own weight in the family – this attitude is further explored in her conflicted love/anger at her mother, who has a gift as a healer but let the living family down when her husband died. And again, the cat is going to be filling her shoes as hunter/protector soon.

These things are first hinted at in this innocent little description of the cat, so I think it is important to get it right. The cat hates Katniss – or at least, doesn’t trust her. Katniss recognizes the cat’s value, both emotional (Prim loves it) and intrinsic (as a fellow hunter), so she starts to feed the cat the parts of her game that the people won’t eat. This brings us to another place that I think the translator missed the point. Katniss feeds the cat entrails, and now it doesn’t hiss at her. The Arabic says it stops “meowing” (المواء). A hiss and a meow are two very different things, as anyone who has spent any time with cats knows. A cat will meow for basic communication. Hungry, lonely, looking for a mate, maybe trapped or hurt. Hissing, on the other hand, shows anger and a readiness to attack or defend itself. The fact that Buttercup used to hiss at Katniss demonstrates the hatred/mistrust that Katniss attributes to her attempt to drown the bedraggled little critter. Cats tend to not meow most of the time (other than my sister-in-law’s dear, departed Hairy – she taught him to talk pretty, and he used to chirp at the birds), so there doesn’t seem to me to be much significance to the fact that Buttercup stopped meowing when Katniss came around unless it is that Buttercup was afraid of her.

So here goes. Feel free to laugh behind your hands or right out loud:

يجلس عند رقبتي بريم ابشع هرّ في العالم، يحرسها. الهرّ، ذو خطمة محطمة، نصف أذن غائب، وعينيه لهما لون الكوسى الفاسدة. اطلقَت بريم عليه اسم حوذان، أصرّت أن لون فرائه الأصفر الداكن المشوش يشبه لون الزهرة النضرة. يكرهني هذا الهرّ. أو على الأقل، لا يثق بي. بالرغم من السنوات التي مضت، اعتقد أنه لا يزال يذكر أني حاولت اغراقه في دلو مليء بالمياه عندما احضرته بريم إلى المنزل. كان هرّا صغيراً وحزيلاً، بطنه متورم بالدودان وتنتقل البراغيث في انحاء جسده. كان آخر شيء احتاج عليه فم اضافي ملزمة بإطعامه. لكن توسلت بريم عليّ بشدة، حتى كانت تبكي، فلا تركت لي اختيار غير الموافقة. سارت الأمر على ما يرام. والدتي نظفته من تلك الحشرات، وهو  صياد الفئرات طبيعي، وأحياناً يصيد جرذاً. في بعض الأحيان بعدما أقوم بتنظيف فرائسي، اعطيه الأحشاء. توقف عن البخيخ عليّ.

الأحشاء. عدم البخاخ. هذا الحد الأقصى لنا في اتجاه الحب.

As always, I eagerly welcome commentary and criticism. I am a novice at translating into Arabic, and have not read a great deal of Arabic literature. I have a lot to learn about style and convention, and appreciate any honest effort to help!

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