- On Translating Paul (and Jane and Mrabet)
I first met Paul Bowles in 1973, at a dinner party in Tangier. Among the other guests were the playwright Tennessee Williams, an old friend of Paul’s; John Hopkins, an American novelist, author of a recently published book with the somewhat cryptic title Tangier Buzzless Flies 1 ; Claudio Bravo, a Chilean painter who lived in Tangier and whose star was rising among international art dealers; and a young woman who described herself as an aspiring writer from New York, who had been drawn to Tangier by the writings and reputation of Jane Bowles (Paul’s wife, who had died that spring). There were also a young Englishman who made films and several other young men, all of them dressed in Moroccan-style cotton robes (which I thought of as beach-wear), as well as a group of ladies, prominent in the Tangier expatriate set. “Dressed to kill,” they clustered around the host of a rival party who soon led them off, along with most of the young men. Paul Bowles was accompanied by a good-looking Moroccan, clad in tee-shirt and tight-fitting trousers, whose scowl of disdain was, at times, suddenly dispelled by a flashing smile. This was the story-teller Mohammed Mrabet, author of many books of stories and novels which he could not write out himself but which Bowles had taped, translated, and written out in English: “Paul’s driver and cook,” said our hostess. I felt as though I had landed on Mars.
At that time, I had barely heard of Bowles’ work, but I felt an immediate interest in whatever he had to say, however trivial the subject of conversation. Any statement of his had the ring of truth (subjective truth, of course; honesty, shall we say) and therefore seemed to refer to reality rather than to the conventional rules of social chitchat, or to the sort of hanky-panky that people are continually trying to put over on each other, such as: “look how clever I am,” or “how modest,” or “how wonderful I find you.”
Bowles never added his bit to a conversation unless directly solicited. Thus, anyone who addressed him and was answered felt that he had become the object of special attention from this polite, urbane, and at times most witty companion. Only later, when I started translating [End Page 35] his work, did I realize that there might be some unexpressed thought underlying his statements or queries, that he might be quietly poking fun or trying to suggest some mode of action or reaction—but only if you yourself were ready for it.
Soon, some of Bowles’s friends, knowing that I was a translator, suggested that I read his fiction. I was overwhelmed by the clarity and power of vision, the capacity to enthrall and to shock, to absorb one’s attention totally, which I found in his stories. When reading, the only reality left was that of the tale being told, all other certainties having been yanked from under the reader like a carpet. Of course, I wanted to translate some of these fascinating works. But the French public was not ready for Bowles, I suppose, so publishers met my queries with: “No money in short stories these days,” or “Two of Bowles’s novels have been translated at Gallimard, the others are probably no good,” or else they suggested that Jane Bowles was the more original, more interesting writer of the two—as though one would preclude the other. One of them even said, “But Bowles is a composer, not a writer.”
French attention to matters Moroccan, coupled with a growing interest in the work of Paul Bowles in the United States, eventually led to the publication in France of hitherto untranslated fiction by this American who lived in Tangier. Yet the first time I translated a work of his into French, it was not one of his own, but an English rendering of a tale recorded on tape in Moghrebi (the Moroccan Arabic dialect, also called Darija), by Mohammed Mrabet. Paul had translated and transcribed from the tape. Since both he and Mrabet...