Novel on Women's Struggles with Translation

Therí Alyce Pickens

Always Coca-Cola: A Novel
By Alexandra Chreiteh, translated by Michelle Hartman
Interlink Books, 2012
"Always Coca-Cola" follows the lives of three women contemporaries as they navigate their young adult years. Abeer Ward, the protagonist, is a student at Lebanese American University. Her friend, Yana, is a Romanian divorcée and Coca-Cola model living in Beirut on a visa. Yasmine, a pugilist, rounds out the trio. Within the novel, Yana discovers she is pregnant and subsequently, finds herself dumped by her boyfriend. Abeer is raped by Yana’s ex-boyfriend and worries over the possibility of pregnancy. Yasmine does not experience much, other than a brutal practice fight, but guides the other two through their trials – somewhat. The novel is told from Abeer’s perspective, which remains fraught and worried throughout most of the action, partially due to her pregnancy scare and partially due to her natural frenetic energy. As a result, we receive little information about Yana or Yasmine’s interiority, only witnessing their decision-making.
Chreiteh’s strength lies in the honesty of her prose and her desire to confront the details of marriage, menstruation, and pregnancy scares in a straightforward manner. However, that unflinching gaze comes across as didactic and, at times, too heavy-handed to be relatable. For instance, Abeer notes that she can smell when other women are menstruating. My concern was not with the validity of the statement but that her commentary added little to the novel or her character development. Abeer’s concerns about Yasmine’s unfeminine musculature (because of too much exercise) appear naïve in their ignorance and childish in their articulation. Abeer struggles to articulate the rationale for her objections to Yana’s provocative behavior and Yasmine’s fitness goals, but she only gets as far as parroting cultural norms or drily repeating clichés. It is possible that the author left these concerns unvoiced so as to foreground their pervasive and problematic nature, but there is little irony to create the narrative peek-a-boo necessary for this interpretation. The only times that the narrative communicates a multi-layered set of concerns are when the discussion turns to Coca-Cola or other commercial products. Here, the ideas are complex and provocative.
Perhaps what will be most significant for Al Jadid readers is the translator’s afterword. Michelle Hartman details the difficulty she had with putting the novel into English. First, the novel’s specific location is “constantly invoked and satirized” making the specificity of people, phrases, and places difficult to translate. Second, Arabic has multiple registers that have no equivalent in English. Certainly, certain words are more formal than others but there exists no formal language that approximates Modern Standard Arabic. Third, the characters themselves are translating from their respective languages into English. This linguistic difficulty does come across in the English version as their conversations are sometimes awkward and clumsy, but it does not register as difficulty to an English speaker because the surrounding text is English. Hartman’s note illuminates why translating from Arabic is so difficult and how that difficulty surfaces in the novel. Since this is such a useful enumeration, I would strongly suggest that readers begin with Hartman as an avenue into the novel.
Chreiteh’s novel probably communicates more about the life surrounding LAU in Arabic, but the English version languishes because it cannot capture that kind of specificity. As the translator has already made explicit, this is an issue fundamental to translation. I would add that this is also part of a larger concern with character development. Abeer’s transparency denies her the multi-dimensionality of a fully realized character. The lack of interiority and thoughtfulness from Yana and Yasmine, even in speech, relegates them to being stock characters. Though I praise Chreiteh for her honest voice and clear critical concern with commercialism, I take her to task for not allowing the specificity of the place to help her weave a richer narrative tapestry than is present.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, No. 64, 2011.
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