Interview with Robin Moger translator of July Staff Pick SLIPPING

Slipping by Mohammed Kheir translated by Robin MogerSlipping is a novel of the strange spaces in the folds between magic and reality, the in-between places in every city, the stories that fog & change as memory erodes. It's also a story of both personal and national tragedy of dreams deferred and the pyrotechnics of regret. It’s a story of getting lost in what you thought was familiar, of agency and powerlessness, of social change and social stagnation, of the anchors we make for ourselves and what happens when those anchors get cut away. Strange, beautiful, challenging, and perfect for fans of Kathryn Davis and Carmen Maria Machado. Slipping is a staff pick in July so is 20% off all month!


Mohamed Kheir is a novelist, poet, short story writer, journalist, and lyricist. His short story collections Remsh Al Ein (2016) and Afarit Al Radio (2011) both received The Sawiris Cultural Award, and Leil Khargi (2001) was awarded the Egyptian Ministry of Culture Award for poetry. Slipping (Eflat Al Asabea, Kotob Khan Publishing House, 2018; Two Lines Press, 2021) is his second novel and his first to be translated into English. He lives in Egypt. Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic to English currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. His translations of prose and poetry have appeared in Blackbox Manifold, The White Review, Tentacular, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Seedings, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Washington Square Review and others. He has translated several novels and prose works into English including Iman Mersal’s How To Mend (Kayfa ta), Nael Eltoukhy’s The Women of Karantina (AUC Press), Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles (7 Stories Press) and El Wardany’s The Book Of Sleep (Seagull Press).


There’s no closer reader of a book than its translator, so we’re very excited to chat with Robin Moger about Slipping.


How did you come to translate Slipping?

I knew Mohamed as a short story writer, and I’d previously translated a couple of them. Then I was told about the novel during a conversation with his publisher Karam Youssef, as she was preparing it for publication. She sent me a more-or-less final version to read and I once I’d read it—or maybe once I’d got about halfway through—I’d begun to work on it. By the time it came out in Arabic, it was almost complete in English, and I submitted it to Two Lines as a finished manuscript which, given the nature of this book, I think helped. 

Ironically, though much feels ungraspable and unreal in Slipping, it is a book that teaches you how to read it: it’s a book about not knowing what’s going on.

Do you have a standard translation process or do you go about things differently with every book?

I suppose “translation process” can mean different things, but generally speaking, when it’s a case (as here) of coming across writing on one’s own and starting to translate it as a way of accessing the text and thinking about it (without a contract, and deferring the question of whether this is something I am going to try to get published) then I work at a different pace, in and around life and other (paying) work. It usually tends to be the work I am most invested in, though, so at the same time I’ll be more intense about doing it when I find the time. That is how most of the novels I’ve published have started out; the translation at least begun before being taken to a publisher. I’m less self-conscious about it being “a translation”. 


Is there anything about the book that you think an American reader is likely to miss?

There’s a character in the book that wakes up in the middle of a bleak semi-urban hinterland with no idea of what day it is or how he got there, and that disorientation is essential to the process of reading through it. A reader not familiar with Egypt might have to embrace their uncertainty or lack of knowledge (or come to terms with their awareness of this lack); something as simple as the fact that, while an Egyptian reader of the book will be able to visualise places and scenarios more readily, others might be conscious that they can’t. Which is more about a fear of missing things than actually missing things, and is a problem with how translated work is read: an unwillingness to accept the unfamiliar, which is not present when they read work written in English, where it’s understood as purposeful. In literatures coming out of places deemed particularly foreign that might be felt more acutely. Ironically, though much feels ungraspable and unreal in Slipping, it is a book that teaches you how to read it: it’s a book about not knowing what’s going on.


Similarly, is there anything in the language of the book you want to draw attention to, or that you hope readers will notice and appreciate?  

What I felt reading it, and what I’ve always loved about Mohamed’s short-story writing, is this sense of disorientation, of dreamy disconnection with reality (without having the comfort of reality being wholly set aside, as in a dream proper), combined with powerful and often upsetting emotional currents. Like it engineers a dreamer’s vulnerability in the reader: you are open and curious and entertained, then lost and overwhelmed. 


The Arab Spring is a major part of the background environment or context for the story, though the plot doesn’t interact directly with it that much. At the same time, I got the sense that the nature of regret was a major, though not frequently discussed, theme. Do you see any resonance between the two? Are there other ways that the background of The Arab Spring resonates with the emotions of the story?

Yes, I really think you’re right about regret being central to the novel; permeating it. The Arab Spring’s presence in the novel is really the reader framing what is an intensely personal event: two people losing each during a demonstration; the narrator sleeping at home while his girlfriend is brutalised in the street. Later, this is recalled in dream as the “slipping” of the title: letting her fingers slip through his in a crowd, and losing her. Elsewhere it is referred to obliquely when Bahr and Seif are told on the phone that things are “bad here”. It is a failure both impossibly big and structural—a slippage—and something inescapably personal: a failure to hold on, or hold together. In correspondence with Mohamed about the revolution, he described it as, “a great dream, which for fleeting moments, for whole days, had seemed absolutely real and true, then slowly evaporated […] We all lost people in the revolution, one way or another: to death, to prison, to irreconcilable differences in the way we thought. But more importantly, we lost precious parts of ourselves, of our faith in life. This, I think, might be the pain that touches readers of Slipping, for all that it touches them in the same dreamlike, hazy fashion that it occupies in the novel.” I think this helps position the revolution in the novel: not that the novel is about it, but that it is emblematic--moving through the pages and protagonists as a moment in which the disjunctures of life are first confronted then turned away from.


Slipping has a very interesting narrative structure, tossing up questions in the beginning of the book and then answering them later in surprising contexts. Did the structure of Slipping influence your translation of it?

When I first started, I was moving around the book, translating passages almost as stand-alone pieces. My feeling at the time was that I wanted to retreat, back from the resolutions of the book to the moments in which the questions are being asked; although I’m not sure you’re even aware that questions are even being asked. Then I moved through it in order, stringing the pearls together. 


To me, Slipping is about, in part, what happens in the gaps that every city develops over time; the places that fall out of use, the buildings stuck in zoning limbo, the spots only a few locals know. Translation is all about closing gaps between languages and cultures. But, of course, gaps remain. Slipping shows there can be a lot of substance and meaning in the gaps in cities. Do you believe there can be a lot of substance and meaning in the gaps between a translation and its original?

I really love the book described as a book about cities; as a city itself, maybe? As for gaps and bridges between an original and its translation, I find it harder and harder to hold on to a metaphor for translation without it, well, slipping away. But I do like the idea that it is always apprehended equivocally; and that instability is an exciting thing in itself, the possibility that the ground is not firm under your feet.


What are you reading?

I am reading You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free by James Kelman, who wrote books that started me writing and continue to help me think about translation. 


Slipping is 20% off in July.