An Interview with Matt Reeck, Albertine Prize-Nominated Translator

An interview with Matt Reeck, translator of “Muslim”: A Novel (Deep Vellum) / « Musulman »: Roman ( Sabine Despiser) by Zahia Rahmani, nominated for the Albertine Prize, an annual reader’s choice award that recognizes American readers’ favorite work of contemporary Francophone fiction that has been translated into English and published in the US within the preceding calendar year. Learn more at

Why did you choose to translate “Muslim” : A novel ?

This first question is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is that I was blown away by the book the first time I read it, and I felt as though I was reading something that spoke personally to me and that was also very important historically. It must have been about the time I was reading a lot of Agamben, including Remnants of Auschwitz, which has echoes in “Muslim”, as well as Homo sacer, which is also a relevant text. The longer answer is that Zahia has been a family friend for a long time. And an even longer answer would be that I’m interested in Islam and in European and American reception of Islam. To this point, a good amount of what I have translated has been from Islamic cultures, though, to be clear, that does not mean that all the authors themselves have been Muslim or Muslim in any easy-to-define way. This is obviously something that Zahia’s novel deals with: the way the West tracks non-Christian religions, and how it stigmatizes people from various regions of the world and stereotypes cultures.

What did you absolutely want to keep and convey in your translation?

This book is experimental, in the sense that it is a fragmented narrative, with various narrative types: first-person autobiographical, dramatic/conversational, and allegorical. Add to that, the first parts of the book are poetic—it has both poetry and prose that is poetic in its force. All of these elements appeal to me greatly, and I wanted the translation to have these elements be clear to readers. And, though at one point I wondered about the questions of US imperialism, the US invasion of Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay that appear in the book, they are part of what the reader of the translation is asked to consider for him or herself.

Was there any specific segment you struggled with, things you were not able to keep in English?

In terms of struggling with a passage, there is never any shortage of that. But there’s so much that goes into translating any complicated literary text that has nuance, passion, and the intellectual depth that this text has … that pulling examples feels a little shortsighted and likely misrepresents the challenges experienced in real time. Sometimes it is a simple word that makes a problem, and sometimes it is tone. But there was one great passage (great in the sense of how great it sounds in French, and great due to the ways that it forces the translator to be creative) that I can mention from the beginning of the book’s fifth “chapter”: 

« de mon territoire bablique, slamique, sunique, vangélique, tbatique, thmodique en spasmes maudits … »

I won’t mention how I translated it. It’s one of those passages that you want to try out again every time you read it. 

What did you find the most challenging in translating this book?

I hope this doesn’t sound odd, but translating a book isn’t just translating a book. It’s getting permission, it’s finding the time to do it, it’s finding the justification to do it (when you aren’t getting paid to do it in the first place and when translating doesn’t have cultural cache or social capital in the US university system), and then it’s finding a publisher. In this case, the hard part, surprisingly, was the last thing—finding a publisher with a sufficiently experimental and intellectual point of view.

How was the editing process with the author and publisher?

Some people believe in destiny. All I know is that I’m glad that after a series of rejections, I found my way to Will Evans at Deep Vellum. He and I have a similar passion for this book, and there was very little that needed to be explained between the two of us. Zahia and I had a conversation about the passage above. (She said that it was written for its rhythm, its poetry. So I tried my best to write with rhythm and poetry.) But she didn’t stand as an arbiter or a proofreader. I was told an anecdote that Edouard Glissant once told a translator, “Now it’s your turn to write the book.” And that was Zahia’s stance, as well.

Do you find important that the translator takes liberties with the text while translating a book? If yes, what kind of liberties?

This last question and answer depend upon what you mean by “liberties.” The way I would phrase it is this: the reality of the literary translator is that this person has to have a good sense of the literary and cultural histories in the book they are translating, as well as be an expert on grammar, vocabulary, and the author’s personal idiom, aesthetics, and style. This provides a challenge, and each translator does his or her best to meet that challenge. Part of that challenge can be offset by the use of dictionaries, the fabulous resources of the internet, and by asking friends. Those are needed resources. But, to me, the word “liberties” suggests a willful errance, a flight of fancy, that doesn’t match what literary translators do. There’s almost always a reason why translators translate as they do, and it almost always refers to the convergence of sensibility and knowledge sketched out above. No two people speak the same language in exactly the same way, and no two translators will translate the same book in the same way. But that fact doesn’t serve as proof of excess (“liberties”) but of the way that sensibility, knowledge, and choice impact literary translation.