Dr. Jane Kuntz (M.A., 1996; Ph.D., 2002) [pictured right] is an American scholar who is famous for her openness to other cultures, especially French culture, and the culture of the MENA region. She lived in Tunisia where she deepened her knowledge of the cultural productions of the francophone Maghreb which is her academic endeavour. The latter did not prevent her from being involved in several translation projects. Among the works she had translated, we can cite Talismano, a fictional work written by the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb.
Ali Znaidi took the initiative to interview her through email (Questions were sent on May18, 2012, and the answers were received on May 21, 2012) to learn more about her experience in Tunisia, about her experience as a translator, and about her views concerning the current affairs in Tunisia.
TunisianLit: You spent some years in Tunisia where you were smitten by the Old Medina, especially in the capital Tunis. Could you tell us what had triggered you to become interested in Tunisia, and the Maghreb region in general? And who are the Tunisian writers that caught your attention?
Dr. Jane Kuntz: I went to Tunisia for the first time in 1975 with the US Peace Corps, which was active in the country at that time. I was posted to El-Kef, where I spent four years teaching in the local Lycée Technique, and discovered, first-hand, the morphology of the old medina, particularly one located on a hillside with a spectacular view. El-Kef is very much like Sidi Bou Saïd in that respect: where the latter looks out over the Mediterranean, the former affords a breath-taking view of the rich plains of northwestern Tunisia, and looks out onto the “Table de Jugurtha” and the mountains of eastern Algeria. So, this is not an ordinary medina, as one would find in old Kairouan, for instance. It’s a medina with a view! Having said that, however, my familiarization with this mountain medina prepared me in a sense to discover the more typical medina of Tunis.
And speaking of Algeria, since El-Kef is so close to the Algerian border, at the time, in the seventies and eighties, before Tunisia had more television stations, we all watched Algerian television, which I must say was far superior to Tunisian TV then. I learned a great deal from that contact.
TunisianLit: Could you tell us about your experience in Tunisia?
Dr. Jane Kuntz: My experience in Tunisia was very much marked by those early years in El-Kef. I naturally picked up the local accent (the hard “g”, for instance, instead of the qaf used by the Tunisois) and vocabulary, and people in Tunis found that hysterically funny. I befriended and later married a man from El-Kef, Mohammed Tlili, who is a historian, archaeologist and expert on the history of his city and region, both past and present. He founded the Association de sauveguarde de la medina du Kef (ASM) which still exists, though it is struggling in the current political situation. Tlili taught me so many things about the country, it would be hard to enumerate them here, but he definitely put me on the path of my interest in cities, and introduced me to a certain underground culture not unlike the one depicted in Talismano!
There was a very interesting group of colleagues at the Lycée Technique when I was there, many of them very much on the Left, completely secularized, believers in socialist values, or even Marxist, in pan-Arabism, in the progressive ideologies of the day. It’s almost inconceivable to me that Tunisia has taken such a conservative turn since the Revolution, but I suppose it’s in the order of things…
TunisianLit: I think your interest in the Old Medina was very important in choosing, and translating Talismano. Could you tell us about other characteristics of the book, either at the level of form or content that encouraged you to translate the book?
Dr. Jane Kuntz: The sheer exuberance of the narrative, the number of references to the cultural iconography of Italy, much loved by Meddeb, the insane story of the piecing together of the idol, all set in the terrible years of Bourguiba’s police state (which proved less noxious than Ben Ali’s, but it was still very bad, with many, many people going to prison for their ideas). No one in the Maghreb had written anything remotely like this, at least not in French, and I am not alone in considering it as one of the landmark novels of francophone literature. It is not often read, unfortunately, perhaps because of the level of erudition, or the somewhat daring depiction of certain sex acts. I don’t see anyone using it in a classroom today, for instance, in Tunisia. I attempted to teach it here in the US, and the students found it much too challenging. But for the initiated (a word I think Meddeb would approve), it is a real joy, and I wanted to share that joy with an English-speaking readership.
TunisianLit: The language of Talismano is characterized with a certain power. Besides, there is a lively and refreshed mix of French, Arabic, and the Tunisian dialect in the book. So was there anything that particularly challenged you during the translation? Particular passages/terms that incited you to consult with Meddeb or others? And what about the reception of the book in the USA?
Dr. Jane Kuntz: Meddeb was very helpful throughout the process, and we collaborated very well. So well that he suggested me for the translation of his 2009 book entitled Pari de civilisation, which I have now completed, and am waiting for release of the first copies. I haven’t had much feedback on the book yet, it’s not one that will ever be a best-seller, that’s for certain. As for the mix of languages, this is what I had got used to in my years in Tunisia (1975-1994), and I did just as much mixing as everyone around me. So the challenge was less on the level of language per se, than on the level of narrative coherence. Sometimes it was simply very difficult to understand what was going on. Luckily, as he described various places and architectural features, I could see them in my mind very easily. I lived for a number of years in Tunis, both downtown and in the north suburbs (Kram), and I befriended people who lived and worked in the medina, which meant that I knew exactly what Meddeb was talking about when he described various locations (Sidi Mahrez, the Great Mosque, the souks, etc.) That said, there are features of the book that even the average Tunisian reader would find impenetrable, and that’s the charm of literature, isn’t it?
TunisianLit: You lectured, and wrote about the current affairs in Tunisia. For instance, I can mention your rich, and dense article titled “Continuity and Change in Tunisia.” Could you give us some remarks about the current affairs in Tunisia? And how do you see the future of Tunisia?
Dr. Jane Kuntz: Well, I haven’t visited in a while, not since 2001, I’m ashamed to say, but as I told Abdelwahab Meddeb himself, I think he predicted the whole Revolution in his novel Talismano. This revolt of the underclass from the interior of the country, entire regions completely neglected and decimated by the elites of the coastal cities, this is exactly what he is staging in his novel. It’s a very farsighted work in that respect. It is thanks to the author’s broadly based education, in both Arabic and French, in Western culture and Muslim culture, that he was able to see so clearly. As a scholar of Islam, in particular, he also has some harsh words for those in Tunisia and elsewhere who would betray the spirit of Islam and use it for ideological purposes. This is a cycle, I think, but secular-minded Tunisians of all ages must be vigilant and resist the temptation to yield to the pressure of the so-called Salafist minority. I think reason will prevail, but not without a struggle.
TunisianLit: Before ending this interview, is there anything you would like to wrap up?
Dr. Jane Kuntz: I might encourage your readers to tune in to Meddeb’s weekly radio broadcast in French, at http://www.franceculture.fr/emission-cultures-d-islam if they would like to get more familiar with the author. And I wish you all well in the months and years to come, in this experiment with democracy. The eyes of the world are upon you!
Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Kuntz.
In addition to two works by Abdelwahab Meddeb, Dr. Jane Kuntz translated books by Olivier Rolin, Gérard Gavary, Lydie Salvayre, Dumitru Tsepaneag and Elisabeth Horem (2013).