24 March (1976): Paul Bowles to John Martin

Here, Paul Bowles writes to John Martin, his publisher and the founder of Black Sparrow Press, about his experiences working with Moroccan writer and illustrator Mohamed Mrabet. Bowles worked as Mrabet’s translator for some of the period he lived in Tangier.

March 24, 1976

It’s not the rendering of the oral Arabic texts into written English that makes collaborating with Mrabet difficult, but trying to help him maintain some sort of diplomatic relationship with the outside world, which to him is obviously not a part of total reality. Long ago I learned that when he dictates a letter he uses me purely as a machine. “I asked you to write a letter, not to make suggestions.” He knows enough English to be aware of any alteration in the text, as I’ve discovered when he has crumpled a slightly changed missive and tossed it into the fireplace. This is all relative to the letter he dictated night before last, in which he refused (in rather graceless terms, or so I thought) to comply with your suggestion that he make the drawings you had envisaged including in twenty-six copies of Harmless Poisons. Agreeing or not agreeing to do the thing is of course his affair, but the manner in which he rejected the idea was peculiarly Moroccan and even more peculiarly Mrabetlike. It would have been enough for him to explain that sure an endeavor would take him a long time to accomplish (mainly because each time he gives up drawing for a few months, things don’t turn out well for a long time, and he has to discard everything he draws until he hits the vein). I suppose it’s that way for most people who rely solely on the subconscious, with no control whatever over their activity. Instead of that, he was so convinced that had he done what you asked he would have been being exploited by you, that he was truculent about the whole thing. When the letter was finished, I remarked that it wasn’t a very friendly letter to send his publisher. “What do you mean?” he cried. “Did I insult him? Did I say anything wrong? I told the truth.” So, as I say, it’s these things that make my translating life complicated. I’ll do my best to see that a cover drawing gets off to you soon.

From In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles. Bowles, Paul, and Jeffrey Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.