Vaudreuil professor wants Anglos to discover Francophone literary giant

Farida author Naim Kattan best kept secret

A Vaudreuil-Dorion religious studies professor who was the principal translator for a book written by one of the foremost Francophone writers on the international literary scene, believes the novel is a bridge-building reality readers need to experience. <ParaStyle:R> Farida, written by Naïm Kattan, a Jewish Iraqi who was born in Baghdad in 1928 and who now makes Montreal his home, was principally translated by Norman Cornett, PhD. Antonio D’Alfonso also translated part of the novel that was published by Toronto based Guernica Editions. Farida was a finalist for a 2015 Quebec Writers’ Federation literary award and will be featured in World Literature Today’s Jan./Feb. issue. The book that is garnering critical acclaim and much media attention is a love story set in a pre-World War II Iraq. Amid a backdrop of religious, political, and cultural themes, the novel tells the tale of Farida, a Jewish cabaret singer from Baghdad who embarks on a tumultuous romance complicated by jealousy and ambition. Cornett strong feels Kattan, who will release his 56th novel next month, is a writer that Anglophone readers simply must discover. “He is the foremost Francophone writer on the international literary scene. He has 56 books to his name and only five have been translated into English… Farida is the fifth,” Cornett said, crediting Guernica Editions for their foresight in publishing the book and possibly other books by Kattan. The passionate professor who taught in the Religious Studies department at McGill University before his controversial dismissal, is now working closely with the elderly French author to ensure that Kattan’s works are discovered by more English readers.

 Translation challenges

Calling the task of translating the novel highly complex, Cornett said the book, which was originally written in French, also included Hebrew, Arabic and German words and phrases. “Naïm and I would email (back and forth) like mad,” Cornett explained of the work process, adding his challenge was figuring out “how (to) take this French book and make it so that it reads in the idiomatic North American vernacular.” The greatest compliment he’s gotten thus far from many readers is their belief that the book was first written in English. For example, Cornett, a self describe member of the “hippie generation,” who attended the University of California, Berkeley, translated one line in the book to convey that a character ‘felt lower than a snake’s belly’. That’s worlds removed from the French, but it gets the job done,” Cornett noted with a laugh. He injected a somber memory when explaining that he had to take a break from the translation when his wife and life partner of 40 years was diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of breast cancer. Sadly she lost the battle soon after. “I would sit in my office in Vaudreuil looking out a second story window reliving all this…the novel set against my own life, at this point in very deep grief.” Cornett translated everything in the book until the end, when he had to pass it on. He has since fielded numerous offers from other Francophone authors who would like him to translate their works into English.

Farida author Naim Kattan and principal translator Norman Cornett, a Vaudreuil-Dorion resident. (Photos courtesy of Edmund Nash)
Farida author Naim Kattan and principal translator Norman Cornett, a Vaudreuil-Dorion resident. (Photos courtesy of Edmund Nash)

Cornett believes Farida has all of the elements we see on the news each night. “It deals with Jews, Muslims, Sunnis, Shias…. it’s written by an Iraqi Jew born in Bagdad whose first language is Arabic,” he clarified. According to Cornett, Kattan uses the vehicle of creative writing to relive his own childhood and adolescence in the coming of age novel that opens with the passion of murder and which is set against a backdrop of a geopolitical middle east on the cusp of WWII. Yet according to Cornett, the book is highly relevant today. “As a religious studies professor this book is about building bridges. It speaks to Canada today. It speaks to the refugees who are coming here. It proves the saying that what we learn from history is that we have learned nothing from history. We are reliving what’s happening now.” Farida is available at Paragraph Book store, through Amazon, or through Guernica Editions. To learn more about Cornett’s work go to

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