Changing the (implied Reader)

During IWP’s 2014 Fall Residency in Iowa City, I encountered on more than one occasion some unusual questions and impressions about my stories.

In preparation for the residency, which lasts for 10 weeks, the IWP published some of my translated stories on its website, along with my biography. One statement on my profile, when talking about my 1st novel, reads: presently banned in his country.  

Many people there couldn’t understand how a book could be banned! And for what reasons. Further, some concerned people (some of them my colleagues in the IWP14) approached me to ask questions about the peculiarity of some events in my stories; it is not they were confused by the aesthetics of the story itself, but more so that they were in disbelief that certain events could happen in reality. To answer their questions, I must provide cultural background about the socio-cultural environment of my stories.

For example, in one of my stories, Density, I write:

“A young man with very limited budget want to cross the bridge to the near country of Bahrain only to enjoy watching movie in the cinema.”

This event, for readers who do not realize that the cinema is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, find it very unusual, asking why the character would not just go to the cinema in his city, saving himself the trouble and costs of traveling to another country!

Although the story embodied the common human values of self-happiness and eagerness, I came to realize that it targeted a particular reader—one who is familiar with the protagonist’s environment and cultural customs in Saudi Arabia. I was writing unconsciously for a localized implied reader. The implied reader defined in the English dictionary as “the hypothetical reader that a work is addressed to, whose thoughts, attitudes, etc, may differ from an actual reader's.”

One of the goals of literature is to communicate, with a writer delivering particular ideas, stories, and images to and of a community. Sometimes, however, that objective collides with cultural barriers of understanding, which makes me ask whether or not a writer should modify his stories when presenting his work to a community of another culture? I think this is what must be balanced in translation in some careful way that keeps the original sense and sound intact while expanding a new reader’s understanding of a different culture.