How I created my femme fatale

noir, romance book, femme fatale, cairoCairo Mon Amour started out as a noir novel. Whether it ended up as one, you can be the judge. But in the noir tradition, I needed a femme fatale, and that’s why I created Zouzou Paris.

She’s the childhood sweetheart of Pierre Farag, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye. But they’ve been long separated. The sweet girl he knew as a teenager on holidays in Alexandria is now a notorious film actress, protected by powerful men.

But she’s in danger, fearing that a high-ranking official wants her murdered. And that’s how she and Pierre meet again after nearly twenty years – she summons him to her private apartment to ask for his help. He sits agog as she levers off her luxuriant wig, peels off her eyelashes and wipes away the make-up: She’s no longer the hard-bitten Zouzou Paris, but the girl he knew as Aziza Faris, who fluttered her eyelashes at Pierre in their teens.

Well, with a reunion like that, how could I hold back? They’re bound together for life. But first I have to get them out of Egypt. I put them on the last ship to leave Alexandria when the Yom Kippur war breaks out, and then I follow them through France, where they are married – a condition that Zouzou imposes before she will allow Pierre into her bed. There’s a curious reason for her stipulation on wedlock, but you’ll have to read the book to know what it is.

We leave them in exile in 1970s London, both trying to negotiate a city of coin-fed gas meters, evil landladies, cambric bedspreads, and Dixon of Dock Green on the TV.

I’m fascinated with Zouzou – her volatility, her odd wisdom, the depth of her loyalty, her resignation to fate. I purposely didn’t give her a point of view; rather than writing from inside her head, I allowed the layers of her character to build through Pierre’s observations. My aim here -and I think it worked – was for Zouzou to be enigmatic and unpredictable.

A final word on her name: Zouzou is an affectionate version of her real name Aziza. But there’s a connection with a a film that was showing in Cairo around the time the novel is set: Khalli baalak min Zouzou, or ‘watch out for Zouzou’. In the movie, Zouzou is a college student who has to work secretly as a belly dancer to make ends meet – the nice girl with a shameful secret. How could I resist calling my femme fatale anything else? And of course, my Zouzou claims to be half-French, although nobody believes it. The surname Paris is her clumsy attempt at European sophistication, and it’s not so distant from her real family name Faris.

OK, I confess: I’m smitten.


You can buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour here.

What if Julius Caesar could read your blog?

You can now read my website in Latin, and for that matter a few dozen other languages. Should we be excited? Yes and no.

My website in Latin!

This new capability came as the result of an email from WordPress, my website platform, telling me that the Google Translate widget was now available. In minutes, it was installed and I picked Latin from the drop-down menu. Why Latin? Because I could!

I confess to a professional interest here: I taught Arabic-English translation for some years, and spent half a career researching what might go on in translator’s brains.

But for those with only a passing acquaintance with translating, a caveat or two might be in order. Firstly, the ‘translate’ button on my site is not necessarily the same thing as the alternative language versions (sometimes indicated with little flags) on the websites of big institutions. For example, the content on non-English websites of a university will usually by pre-authored in French, Chinese, etc., and not translated on the spot.

So how good are web-based translation tools? Well, it depends on what you’re translating and between which languages. The reason for the variation is to do with the process behind web-based tools.

In the pre-internet days, automatic translation (then known as ‘machine translation’) worked on the same principle employed by Miss Bollard, my terrifying Latin teacher in pre-Beatles England. The machine translation technique is to analyse the input text into word meanings and grammatical rules, and then reassemble those meanings and rules into another language. The computer’s real task is to attempt to replicate what went on in Miss Bollard’s classically trained brain. The advantage of the computer is that it doesn’t have to be sent snivelling to the headmaster’s study to be punished if it makes too many mistakes. If you’re interested in a beautifully drawn picture of early machine translation, check this excellent article by John Hutchins.

Web-based translation tools use a quite different process: They read the input text, and then scour the internet to match it with similar texts that have existing translations. The output text is then compiled from those translations. The system learns from new translations appearing on the web, and from improvements posted by users.

Which brings me to Julius Caesar. I suspect that the internet is not exactly bursting with English-Latin translations, which will explain why French web-based translations are better than Latin ones. But how can you check the quality if you don’t know the language? The quick and dirty way is to ‘back-translate’, i.e. use the tool to translate a chunk from English to, e.g. Welsh, and then translate the Welsh back into English.

Here is the first line of Pride and Prejudice back-translated through several languages using a web-based translation tool:

English-French-English: It is a universally recognized truth that only one man in possession of good fortune must be in need of a woman.

English-Welsh-English: It is truth universally acknowledged, that a single man must possess good fortune to be in want of a wife.

English-Latin-English: This is of a truth recognized as such, known, and will have the same good fortune to be his wife.

The differences are striking, and the quality seems to be in approximate proportion to the quantity of bilingual content likely to be available for the tool to work with: The French version has one serious error, confusing Austin’s single (unmarried) man for a unique man. The Welsh version is logically incorrect, and the Latin version is nonsense.

But before we send this web-based tool snivelling to the headmaster’s study, we should realise that we have unrealistic expectations for the Latin version. In fact the web-based tool is a bit like me in 1961 – too little material to work with! Come back, Miss Bollard. All is forgiven.

Find out about Stuart Campbell’s books here.