An interview with Marilyn Booth

Claire Jacobson

Photograph by Bette Chapman

“Love and translation look alike in their grammar,” Andrés Neuman once wrote. “In order to translate a text satisfactorily, you have to desire it. Covet its meaning . . . I’m going to manipulate you with my best intentions. What isn’t negotiable is emotion.”

For Dr. Marilyn Booth, a literary translator from the Arabic and the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at Oxford University, translation is invariably a labor of love.

“Beautiful novel, great translation—but a hard sell,” is a refrain in the publishing world with which she is all too familiar. “What many of us want to translate are the intense and beautifully written and consummately constructed but not always easy novels of many writers throughout the Arab world,” she told
Arab Lit in a 2013 interview with Sarah Irving. “It is a bit frustrating that certain rather narrow conceptions of ‘market’—and holdovers of Orientalist concepts of what writers from Arabic-speaking societies should be saying—govern what gets taken.”  

Dr. Booth challenges these presuppositions by translating the works she finds most compelling, ones that are innovative rather than marketable, stretching the boundaries of possibility in rendering unique narrative voices and regional peculiarities as faithfully as she can rather than attempting to make them more palatable to English-speaking readers. “For me, translation has always been a political and creative active,” she told me. “It is about intervening in cultural knowledge, expanding horizons of knowledge. It is also about stretching language . . . I want readers in English to think about other languages . . . [to realize] that English cannot and should not ‘say everything.’”

Arabic prose is often hardly prosaic at all, heavy with poetic repetition and thick with metaphor, but where an Anglophone reader’s eye might turn critical of such un-English moments, Dr. Booth renders them with deft elegance. One paragraph of her translation of Hoda Barakat’s “Snow” reads: “The bitter edge of the blustery cold softened as the fog dropped over the land, thick as a felt saddle blanket. The mountain paths and ravines were no longer distinguishable, making it impossible to guess how much distance remained ahead. Features of the landscape known popularly as the Frenchmen’s Chamber, Deaf-mute’s Crevice, St Severin’s Elbow, the Cross of the Sacred Heart, had all vanished. After Patriarch’s Point the entire expanse of these heights was submerged in the sour gummy milk. Overhead, winds whirling and pounding as though powerful water currents were ravining the skies changed course suddenly, a fierce onrush whipping across the ground to prevent him moving forward.”

As an academic, Dr. Booth has written extensively on Arab feminisms in nineteenth-century Egypt and early modern Arabic novels. But as a translator, her focus is more contemporary in nature—her translations of Arabic fiction include the recent Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning novels 
Tiller of Waters (Hoda Barakat), The Loved Ones (Alia Mamdouh), and No Road to Paradise (Hassan Daoud), among others.

—Claire Jacobson

You’ve come full circle, it seems, from your days as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford to joining the faculty there. Can you talk a little about your start in the field of Arabic literature and translation? Has there been anything surprising about that journey, and did you ever see yourself ending up here someday?

There have been many surprises, and a circuitous route. I never intended to end up as an academic! But I have always found research to be deeply engaging, and teaching is rewarding on so many levels. At the same time, had there been as many opportunities to translate literary works from Arabic then as there are now, I might well have decided to go into translation full-time.

Academically, as an undergraduate I started out as an historian (with heavy emphasis on language training) and that’s really what I consider myself to be. The literature part came in because I wanted to write a Ph.D. dissertation about a poet, but very much within the political / historical context that shaped him. The first literary translations I did were of his poetry (and also, some poetry and prose for Index on Censorship), and I found translation compelling—the originality it requires, the knowledge, and also the opportunity to communicate work that one finds important. For me, translation has always been a political and creative act. It is about intervening in cultural knowledge, expanding horizons of knowledge. It is also about stretching language.

How does your work as a professor (teaching, research, mentoring) inform your translating, or vice versa?

People often ask me why I don’t write about the works I translate. For me, that is precisely the point. Translation is my art and constitutes part of my political work as an engaged citizen. It is separate from my professorial work. That said, I have taught my own translations occasionally (I find that difficult!), and I have taught theory and practice of literary translation, which I find tremendously rewarding and fun. I mentor translators—including sometimes my own graduate students. Translation is a lonely business and we translators need each other. So, of course, these activities all shape each other. As a translator, I’m aware of how important translation choices are, and so that also becomes part of my teaching as an intellectual historian.

How do you decide whether to translate a particular text? What do you look for in a text, and are there things you just won’t translate?

This has varied a lot. Many of my translations are works I found compelling and could not not translate—these tend to be works that I translate first and then look for a publisher, which most often means that I end up being paid almost nothing. But I suppose these count as good deeds in life! Other times, I’m asked to take something on by a publisher. And then, there are a couple of authors I have translated and can’t imagine saying “no” to, because I think they are among the world’s most interesting and original writers.

On the other hand, I have to admit that a couple of times, I’ve said “yes” because someone (usually a critic or editor) persuaded me to take something on. Usually that has been fine, but not always.

Style and voice are very important to me: I tend to be much less interested in works that I don’t find innovative. I love the challenge of communicating a work’s narrative voice—to me that is the most important thing. One of the earliest volumes I translated—and of which I remain very proud—was a short story compilation, stories by a particular literary generation of women in Egypt. The challenge, though, was switching from one voice to another, as I moved back and forth amongst the stories, working on the translation.

In my view, the least successful translations are those that homogenize narrative voice.

One other point about choosing works to translate: now that Arabic lit has finally become “hot” in the world-literature market, it seems that a novel has to be hot-off-the-presses to figure as a potential translation in a publisher’s sight lines. I think this is unfortunate. The novels I most want to translate are ones that came out twenty or thirty years ago, beautiful works that speak to readers now. Some colleagues and I have been trying to get such a translation project off the ground, but we haven’t found a ready venue yet.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of Arabic translation for you, and how do you handle them (i.e. translating humour, idioms, dialects, etc.)?

Humour, interestingly, I don’t find difficult to translate at all. (At least, not so far.) I’m thinking for instance of Thieves in Retirement by Hamdi Abu Golayyel. It was crucial to convey the satirical overtones, and I hope I got across the wonderful satirical mimicry of official Nasserist discourse.

And, dialect: because it is never a neutral choice, and because sometimes authors use different dialects for different characters—significant to their engagement—this is a very difficult aspect. Dialect carries so many political and identitarian resonances in Arabic, as it does in most other languages, but in Arabic it has been a particularly up-front issue for many historical reasons. I’m not going to go into those here, but it is important to say that it is impossible to convey that political significance in English and also the importance of what different Arabic dialects in a novel mean. Dialect has been a part of fiction in Arabic since the nineteenth century, but it has been contentious, and it is also impossible to translate. I’ve tried hard, but I’m not sure it has worked very well. I’ve tried different strategies, partly depending on the genre and the time: for Arabic vernacular poetry, trying to find an Anglophone equivalent (but then it is dated, as vernacular is!), or trying to find an informal voice.

I tend to use more Arabic within the English-language text (especially when it is dialect usages) than some translators do. One can find ways to convey what these usages mean without having to resort to a glossary. Another way to deal with such difficulties is to talk about them in a translator’s afterword, which may also be important in offering historical context to readers who want it.

Why do you choose to do that, as you say, more often than some translators do? Can that decision also come across as problematic or exoticising, and how do you decide?

This is such a good and difficult question—difficult partly because I’m not always sure why I do it more in some texts, or some parts of some texts, than others. It’s partly a feeling that it is just right. But, of course, it is also a literary and political choice. I want readers in English to think about other languages and how bi- or multilingual so many of us are, thinking in different languages, and maybe not finding the right term in one language—and that English cannot and should not “say everything.” But when I do it, I do work hard on making the Arabic work, giving the reader a way to think about this term and what it means. I absolutely do not use notes or glossaries (not anymore); I try to make it work within the text.

Sometimes it doesn’t work, and you have to give up. And yes indeed, you have to be careful about exoticising. Or just making mistakes. When to use Allah and when God (or god) in a text? Sometimes one seems right, sometimes the other, and not always for reasons that one can logically explain. But one does have to think about these things constantly. Another issue is names. Do you anglicize names or not? This particularly comes up in novels—such as one by Elias Khoury that I translated—which focus on Arab communities that are of Christian origin. That novel was translated twice at around the same time, and the other translator and I made different choices, particularly for saints’ names. I chose to keep the Arabic, and he did not. To me, there was a kind of intimacy in the way that characters spoke of the saints and their local shrines, and I felt those names needed to be preserved and not distanced from the scene, as it were. But someone else might feel that I was unnecessarily complicating things.

You’ve translated a number of well-known authors, such as Hoda Barakat and Elias Khoury. How closely do you tend to work with the authors of the texts you translate, and does it help or hinder the process?

That’s a loaded question! With Hoda I work closely but she never interferes: we’ll discuss things, but basically it is totally my call. The same was true with Elias, and the same is true working with Hassan Daoud. (We had a funny time with his last novel, No Road to Paradise, when I pointed out to him that he was using kanabaya as both sofa and armchair, and the difference was crucial to the story.) These (and other) authors respect my knowledge and my artistic choices as a translator, while always being ready to help. Others have been much more controlling, or have attempted to be. The notorious case of this—about which I’ve written widely, because readers, writers, and translators need to know that this kind of thing happens—is when the author of Girls of Riyadh (and her press was behind their “star” in this) decided to rewrite my translation. In my view, the result was a disaster—and the reviews mostly concurred. That’s a novel which, when it came out, manifested some really innovative features and stylistic challenges, with important political resonance, which is why I wanted to translate it. Ironically, the author’s version erased most of the innovative aspects and suppressed the novel’s politics of language. Very sad.

But in the end, I think it is important to say that amongst my best friends are writers I have translated. There’s something intimate about translation that (along with other factors, of course) seems to either make or break a relationship. Thankfully, in my case it has mostly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, both the translation work itself and the intimacies that have arisen from it.

How do you see translation interacting with other fields, such as literature or history or politics? Is it possible to speak of it in isolation, or does it depend on these other areas?

As a scholar I study translation, in particular the place of translation in debates around nationalism, modernity, and gender in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Arab region. When one starts looking inside the translation, at choices people made, it can be very revealing. I just wrote a book chapter on two translations in Egypt of Fenelon’s famous seventeenth-century French text on girls’ education, which was translated into many languages. The two translators in Egypt (1901, 1909) chose to translate it in radically different ways, and that tells us volumes about their sense of what their society needed at that time.

One absolutely cannot separate translation from either politics or history—both those of the original text’s context and that of the context of translation. Given all that is going on in the Arab region, all the tragedy people are facing, the long tragedy the Palestinian people have endured, and the persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about “Arabs” and “Muslims”—and given the fact that publishers aren’t necessarily keen to publish what we think is most important to translate—the works we choose to translate, the ways we translate them, the editing, and the choice of cover art all have political stakes. For me, translation is an intertwined aesthetic and political act, that is the way it should be, but it makes it all the more difficult.