Interview with Marilyn Booth

For our 2011 landmark study on the translation of Arabic literature in the UK and Ireland in 2011, we interviewed the distinguished and outspoken translator and Professor of Arabic literature, […]

Posted by admin on 14 February 2013 Features, Literature Across Frontiers

For our 2011 landmark study on the translation of Arabic literature in the UK and Ireland in 2011, we interviewed the distinguished and outspoken translator and Professor of Arabic literature, Marilyn Booth. In this extract, she speaks to Alice Guthrie.

Marilyn Booth holds the Iraq Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where she is head of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and is also Joint Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW). She has most recently published an edited book, Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010; and her most recent literary translation is Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2012).

Alice Guthrie: How did you first become interested in Arabic?

Marilyn Booth: At the age of 11, I spent a year in Beirut with my family; my Dad was an academic, although not in Middle East studies, and took a year on sabbatical there. It opened my eyes, especially to the issue of Palestinian rights, and just as important was returning to the US and realising that, at that time, the word “Palestinian” wasn’t in the American lexicon. Perhaps that was my first instance of translational agony! So my interests were political, originally – I wanted to be a journalist who was informed about the Middle East and could speak the language well. But then as an undergraduate I got drawn into history and lit, and then into a PhD … and so on. I did Arabic and Middle East Studies as an undergraduate degree in US in the mid-70s. Language training was not as good then as it is now; textbooks were not as comprehensive and lively as they are now; Arabic was taught mostly as a dead language, and although I developed a true reverence for medieval classical Arabic, I’m envious of the more wholistic training that students get now. Still, it is crucial to have a strong grounding in the classical language. And that background made it possible for me to turn to translation, as well, which is an abiding love – and a political act – for me.

AG: What have been your most exciting, most fulfilling, and most successful projects in Arabic translation?

MB: One of the most difficult – and one I”m proud of – was the short story collection My Grandmother’s Cactus. It turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, on a number of levels, such as choosing the stories. One of the editors at Quartet suggested I do a collection, so I started reading short stories for it. At first I had thought of doing a traditional anthology, but I felt very unexcited by much of what I found, so I picked eight authors and took two or three stories from each of them. It was such a labour of love! I developed close friendships with the writers – a special and lasting outcome of the project. What was also difficult, but very very important to me, was working across stories, moving from one to another, and working in very different styles, because this is crucial in translation, and unfortunately doesn’t always happen – the writer’s voice must always be honoured! I work very hard on this – it’s absolutely key for me. And I think it is one of the most exciting and creative aspects of literary translation.

I am also extremely proud of my renderings of two of Hoda Barakat’s novels: she’s an amazing writer, very difficult to translate, but I am really happy with the way those books came out. (Alas, they have not received the same recognition in the Anglophone world that they have in Arabic and French.) I’m hoping to do more, but we’re having trouble finding a publisher, because she’s a difficult writer so will never have a Girls of Riyadh audience. Her work’s cerebral and image-rich; though her latest one is a departure, her novels have dealt with civil war and wounded masculinity, and there are usually very intense young men as protagonists, with a lot of quasi-madness and incipient violence. And a lush style. Disciples of Passion was prescient: it is a profound commentary on how people get lead into extremism. It’s very thought-provoking, and not handled in the obvious way. So of course it’s hard to find a publisher for this sort of thing.

AG: Have you translated anything that you have regretted, and if so why?

MB: I will say that in a few cases I’ve allowed my arm to be twisted and ended up wishing I hadn’t. There are a couple of different types of situation in which this can happen: a quick read might make me think I like it, but once I get to work on it I realise I actually don’t think so much of it. Perhaps it is like any intimate relationship (and the relationship between a translator and a text certainly is intimate!): the skin of it appeals but deeper knowledge yields a different feeling! It’s not smart to end up translating something you don’t like, even if you have another compelling reason – for example, a political one, or a personal loyalty – to take it on.

AG: How do you feel about the way the publishing industry handles Arabic literature in translation? I’m particularly interested in your notion of orientalist ethnographicism: to what extent is this escaped? Can you give me some examples?

MB: I would emphasise the bifurcation in publishing, that there is more than one situation. There are commercial presses, small literary ones, and academic ones. They do overlap, due to the pressure to commercialise, but they are different in terms of what they look for and what they are willing to do. So anything we say has to be carefully qualified. With that in mind, then, orientalist ethnographicism is this whole focus on tell-all memoirs, especially ones by women; it’s an iconography of the veil and stripping it off – the 21st-century version of ‘harem literature’ and the promise of the hidden exotic. It has had an impact on what publishers want and will go for – exposé, basically. It also builds on the longstanding and unfortunate focus with regards to Arabic literature (and some other ‘world literatures’) on asking for sociology or for political information instead of asking for literature.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with the demand for sociology in itself, but it shouldn’t be the main reason and criterion for a book being published, and too often it is. Publishers say ‘I’m really interested in stuff from Iraq right now,’ with politics as the main impetus behind that interest. So for example one learns a lot from Hoda Barakat about Lebanon and about the civil war, but you are also reading an amazing novel! So this concern with documentary mustn’t be the main thing. It’s a memoir-fixation. There is a lot of sensationalism involved, and this emphasis presumes a kind of transparency, an accuracy (in a very narrow sense). I’m optimistic on the one hand because there are more books coming out and more interest, but I’m also worried by the question of economics over the next few years – the coming closures of publishing houses and so on.

AG: What do you think of the choices that are made, in terms of which books actually end up getting published in English?

MB: I worry about the choices that are being made now, in the wake of things like Girls of Riyadh: there’s more focus on sort of – I don’t want to distinguish between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ works – but let’s say things that are easier reads and perhaps that publishers think will ‘grab’ a wide audience.  It is actually a very interesting moment for Arabic literature in English translation – in both a good sense and a disturbing sense. There’s truly a ‘buzz’ around contemporary Arabic literature now: publishers seem to be vying to get the latest hot novels. That’s great, of course. On the other hand, it means that slightly older works are if anything less likely to be picked up. As a labour of love, I’ve translated The Penguin’s Song by Hassan Daoud, whom I think is an outstanding contemporary Lebanese novelist. The work is a microcosmic treatment of the rebuilding of Beirut after the Lebanese civil war – and who was left out of that rebuilding. It takes up tropes of disability, sexual frustration, aging and most of all, social and economic isolation. I’ve sent it to a number of publishers and invariably the response has been, ‘beautiful novel, great translation – but a hard sell’. I suspect it is also that it is not the latest thing. And again, I think there is a political issue here, or a didactic one: the Lebanese war is over (even if it is never really over); readers must want to move on to something more topical. Never mind that this novel has a lot to say about issues of social and physical marginalisation everywhere. I don’t want to dump on publishers: increasingly, they do have to think about the vaunted bottom line. I recognise that. And I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think there are a lot of very fine works of literature that are going to be erased from international literary circulation as a result.

This is perhaps an illustration, too, of how, as a translator, one may avoid things one knows are unlikely to get taken up by a publisher, so there’s an element of self-censoring in that regard. Ironically, I wanted to translate Girls of Riyadh partly to put myself in a position to encourage Penguin to take on more risky Arabic works. But after my experience with them, I doubt I would ever translate for Penguin again!

AG: Do you feel that there is scope for an increased quality control mechanism in Arabic to English literary translation? 

There is quite a problem with quality control. And because there is a sudden jump in interest, that may become even more problematic. There are a number of aspects to this, and they concern all stages of the process – not just the translator’s work. For one thing, there is no tradition of literary editing in Arabic publishing, which means that the translator may be faced with a novel which is potentially fantastic but just not quite there. What does one do? Translators should not be saddled with editing, but sometimes there is little choice. Then, English-language publishers rarely have editors who know Arabic, and so things can happen in the editing process. Also, there is no easy way for translators to work on their art, other than by translating. It is a lonely business. I think most translators would welcome opportunities to consult with each other, to learn together, and so forth. I’m quite involved in mentoring translators; I think that is hugely important, but it isn’t enough. It would be great if Arabic literature had a residenicy programme where translators could work on their own projects but benefit from each other’s experience and passion for the art.

It is also very important to have critical reviews of translations, really focusing on translation. The cosiness of the field is a real problem! With publishers too. As I said, more presses are getting interested in Arabic stuff now, but they rush to print. People have often been put off Mahfuz by mediocre translations – no translation is better than a bad translation, but I have found myself having to persuade writers of this fact, as they tend to think that any translation is a start, gets them and their work ‘out there’ and known.

There is also an issue with this almost patronising attitude, not really expecting it to be all that good, and so not noticing that it is the TRANSLATION that is at fault, eg ‘Well, it’s only Arabic, how good could it be?’


AG: Do you perceive any new trends in Arabic translation? 

Do you think the demographic of who is working in this field is changing at all? I’m thinking of the field opening up to a broader range of types of people, as some people have suggested.

MB: Yes, more young and female translators are coming onto the scene, and also more bilingual people, people whose first language is not English. There were only a very few ‘others’, before – literary translators of  Arabic were all older male, and upper- to middle-class, though of course there were a few exceptions. Until recently, I was accused occasionally by male colleagues (whether other translators, other academics, or fiction writers) of avoiding male writers – but I haven’t. My initial translation of women was motivated by political commitment, but it turns out I also feel more comfortable rendering female voices, as a woman. But not always; and my past few translations have been of works by male writers with whose literary voices I feel very, very comfortable.

This interview was originally conducted as part of a wide-ranging study of how Arabic literature has been received in the UK and Ireland from 1990 to 2010. You can download the full report in our research section