Greatest Women in Translation: Marilyn Booth

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Marilyn Booth, nominated by Kari Dickson.

Marilyn Booth

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1. First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Man Booker International Prize as Best International Novel of 2019 with Jokha Alharthi, author of Celestial Bodies, which you translated into English! Jokha was the first Arabic language writer to win the prize and the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, thanks to you! How does it feel co-winning such a prestigious prize with a woman author of firsts?

It feels great for many reasons. Women have been strong contributors to Arabic narrative and poetry forever, from pre-Islamic and early Islamic poets, and on to medieval Andalusian poets. When something recognizable as ‘the Arabic novel’ emerged in the nineteenth century, women were prominent among their authors (and translators), and they’ve been on the scene ever since, as fictionalists, memoirists and essayists, as well as poets. As Kim Ghattas wrote recently in an essay in The Atlantic, this prize is also yet another little puncture in the appallingly resilient Euro/American stereotypes about Arab women and Muslim women. I’m delighted that commentators have recognised how this novel really challenges stereotypes. It’s also great given the history of literary production in Oman. Long before Oman was a modern nation, it produced strong poets. But modern fiction in Arabic is a relative latecomer to Oman and the other Gulf countries, since the educational and printing infrastructure that was so important to forming writers and readers of fiction was established much earlier in  the national Arabophone communities that emerged from the Ottoman Empire, including Egypt and the rest of northern Africa as well as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine. So Oman hasn’t been at the centre of Arabic literary fiction, though there are many good writers there and I hope the prize encourages even more activity. So it is great to have Omani writers recognised. I also appreciated that this year’s short list was mostly women – all the translators and all but one of the writers (and I do have great respect for the one man writer on the list!).

But the most important thing is that I just felt this was a novel that had to be translated. I did it long before we had a publisher. Sometimes you just have to do things. So it is fantastic that it has gotten such recognition. But I’m afraid I also need to say: before we were shortlisted, the novel wasn’t being reviewed, or featured in bookstores, or anything. So I am a little cynical about the effect of prizes. Great – but what about all the other fantastic fiction in translation out there? The fiction that doesn’t get much notice? In the US, our novel is now being called a ‘must-read’ for autumn 2019, but if we hadn’t got the prize, would any of these enthusiastic commentators and readers have found it? It is great to laud the indie presses that are doing so much to get translated literature out there, but that’s only part of the story.

A book has to find its way to readers, and unfortunately this is not a ‘natural’ process most of the time.

2. Your latest translation, Night Post, by Hoda Barakat, is forthcoming in 2020. Could you tell us a bit about it and its translation process?

I am in the process! So I am in that horrible stage where I feel like I am incompetent at both Arabic and English. (Do other translators out there feel this? I know that some do.) This is an edgy and sad and beauitfully crafted work about statelessness, displacement, and intersections of political and personal conflict. I’ve translated Hoda before; her work is deep, inventive, bold, and ever-changing. The tone of this novel differs to earlier ones, I think, in its intensity, an urgent sense of anger and desperation – and an attempt to hold onto hope in spite of this – that the characters convey. It’s told by a series of narrators who are in limbo, politically, geographically, emotionally. Recently, Night Post was a controversial choice for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, sometimes called ‘the Arabic Booker’). I haven’t followed all the narrative on that, but what I celebrate is that this can be a controversial choice precisely because there is so much fantastic writing in Arabic that is being published. Not enough of it appears in translation, of course.

And one thing I feel passionate about is trying to find a way to translate and publish a lot of fantastic works in Arabic published throughout the twentieth century. There were some amazing 1950s novels for instance… (as there have been in every decade). Sometimes publishers seem to only want the latest thing – a little more on that below – and I think that is unfortunate.

I can’t really say any more about the process, because I’m inside of it. I’m in there, and moving around, and pondering voice. This novel is very different to Hoda’s earlier novels and, for instance, to Celestial Bodies. Of course, every work demands its own voice and its own set of strategies. That’s one of the creative joys of literary translation, isn’t it? Another is that, in the end, it’s about good writing.

3. In our email exchange, you mentioned you were treated in a “scandalous way” in translating Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea. Could you briefly tell us what happened?

Well, you asked about that – and indeed, it was a very upsetting experience. I cannot comment on the author’s perspective, because she never told me. She just wanted the translation to be other than the one I submitted. The ‘scandalous’ aspect was that Penguin, after accepting my translation (and apparently really liking it, to judge by the emails I got from the editor at the time), allowed the author to change it in any way she wanted. I don’t think the result was successful, but what is ‘scandalous’ is that they had no interest in my literary choices as a translator and I had no status as the author of the English-language text. I have used the term ‘scandalous’ because a reviewer used that for the translation – and I totally agreed with that reviewer, and I wrote in to say, yes, ‘scandalous’ but not for the reasons you think!

I really thought that this novel was fantastic in its innovative and out-there use of a blog structure, of colloquial Arabics, of a truly and literarily canny narrative about a globalized culture of privileged people. The Arabic text, in its structure, deploys a kind of voyeurism that actually exposes authoritarian patriarchal practices for what they are, and links local patriarchies to global consumer commodity fetishism as well as to attempted censorship practices which the novel defeats through its very existence. One of the ironies of the way I was treated in this translation situation was that unlike quite a few other academic specialists in Arabic literature, I really appreciated this novel. Not for the plot(s), the stories of the young women in themselves but rather for the politics of language and patriarchal culture that it so imaginatively inscribed (which are also about young women, of course, and young men). I’m still sad that the author apparently disliked my work so much that she wasn’t even willing to negotiate or work together on it, though I expressed to the editor a willingness to do so. (I knew I was perhaps being too edgy in my translation choices in that novel, and would have let go of some of that if we’d had a chance to work together on it.) I think it is a shame. In English, it emerged as a straightforward story about four Saudi young women, in a rather cliched style. I wanted to translate it because I thought it was much more than that.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole incident raises difficult questions about the distribution of power in the literary translation business, in a hyped-up commercial scene where celebrity authorship may not be a positive factor in producing the best possible translations. One ‘small’ – but I think very significant and disturbing – sign of that power imbalance is the fact that most presses still do not put translators’ names on book covers. Of course, that has to do with the prevailing sense that readers are scared off by translations. I hope (and believe) that this is changing, and the Man Booker International helps in that. But we translators have to keep on fighting for the rights we ought to have.

4. On the later article you wrote to the Translation Studies journal, Translator v. author (2008), you discuss this incident in light of domestication and “the strong bias toward ‘transparent’ translation that privileges sociological content over literary texture and the thickness of locale.” Do you think this is a problem faced mainly by translated Arabic literature in Anglophone literary marketplaces? Why do you think so?

I do think it is a problem, though I think the pressures are truly complicated. In this case, perhaps it was partly that the original author wanted her novel to appeal to a certain audience, and she thought she knew best how to do that. But that is part of a broader pressure, right? I can’t say whether this is more true for Arabic works than for other traditions. I expect most literary translators have been faced with situations where they are urged to provide more ‘clarity’ at the expense of following the rhythms and perspectives of the work they are translating. Of course, we all read partly in order to learn about other worlds, whether temporal or geographical or spiritual. But that’s also about appreciating types of complexity or ambiguity (or seeming ambiguity), including the different ways of being and seeing that different languages and histories offer. A novel set in Iraq, or in Oman, or in the US civil war, may teach readers a lot about ‘Iraqi history’ or ‘Omani history’ or ‘the history of the civil war’ but not necessarily in an easily understood fashion. Sometimes I have the feeling that publishers (and readers?) are more willing to accept complexity in a literary work centred in their own world of experience than they are if it is from elsewhere. I have wondered whether this is especially the case for works from Arabophone countries, or from Muslim-majority countries, given the intensive and sensitive political relations that partly govern attitudes amongst Europeans and North Americans towards those societies, and the very real desires that readers have to ‘understand’ them. But the worst thing is to me a novel for political information. Linked to this is a kind of ‘presentist’ bias in publishers’ choices: they seem most interested in the latest thing, and I think that is at least partly due to the intensity of the political scene in Arabophone countries. I’d like to hear from translators of other languages whether they feel a similar political pressure, though. At the same time, we are in a difficult political moment: so many people seem to be turning inward. Hoda’s Night Post is important, then, not only as a strong artistic presence but as a political intervention itself in a world where the displaced represent a radical ‘difference’ that is too often unwelcome. In this moment – no doubt in any moment – as a translator I feel that bringing such works into English is the most important political act I can offer.

Understanding of course is a much more complex operation, and I do trust readers to grapple with that necessary difficulty. As a translator, one way I try to bring the reader inside of a complex world that might be new to her is by preserving Arabic usages in the translation, and figuring out how to make them meaningful. I usually find that sticking very close to the language of the original yields the richest and most powerful translation. But that isn’t always the way others feel!

5. Among one of your current and envisioned research projects, you mention “research on contemporary practices of Arabic literary translation, especially first-author/second-author [translator] interactions and the politics of publishing and marketing.” Does it have anything to do with the incident above? Could you kindly elaborate a bit more about it?

I started interviewing other translators about this; I was motivated by that experience and by one other situation of miscommunication with an author I had translated. But also I wanted to pursue it because I have not seen much work in academic translation studies on how ‘first’ and ‘second’ authors get along. It’s a fascinating topic. For me, most of the authors I’ve translated have become wonderful friends. We work together. Translation is an intimate process of discovery for both authors, and I am enormously grateful for the friendships that have been at least partly the outcome of this process.

But as I suggested above, I think that in the present moment literary translation is particularly fraught, subject to all sorts of cultural and commercial and political pressures on everyone involved. (I am more sympathetic than I may sound to the pressures publishers deal with.) As you know from reading my articles, one thing that really animated and upset me about the Girls of Riyadh situation was that the academic literature on literary translation would suggest that I ‘had the power’, as a North American white woman, to produce the work. And yet, in that case, I clearly didn’t. So what is the politics here? I have to confess that I haven’t followed up on that research I did – I think it is important but I’m more interested in my nineteenth-century research.

6. One of your main topics of research and about which you have written books, book chapters, articles, and essays is gender, history, and politics in the Arabic literature. What is the connection among them?

And translation! This is an enormous topic. As in so many parts of the world (including most of Europe), in the nineteenth century, Arabophone intellectuals and activists of all persuasions were subjecting themselves and their societies to rigorous questioning about the sources of societal strength: nationalist movements emerged, partly (but not entirely) in response to European imperial power. A central aspect of this self-questioning concerned gender roles and how they were implicated in social transformation as well as in the international politics of reputation. I study the emergence of feminism and of other kinds of gender activism in Egypt and across the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, and particularly its discursive aspects: who was writing, about what, how, and who did writers seek to reach? I mentioned the novel earlier – and the nineteenth-century Arabic novel was a site for exploring such issues, especially through the theme of chosen romantic love versus arranged or coerced marriages, and how this intersected with national politics and economic well-being. Translation was hugely important: works from European languages as well as from Turkish were translated and adapted, and I study that range of practices. For instance, I recently published a study of how Fénelon’s 1689 French text on girls’ education was translated in radically different ways, and argued over, 1901-9, in Egypt.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’m nominating Lucy Byatt, whom I’ve known among a group of wonderful women in Edinburgh. Lucy is a translator of academic and creative nonfiction, especially works of history and art history, from Italian, and also writes in collaboration with others. She has produced some gorgeous books. Lucy also teaches at the University of Edinburgh.

One thought on “Greatest Women in Translation: Marilyn Booth

  1. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Kari Dickson | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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