Greatest Women in Translation: Marilyn Booth

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

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

Marilyn Booth

Created with Canva

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.

Greatest Women in Translation: Kari Dickson

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Image created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to my beloved Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

The interviewee featured this month is Kari Dickson, nominated by Sophie Hughes.

Kari Dickson

Created with Canva

1. You have taken an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Surrey. What a pleasant coincidence! I have also taken an MA in Translation Studies (with Intercultural Communication) there, in 2009/2010. So how about you start telling us a bit about it?

Back in the day, the MA at Surrey was the only one where you could specialize in Scandinavian languages. I thought it was an excellent programme; it combined theory with practice, and we also had classes in technology, international law and economics, as well as weekly talks by professionals. Translation theory is perhaps not everyone’s bag, and is an academic discipline in its own right. Personally, I enjoyed learning about different schools of thought on what the translation process is, and it supported my practice, but did not necessarily make me a better translator. In my experience as both a practitioner and a teacher, I have come to see it as a shortcut – it kick-starts the brain into thinking like a translator. However, I have also learnt over the years that it’s not necessary to have an MA in order to become an excellent translator, it’s the practice that really matters. I know many people who have come to translation via other routes. These days, however, more and more agencies are asking for higher qualifications and experience with CAT tools. And I’m showing my age by saying that when I did the MA, we discussed the CAT tools that were being introduced to the market, but they were still not a requirement to get work! I am also showing my age when I tell you that it was here that I learned to use a word processor; it was age of WordPerfect for DOS and daisywheel printers, but gave me an invaluable tool to start my career. My guess is that anyone thinking of being a translator today will know how to use a computer, so won’t need to do an MA for that!

The MA was geared towards commercial and technical translation, but the head of department knew that I wanted eventually to translate literature and encouraged me to pursue this. She was the one who put me in touch with NORLA, an organization that promotes Norwegian literature abroad and provides translation subsidies, as well as invaluable support for translators at all stages of the profession. And I am forever indebted to her for that. That meeting with NORLA was the greatest springboard to my development as a literary translator – the second being the BCLT summer school and what is now the National Centre for Writing.

I think that in terms of literary translation, these organizations and opportunities are of more importance than the MA, to be honest, as they have provide contact network of colleagues and publishers that support my life as a translator.

2. You worked for four years as staff translator at a Norwegian bank. How was this experience? What did you learn that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

The job at the central bank of Norway was my first job after doing the MA in Translation, and they definitely employed me because I had an MA. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work inhouse at the outset – I felt like a newly hatched chick, and was able to develop in a stable and secure environment, certainly in terms of finances and confidence. I worked as part of a team of three; the two other translators had been working there for many years and basically mentored me. One of the first things they suggested I do was learn to touch type, as it would increase my productivity. I had no background in economics, so obviously, I learned an enormous amount about economics in general, but also the national economy of Norway, as it was the central bank. But I also learned that I wasn’t necessarily suited to an office job. When I then set up as a freelancer, my experience from the central bank gave a kind of stamp of quality that helped to build my portfolio of clients.

This, in turn, provided me with a relatively good financial base from which to take the plunge into literary translation, through my contact with NORLA.

3. You have an impressively long list of translation works. Which of them did you like translating the most and why? And which of them was the most challenging and why?

Ohohoh, that is so hard to answer. Each book has its merits and challenges. But I do particularly like translating short stories, and at the moment am thoroughly enjoying working with Gunnhild Øyehaug. I first translated one of her short stories (Two by Two) in 2005, and have championed her ever since. Her first collection of short stories and first novel were then picked up by Farrar Strauss & Giroux in 2016, so I’ve been able to indulge in my love of her writing, and in the past few months I have translated a further five-six pieces by her. She is at once realistic and wildly fantastic, with a lot of humour, and she works on several levels, as she likes to use a meta-device or two. Her style involves a lot of comma splices, run-on sentences, and innovative use of compound nouns, etc., so there are plenty of challenges when rendering it in English. Interestingly, I seem to get away more with the US editors than I would with UK editors (having said that, I have never worked with a UK editor on Gunnhild’s work). We also have a very good working relationship – Gunnhild is one of the authors I have had most contact with. An obvious advantage of short stories is that they are fast to read, so we can have a couple of edits together and discuss them fully, whereas with longer works (some of the books I have done have been 600 pages plus) that is a lot harder, unless both author and translator take the time to sit together for a week or two!

The other book that I would like to mention is Beyond the Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjørnsen (aka Elling). This was a co-translation with Don Bartlett, and was my first published translation. I love working collaboratively. It has its challenges, especially in terms of ego, when the word you are so pleased with, is dropped – but I was constantly learning and honing my skills, and I do believe it makes for a better product (and possibly a better person too, as you’re having to work with and accommodate other people’s ideas and language). It was a great experience, as we played to each other strengths, and I would definitely like to do more co-translations.

4. In the 2017 edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you were part of a panel for Daniel Hahn: The Power of Translation. I’m not asking you to tell us about it because if you are like me, chances are you don’t remember it at all. So my question is: What is the power of translation, in your opinion?

Well, the way things stand today, certainly here in the UK, I think the power of translation is abundantly clear. I have spent much time over the past months and years thinking about what I can do personally to fight against the tide of xenophobia that has been unleashed since the Brexit referendum, and the answer is always translate, translate, translate. Miguel Unamuno famously said: Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by travelling. And translated literature allows us to do both, even from our armchair – it expands our understanding of other cultures and places, helps us to see our own situation in a new light, makes us curious, and broadens our capacity to embrace the unknown. Just a couple of days ago, I did a very Edinburgh Fringe thing for the first time in years: I took a punt on the one show that wasn’t sold out in the venue I was called Before the Revolution by the Temple Independent Theatre Company from Egypt and was in Arabic with surtitles. The two actors, dressed in white, stood facing us without moving, on a bed of nails for the entire forty minutes or so. At first I expected something more to happen, to be entertained more in some way, and then I thought “these people must really want to tell me their story” and I listened more carefully and learned so much. I left with a grain of understanding of what people in Egypt had been through, which I would never have had, had they hadn’t bothered to have their play translated and come to the Edinburgh Fringe.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things to be said about the power of translation, but for me, at the moment, this is the most important.

5. In ten years of experience giving seminars and talks, you have talked about different topics, such as translating (crime) fiction, translating cultural peculiarities, translation theory and practice, the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor, etc. What do you like talking about the most and why?

I always feel terrified when I’m asked to do something like this, but have learned to say yes, no matter. I tend to think of myself as quite an organic translator; I grew up bilingually, more or less, and even though I’ve studied translation theory and the like, I rarely think in any detail about what I’m doing or my strategy while I’m working. So being forced to sit down and think more clearly about the translation process from whichever angle is a good thing. I think it’s not so much what I’m talking about, but rather who I’m talking with that makes it fun. And I never tire of talking with other translators (I think generally, translators never tire of talking translation) – there are very few others who find the minutiae of what we do interesting for more than a short while, so it’s always a treat to be allowed to indulge. The last panel that I chaired on the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor was a great one as the topic is a rich vein to plow: the direct relationship between translator and editor, the translator as copy editor/proofer, the translator as editor of an anthology, for example. Everyone on the panels works with and wears both hats, so it was a very insightful, engaging and lively discussion.

6. What book translated from Norwegian into English do you highly recommend us?

Again, such a hard question to answer, I could recommend so many, for so many different reasons. But given what I said above about the power of translation, and given the swing to the right in so many countries today, I’m going to say The Seed by Tarjei Vesaas, published in English by Peter Owen in 1966. And since the terrorist attack in Norway by a far right extremist in 2011, I have been bending people’s ear about this book, and trying to get the publisher to retranslate it. I think perhaps I just need to do it, if nothing else to ease my own itch. Vesaas wrote the book in 1939-40. It is a highly symbolic story about how violence comes to an idyllic island with the arrival of a disturbed young man who had experienced a fatal explosion in the factory where he worked. It is about mob mentality, violence, blame, guilt and atonement, and the message could not be clearer: violence must not be tolerated.

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

There are so many great women in translation I would love to nominate, though you have interviewed a number of them already. I am going to nominate Marilyn Booth, who translates from Arabic, and her translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Beings recently won the Booker International. I know her as a former colleague from Edinburgh University, a neighbour, a fellow translator, and most essentially of all, good company!