Marilyn Booth is the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor of the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the University of Oxford, and a Governing Body Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 2014-15 she was Senior Humanities Research Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, and prior to that held the Iraq Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her most recent book is Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces: Writing Feminist History through Biography in Fin-de-siècle Egypt (Edinburgh, 2015). She has translated over a dozen novels, short story collections and memoirs from the Arabic, including work by Hoda Barakat, Somaya Ramadan, Ibtihal Salem, Nawal al-Sa'dawi, Sahar Tawfiq, and Latifa al-Zayyat. Her most recent translation is The Penguin’s Song by Hassan Daoud (City Lights, 2014).
Words without Borders: It must be gratifying to see the writer you translate honored as a finalist for the Man Booker. What is it that drew you, as a translator, to the writer's work?
MB: Hoda Barakat’s novels are powerful on so many levels. She creates characters who stay with you as a reader, through first-person narration and a refusal to simplify the ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions of individual existences, particularly under the stress of war and its aftermath. Her characters are complexes formed by the (related) pressures to fit into received categories of personhood, such as socially acceptable gender roles. Therefore, she asks readers to radically rethink notions of gender, heroism, in/sanity, and on and on. Each novel, as it crafts a memorable character who might be simultaneously appealing and appalling, also crafts a very particular historical narrative, in highly original and startling ways. The Tiller of Waters (Harith al-miyah), for instance, narrates the history of Lebanon through a history of fabric production, as articulated by a young man in the devastation left by Lebanon’s civil war on the physical and social fabric of Beirut.
But also, as a translator I’m drawn to the freshness, precision and historical rootedness of Hoda’s language. She is an amazing stylist, drawing on vocabulary that is sometimes quite unusual, even archaic, but never in an archaic way, and there’s nothing artificial or extraneous about it. Each novel is so differently voiced, as well. I’m working on her most recent novel, The Kingdom of this Earth (Malakut hadhihi al-ard). It is such a resonant novel, in the most precise way: when I read, I am hearing the oral heritage of the village-reared Maronites. Hoda brings the spoken word into this novel differently than she has in previous ones, as a part of this history. The novel is panoramic and multi-voiced, and in its historical specificity it offers a deep investigation of our own present, at least that would be one way of approaching it.
WWB: Can you tell us about a particular challenge/problem you've come across translating your writer's work and how you resolved it? Alternately, what's something you learned from translating this writer that [has stuck with you to this day]?
MB: As in translating any novel (or any text, perhaps), getting the voice right is crucial, and difficult. Living inside of these characters is at times painful but also rewarding. The historical specificity poses challenges. For instance, when I translated Tiller of Waters, I had to do quite a lot of research on fabrics. (Although, since I myself am a weaver, spinner, and knitter, it was a particular pleasure!) Getting the orality of Kingdom right is a challenge right now.
WWB: What trends or recurring themes do you see in the literature you translate?
MB: I can’t really answer that, except perhaps to say that these are the same themes one finds in literature the world over, arising from the questions we humans ask of ourselves. We go on asking them, and we haven’t yet—it seems from events in today’s world—found very good answers.