Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

Marilyn Booth on translators’ responsibility to push back on stereotypes

The award-winning translator shares her journey in the world of translation with us.

By Sharifah Alhinai

When Jokha Alharthi and Marilyn Booth jointly won the International Booker Prize for Celestial Bodies last year, I was elated, like many women in the Gulf were. For many of us, it was a watershed moment, not only because Jokha was the first author from the Gulf and larger Arab world to ever win the prize, but because her novel gave us hope for better representation of Gulf and Arab women in works of literature published in English.

As a fan of the book, I was adamant to meet the women behind it. Fortunately, I was able to meet the gracious Jokha just a month after the announcement of the award, at a book-signing event in Dubai. We managed to have a short chat before it was the next person in line’s turn to meet the author. All that was left for me to fulfill my curiosity and satisfaction was to meet Marilyn, Celestial Bodies’ Arabic-to-English translator and the force behind getting the novel published in English, who was not present at the time because she was teaching at the University of Oxford, where she is the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World.

So naturally, when I myself stepped foot in Oxford last fall to pursue my postgraduate studies there, I made a mental plan to meet Marilyn at some point during my time there.  But despite our buildings being located only a few meters away from each other, the hectic, condensed nature of my masters program, coupled with the disarray COVID-19 brought with it, meant that I left Oxford in March without having had the chance to meet Marilyn like I had intended.

Thankfully, modern technology has enabled what our confined reality has not, and I met Marilyn ‘face-to-face’ via video call last month. Over a creamy cup of tea, from her home in Oxford, the soft-spoken Marilyn shared with me her journey in the world of translation.

It all began in Beirut

Like many great love stories, Marilyn’s infatuation with the Arabic language began in Beirut, Lebanon, when she was just twelve years old. “My father, who was a scholar of Central African religions, wanted to learn more about Islam, so he took a sabbatical and took us all to Beirut, where he took classes in the AUB” she recounts as she travels back decades in time. “It was an incredibly formative experience for me, especially politically, and I really developed a great interest in the area, and specifically on the Palestinian issue, although I was quite young at the time.”

This was solidified upon her return to the United States, her home country, just a year later. “I was extremely affected, back in the US, by realizing (even at a young age) how people at that time just didn’t know about the Palestinians. The word ‘Palestinian’, and certainly the word ‘Palestine’, was not really in their vocabulary” she expresses.  “So, in high school I decided I wanted to study Arabic,” with a grander plan at that time to become a journalist who was not only well versed in history of the Arab world, but who was also fluent in the language. Therefore, upon graduating, she pursued an undergraduate degree in Arabic and Middle East history.

“Translation is my art”

– Marilyn Booth

It was throughout her university years at Harvard that she first developed an interest in translating literary texts. “During that time, when I wrote my honors dissertation – I wrote it on May Ziadeh– I did some translating, and I really loved the challenge of it, as well as doing the research.” Consequently, she would also go on to do some translation for her PhD thesis at the University of Oxford. It  “was really a very satisfying experience,” she describes.

From Nawal El Saadawi to Jokha Alharthi

Following the completion of her PhD, and after partaking in conversations with those in the literary circles of London, Marilyn decided to pursue her passion for translation. “For me, translation is my art” she smiles as she distinguishes it from her academic teaching and writing, while making clear her passion for research as well.

Her journey into the “deep and rich” world of Arabic literature began by translating a collection of short stories by Egyptian women that she selected, a ‘labour of love’ (My Grandmother’s Cactus: Stories by Egyptian Women), as well as Nawal El Saadawi’s Prison Memoirs (a new edition of which has been published recently). Over the years, she has also translated the works of well-known Arab writers and novelists, including Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat, Aliya Mamdouh and Hassan Daoud. Her most recently published work is, of course, Celestial Bodies, though when we spoke she had also just finished translating Hoda’s award-winning Barid Al Layl and Jokha’s more recent novel Narinjah, the English versions of which are scheduled to come out in 2021.

Marilyn Booth translated Celestial Bodies from Arabic to English, for which she and Jokha Alharthi were awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. Image: Sekka.

Many of the works she has translated, she had come across herself, as opposed to having been approached by authors or publishers to translate them. When I ask her about what draws her to translate one book as opposed to another, and what drives her to engage in the “intimate” process of its translation, she tells me “It needs to be a work that compels me… It’s also about innovation. I’m drawn to narrative voices that are complex. In the end, the language and writing—the voice—has to draw me.”

“I also feel strongly that it is important to get more [Arab] women’s voices out there, and when I started, that was really an issue for me, and that’s why I started with the collection of short stories by Egyptian women,” she adds.

Even though she did not end up going into journalism, “I have always felt that it was supremely important that we, academics, have an obligation to do what we can to try to create better understandings of the Arabic-speaking region among a larger audience, not just our students. So, for me, my translation has been a way to do that.”

“Literary works can lead people to ask new questions, to think in new ways, and to recognize that maybe the view that they’ve had about a particular society, or place is lacking. So, for me it’s a very political thing,” she adds. “I do feel that part of my responsibility as a translator is resisting and trying to push back on stereotypes.”

This has been most recently evident in Celestial Bodies, which has shaken up readers’ “knowledge of the region” as she says. In addition to weaving a colorful tapestry of Arab-Omani female characters, and providing a more refreshing, multidimensional narrative of them (as opposed to the ubiquitous one-dimensional depiction of them in many English language works in particular), the novel places Oman, a nation that remains relatively mysterious to many around the world, in the global spotlight. It also delves into and depicts—on an unparalleled level— the intricacies of Omani society, of which the legacy of slavery is not an insignificant feature, a topic that is now receiving growing interest in the Gulf. Though the history of slavery in the Arab region was not new to Marilyn given her academic focus, what she has admired about Jokha’s “fearless” approach is that “she deals with it with so much compassion.”

“I do feel that part of my responsibility as a translator is resisting and trying to push back on stereotypes”

– Marilyn Booth

Marilyn first read the Arabic version of Celestial Bodies back in 2011, after receiving a copy of it as a gift from Jokha, whom she had worked with in the very final stages of Jokha’s PhD dissertation, and she was immediately drawn to the possibility of translating it.  She remembers thinking, “I have to translate this. I love this book!” This was coupled with two feelings, “I had a feeling that I love it, that it needs to be out there, and people need to read it. But I also had this feeling of ‘I want to be the one who translates it!’ ” she laughs. “It’s a matter of the fit between a work and a translator’.

Translation as activism: Addressing the challenges of being a translator

Though she translated the novel in approximately one year, getting it published was not smooth sailing. The novel was rejected by a number of publishing houses, before it was taken on by Sandstone Press. “ I spent months getting rejected by quite a few publishers” says Marilyn, who has lost count of the precise number. “I had to fight for Celestial Bodies.” She feels fortunate to have met—by chance—a literary agent who took an interest in the book and eventually found Sandstone.

The difficulty of publishing translations is a theme that has marked Marilyn’s journey from translation to publication, and which is a constant challenge for most literary translators, and certainly those working from Arabic into English. “It’s just not easy” to get a book translated and successfully published, she says. Some of the reasons include the lack of familiarity with Arabic literary culture in most publishing houses in the Anglophone world, as well as a fear that some Arabic novels may be too inward-looking for, or somehow inaccessible to, English-speaking readers (though she says this is now changing, particularly with indie publishers). The latter was the case for the majority of the publishing houses who rejected Celestial Bodies, ironically, given the admitted ‘universal appeal’ it now enjoys.

“I had to fight for Celestial Bodies

– Marilyn Booth

Another challenge is recognition. “I have been saying and arguing for years that translators’ names ought to be on the front covers of books because we are co-authors, and that needs to be recognized,” she remarks; it is an argument that resists many publishers’ stance that placing translators’ names on the covers of books (as opposed to the title pages) would discourage readers from buying them. “You change that by confronting this, and getting readers to understand that translation is not only useful but contributes artistically in its own right to our world … and that translators are important to this process and should be recognized for what we do, materially as well as morally,” the self-described ‘translation activist’ says.

For Marilyn, the International Booker Prize highlights “translation as an act and an art that is all around us, and that matters. I think it’s important for readers to know [this], and it’s important for publishers too.” She continues to rally with other translators to add pressure on publishers to make positive changes in this regard, amongst raising other concerns like low pay or lack of royalties for translators. “We [translators] need to support each other,” she firmly states.

Sharifah Alhinai is the Co-founder and Managing Storyteller of Sekka.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.