Marilyn Booth on What Should Be Obvious (But Isn’t) About Translating Arabic Literature

Professor Marilyn Booth holds the Iraq Chair in Arabic & Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and is a high-profile translator of Arabic fiction into English. Sarah Irving interviewed her about her thirty-year career in translation:

Marilyn Booth with Palestinian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah.

Marilyn Booth with Palestinian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah.

Sarah Irving: How did you become a translator in the first place? How did you actually start out? Was it an aspiration or something that happened accidentally?

Marilyn Booth: Somewhere between the two, I think. I would have to say that I started because I had to do quite a lot of translation for my PhD dissertation, translating poetry, and I really loved it. Actually I had done a lot of translation of 1920s ‘romantic’ prose for my BA thesis on Mayy Ziyada. Both were difficult and fun in completely different ways. Recherche and down to earth! Bayram al-Tunisi was ‘ammiyya poetry so it was quite challenging and then I won an award for it which was nice—it was already rewarding in itself but it was really helpful to feel some encouragement from others, as a student. I think we need to develop more venues for that. Translation is such an ever-impossible and also lonely enterprise, new and good translators should be encouraged — they are now, more than in the past, at least with regards to Arabic literature.

I was trying to think about this — when did I start? What is a start?! And I can’t actually remember, but I must have started my first independent translation really soon after I finished my PhD. The timing is all a bit hazy now, because I was trying out various possibilities for my near-future as most of us do. I  was coming up with a project but around the same time I was asked to translate Nawal al-Saadawi’s prison memoirs, which actually is a book of hers that I do think is worthwhile (by this I mean that while I have regard for her early nonfiction, as well as these prison memoirs, and also have regard for the fact that people do react in interesting ways to her fiction, I find her nonfiction, or some of it, more satisfying intellectually and narratively).

9780292708037Meanwhile the editor of Quartet Books, whom I got to know, was interested in supporting Arabic translation. We started brainstorming around putting together a volume of writings by Egyptian women. Eventually we settled on short stories, and I have always loved short stories, so I thought, Oh yes, what a good idea! So I started reading short stories, originally with the intention that I would put together a fairly traditional kind of collection – thinking about who were the important writers, since the 1920s, one story per author and only a few per generation, and so on. But as I read on and on,  I read a lot of things that didn’t excite me much and, I thought, would not excite readers in English much. It is good to give readers a historical sense of a tradition — I’ve tried to do that in other ways, both through translation and through academic writing — but you also have to think, of course, about what will excite an audience NOW? Eventually, I decided to focus on eight writers who, then, were not really well known, though I’m delighted that they have become better known since — Salwa Bakr, for instance. She was certainly drawing attention in Egypt: her first short story collection was quite new and different.

So I did that collection, and I really enjoyed it. But it is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, fabulous and difficult. In a project like this you’re working between radically diverse voices, you’re working with eight different authorial voices and styles. I did not want to homogenize those voices and I’m afraid that is something that happens sometimes. It was extremely challenging — in some ways more so than doing a novel or a collection of works by one author, because then you’re inside that author’s voice, but I was very pleased with the result and I’m very proud of that book and I’m sorry it’s out of print. It’s kind of “of it’s moment,” because at the time very little had been published in translation by Egyptian female authors. One of my reasons for wanting to do it was that it seemed that the only Egyptian female author that people outside of the Arab world knew was Nawal al-Saadawi, and whatever one thinks of her work I didn’t think she should be the only voice out there.


This coincided with a period of time when I didn’t have (or want!) an academic job, so it also fulfilled an artistic and intellectual need for me to do that kind of work. I was committed to research but literary translation has always been for me an artistic outlet, an avocation, a professional commitment and (I think) a duty, so I just continued from there, alongside research. I had quite a long time as an independent scholar – or unemployed, depending on how you want to define it! I did have some grants and was doing some research but I was also translating. I also found that translating is something that you can combine with having babies, because — except for the very final stages when you really need to live inside the work — it is something that you can pick up and put down. I did think quite seriously about going into translation full-time, but at that time, I would have had to go into commercial translation and I didn’t want to do that. I knew I wanted to translate literature but I didn’t want to turn it into a business. That’s never been the way that I’ve seen it — which is fortunate because you can’t really regard literary translation as a business because you make no money at it. At the same time, I am seriously mentoring emerging translators, those of us who have done a lot of translation have a responsibility to do that, especially since it is an ever-more competitive atmosphere now — ironically! Arabic lit is more on the map, but it is harder than ever to have a say in what that means and how to define it.

SI: You work both as an academic and as a translator. Much of your academic work focuses on female writers and activists, but you’ve translated both male and female writers and those have had protagonists of both genders, so you’ve worked with a lot of different styles and themes. How do you find the novels you translate? Do they come to you or do you discover them and find a publisher?


MB: It’s been different with each one. Some novels I’ve been asked to translate and have decided to do so, and others I’ve been asked to do and have turned down. But in general and certainly for the past period of time, it’s been either that I have found the novel or the short story collection, or a publisher has suggested it. I should say — for the benefit of any readers who are thinking of just doing a translation and then trying to ‘sell’ it — that is unfortunately becoming harder. I’m delighted that Arabic literature is more on the international map now, but distressed that what can get published in translation is in some ways more constrained. Publishers want  BLING!

What many of us want to translate are the intense and beautifully written and consummately constructed but not always easy novels of many writers throughout the Arab world. It is a bit frustrating that certain rather narrow conceptions of ‘market’ — and holdovers of Orientalist concepts of what writers from Arabic-speaking societies should be saying — govern what gets taken. I don’t want to overdo this: There are a lot of fantastic authors being translated. And I absolutely support the notion that bestseller novels in the Middle East should be translated — don’t readers of European languages want to know what readers of Arabic spend their evenings in bed reading? The problem is that — as with other literatures in translation — there is a narrow if swift-flowing channel of works that actually get into English.

I will also say (if any new translators are listening!) that I have learned the hard way that one should translate things that really speak to you. That should be obvious, but sometimes it isn’t, and one can also think that a novel speaks to one and then find out half way through that it no long does, which is one of the perils of this artistic and political commitment (which I believe, for me, it is, equally in both measure). But in general I’ve translated works that I really either felt passionate about or felt were important to have translated, or hopefully both – it’s best when it’s both, obviously.

SI: What kind of relationship do you tend to have with the authors of works you translate?

MB: It’s been really different with each one. Actually, as a result of a couple of experiences of this I started doing some research which I’ve never published but which I hope to get back to soon. I think it’s a really important issue, the translator-author relationship as part of the production of the text-in-translation. There are also the vagaries of the translator-author-publisher relationship(s), and that complicates things even further. I respect the fact that publishers have to sell what they take on, and that’s good of course for the book, for both authors (‘original’ and ‘translator’). It isn’t always comfortable; if they take you on, publishers are great and you work together. I do give emerging translators whom I mentor a lot of advice on dealing with publishers: you need to ask them as much as they ask you. It’s a relationship. They understand that, they appreciate it.

In general, for me, one of the wonderful and very rewarding parts of translation has been getting to know authors, especially when it is first through their texts, and then forming personal relationships. No surprise that when I really like a work, I’m going to really enjoy the author! (This might not always be true but for me it has been consistently good). I have some very close friends where the friendship happened through translation and that’s been absolutely wonderful, and it has been consistent. Translating someone is an intimate act, and when that results in friendship it is beautiful.

In other cases it’s been a case of generally going to the author quite late on in the writing of the translation for help with certain things. Translators and authors both have different ways of working on that. Some authors don’t want to be involved at all, and I respect that. Some authors want to be a little bit too involved, and don’t understand what translation means. I’ve certainly had that experience and it has been disappointing and I think has meant a less successful outcome.

Obviously the best situation is one of mutual respect, when authors respect what translators do and realise that it is a special kind of work and is something that in a sense requires a different set of talents. Most of the authors I have worked with (though there are some unfortunate and fairly high profile exceptions!) have recognized that — after all, a good writer would recognize it. They know that fine translation requires writerly talent. You can’t be a good literary translator without being a good writer, but at the same time there are lots of other aspects and so I think a lot of it depends on what the writer’s expectations are and how much they know about the art of translation. That’s been true for me in my relationships with authors and it’s definitely true in other situations.

I remember one colleague once saying to me that he particularly loved working with Jabra Ibrahim Jabra because Jabra himself was a well-known and superb translator and understood what translation was about. Two of the authors I’ve worked with are also translators and that’s been wonderful and in a sense they’ve been less interested in interfering because they know, and they’ve trusted me to work as a translator. Of course I’ve gone to them with questions, but in general they’ve stayed away from the process. One configuration has been especially lovely! I’ve translated literary works by someone who has translated my academic books. We are mutually vulnerable and this is the place where translation becomes affect and love as well as work and respect. I’d like to think more about translation as a relationship of affect.


There have been other authors who have been very interventionist, and those have been the worst experiences, and they’ve resulted in the worst translations. The very worst situation is when you have a writer who is certain that he or she knows English very well but in fact does not know it to the extent that they can actually be part of the translational process. Luckily that doesn’t happen very often and I do want to say that, in my experience, the huge majority of authors I’ve translated have been respectful. But I have to say I am much more wary now of going to the author and I’m much less likely  to allow an author to read the whole translation unless I feel that that is important, or unless I really know that author in a way that I know I can trust them with the text. Because once I’m translating it it’s no longer their text, it’s my text, and they don’t have a right to interfere. I am also no longer willing to allow publishers to do this to me, to impose a ‘star’ author — that is just not in anyone’s interests — particularly not the reader’s. So I do worry a bit about what is happening now. Can we feel secure that the present and very welcome hyped-up interest in Arabic literary works will really result in an appropriate continuing range (historically as well as in other ways) of works published, and in a fierce insistence on top-quality translation?

SI: What does your translation process look like?

MB: The first step, of course, is reading and re-reading and re-re-reading, and just thinking and dwelling inside the text. When you have a new text and you’re excited about it and you want to start translating it, you want to start immediately, but I try generally (not always successfully!) to resist that impulse, to spend a bit of time letting it just seep into me before I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I think that’s a really important thing to do and sometimes I’m more successful at that than at others. Of course sometimes there’s more pressure to get something done quickly, although that’s something I really resist and I do NOT – I never have and I never will – agree to do a translation where the timeline is shorter that I feel comfortable with. That does a complete disservice to the book, and to me as a writer. Just as it takes a writer an indefinite amount of time to write a book, that has to be regarded as a feature of really writerly translation. So I would never try to rush.

But once I have started actually translating, generally I like to go through the whole thing and do a rough translation, because that brings up a lot of things and raises a lot of issues. And it also means that I’m grappling in a different way with some of the things I was pondering before I started translating. So I do that, working of course very closely with the Arabic. And then do a second draft where I’m still going back and forth but I’m looking more globally in a sense. It’s not necessarily start to finish, because sometimes there is a piece in the middle that holds a key to the whole thing that I need to work with first. So I do that second draft and if time permits I try to put it away for a little while. And when I go back to it for the 3rd draft I really try to get away from the original text and try to work with the English for a while, although I still obviously go back to the Arabic quite a bit. At the end of the third draft I have what is not yet really polished in the way it has to be, but it’s a fairly good text and hopefully I’ve ironed out most of the problems.

With the fourth draft I actually go back to the Arabic and work very, very closely with it, having been away from it for a bit. And then the fifth draft – it’s usually about five drafts – is really the point where for me it almost becomes like a Sufi space in that I have to be inside it, I have to let the rest of the world recede, although one doesn’t always have the circumstances to do that. This is where, ideally, you can go to a translator’s retreat, but it’s an ideal one can’t normally have. But in the 5th draft I’m inside it, I’m trying to hear the voice, I’m again moving back and forth inside the text but trying to let that writing process happen with respect to the author’s voice on the one hand and the resonance of the Arabic but on the other hand with respect to my voice in the English and the translation, so I’m kind of doing this double thing.


That’s also when, in my experience, you start having dreams about the text – hopefully not nightmares! – and sometimes that produces surprising results. And that’s the stage I really love, but sometimes I also really hate it because you’re, like, ‘this is it’. But that, for me, is really the stage where I’m the writer, and the voice of the original work and my voice on the page are hopefully coming together, mingling, and often shouting at each other, but in general coming together. And that is also the only point where I can really appreciate what some writers mean when they say that at a certain point it just writes itself. Which of course doesn’t mean there’s no labour involved, or that there’s no tension or no frustration. But there’s a point of no return, and hopefully at the end of that point you resurface and you have this beautiful text!

SI: Translation is, for you, a creative process – one with technical aspects of grammar and vocabulary, but very much a process of creation. How do you weigh up the different aspects of you and the Arabic and the author?

MB: That’s a huge question. I’m actually as a translator quite conservative in the sense that I do generally stay quite close to the text. Obviously that varies, but in the end I find that actually that’s what works best. Listening closely to the author’s rhythm and words and voice, the way any of it gallops, is where I want to be, and really, staying close to the text is in the end what works, if it is a text you respect. The rhythm and voice are there. Yes, languages are different, and I do subscribe to the view that suggests you try to make readers of the translation hear the rhythm of the original. I believe in bringing a lot of the original language into the translation, and that works as long as you are respecting both the original rhythms and the possibility of translated readers catching it (they generally do! One of my problems with publishers is that they are scared readers won’t get it — I think they are generally wrong). It is in the fine grain of the original text that you find the voice of the translation.

So I am extremely attentive to the in-between of the language of the original, and the novels that I’ve liked best to translate I think demand that. To me, the really superb novel could not be written any differently than it is written and the translator must attend to that and respect that and work within that language. I find actually that sometimes a near-literal rendering is the most expressive and the best way to go. Obviously when I say literal I don’t mean literal but it is a question of where the language of the original leads you to, and in a sense that’s so much a part of the author’s voice and style that it has to be attended to — and you can ask the reader to attend to it, and though publishers get nervous, I think readers are there!

Two of my very favourite authors, Hoda Barakat or Hassan Daoud, both have an extremely precise and rich language, and one has to play extremely close attention to that precision and get that into the work, so I think it’s a matter of making sure that that’s always the language that you’re inside of and never getting too far away from it. (But will a publisher agree?!)

9781558615564_p0_v2_s260x420Of course on another level there are also lots of decisions you have to make: How much Arabic do you retain in the text? That really varies. Some novels are really enriched by it, some aren’t, and also of course there are issues around use of the vernacular. To what extent is it important to retain that vernacular voice and intimacy? Usually I think it is quite important, although it’s very hard to do, and of course we can’t have the same effect in English that switching between levels of language has in Arabic, because that movement in Arabic between ‘ammiyyas and fushas is one that immediately conveys a range of messages – whether it’s political or local intimacy or a place or moment – it’s never going to come across in the same way but one can approximate it. I remember when I was translating The Loved Ones by Alia Mamdouh, her use of Iraqi colloquial was enormously important, as a counter both to what was going on in Iraq from outside and in terms of a masculinised war culture which this novel challenged. I worked very hard with that to try and make sure that the colloquial-ness of that came through – partly by using Arabic words and partly by coming up with an English that would convey it.

Those issues all come up, and are both a lot of fun to work with and also difficult and frustrating at times. But to the extent that I’ve examined other translations by other people, naturally there’s a range of practices and it’s impossible to say what’s right and wrong. It has struck me, though, over and over, how compared to many translators (and contra a lot of what is said in Translation Studies) I do seem to be closer to the texture of the original. I’m not trying to make a claim of value, it’s just the way that I work and the way my voice intersects with the original. And I think actually it is the best way to introduce newness into the language of translation — in my case, to enrich English.

SI: Where do you stand on cases where there is, for instance, a very culturally specific metaphor or anecdote? Do you think that that is something that the Western reader should find out about or do you look for a Western equivalent that might convey the meaning more to the reader but might be less culturally specific?

MB: I’ve tended to find that when I’ve encountered that, for me, at least as a reader (because a translator is of course also a reader) the local resonance is quite important. So usually I try to preserve that in one way or another, and that tends to produce a richer text. Obviously you can only do that if you’re able to get across the meaning to a reader in English, so you’ve got to somehow explain it. What I sometimes do is to use the Arabic and then use something in English to convey the oral flavour as well as the meaning.

I’m lucky in that I come from several subcultures in the US and so I sometimes slide in regional usages, but of course that only makes sense in a US setting so if I am translating for a UK press it won’t work (though it might, given the interoceanic translations of terms!) Sometimes you can also reproduce that by using a certain kind of Arabic rhetoric, a certain kind of rhyming or repetition — but it also conveys a certain time period. I tend to prefer to keep the local resonance one way or another. Usually that works, but not always, and so also you draw on what is known as ‘compensation’ in translation, where in one place you can’t replicate something and  so you’re particularly insistent on doing it elsewhere, so in the end there is a balance that holds to the original.

SI: In the past you’ve expressed frustration at not being able to get a publisher to accept one of Hassan Daoud’s novels which you’ve recently translated. What are your feelings on what Western publishers choose to publish and not publish from contemporary Arabic literature?

MB: I think it’s very, very complicated. On the one hand I welcome the greater attention recently to Arabic literature and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that there is this new interest. On the other hand I worry a bit that the enthusiasm can end up narrowing the channels of what gets looked at. So publishers understandably want things that are new and fresh, that have to do with today’s politics and in the rush to find the new, sometimes works are passed over that might be a little harder to sell because they’re not fresh off the Arabic presses or perhaps don’t deal with the immediate political issues.

I think unfortunately there is still an over-emphasis on choosing novels in terms of the politics – in a broad sense – that the novels encapsulate. That’s not true of every publisher, but it is something that we have to face as authors and translators and readers. I think also there’s been a tendency because of high-profile prizes to focus on one author and figure: OK, this author is known, this author had a success, let’s just go with that one.

On the other hand I know of a couple of presses – particularly Arabia Books and Swallow Editions – who really are trying to deliberately bring out new voices who have not been heard before, sometimes not even in Arabic. As for any literature, there is of course the gap between the big commercial presses and the smaller literary and academic presses where, somewhat ironically, it is the smaller and poorer presses who are more willing to take a chance. I have been a bit distressed to see that some presses that appear to be better funded — through their own publishing or because they have grants of some kind – are not as bold and experimental as I would like them to be.

I do also think it is the case that novels that have been out for a while or are by writers who aren’t as well known do get passed over. In my own immediate experience, with a project I took on as a total labour of love, this happened. Hassan Daoud’s novel The Penguin’s Song deals with a moment following the Lebanese civil war: the issue of who owns Lebanon, who owns Beirut, and how do Lebanese subjects find a voice in a radically changed social and political situation? These are universal issues, pressing all over the Middle East (and pretty much everywhere else). So I don’t see this as a novel of the Lebanese civil war, I see it as a novel of the human condition in many times and places, which is as crucial now as when it was written. So it is distressing to see it passed over. I’m very happy to say that the committed humanitarian press City Lights is probably going to take it on, though there is no funding in sight!

SI: what advice would you have for someone considering going into literary translation?

MB: Do it!

In practical terms… I would say, start out modestly. The best thing to do is to start with short stories, poems, essays. There are some really good online venues now as well as print publications. I would also say if you can that it’s a really good idea to talk to translators who already have some experience – not only in terms of how to translate and how to choose a book, but also the nuts and bolts of the profession, because it is a minefield dealing with authors, publishers, editors, agents. I think most people involved in translating and publishing are genuinely interested in getting books out there, but at the same time it is a business and things can happen. I know a lot of horror stories, so I think it’s important to get as much advice as you can.

When you start to translate something make sure you have the rights. You might start translating a chapter or two to see how it goes or to do a sample for a publisher, but don’t get further into it without making sure that you have the rights. I speak from experience on that – my own experience but also other translators’ experiences. And do be in touch with the author as soon as you can, not necessarily to start working with that author but to try to create a relationship because as long as that’s possible that’s a good thing.


But start small, start modestly, and have translations published that you can show to publishers. And expect that if you do propose something to a publisher they will want you to do a sample. Also remember that the publisher isn’t just choosing you, you are choosing them – so with that sample you want to see how they would edit it. You want to get that edited sample back and you want to see if you agree with how they are dealing with you as a translator, as an artist, also as a labourer, and you want to be sure you’re comfortable in that situation. You need to demand your rights, as an artist and a labourer. I think all of us who work as literary translators need to think about working together—unfortunately, as in academe as well as the rest of the world, it is all about competition. For political and professional reasons, we need to counter that. The literary translation profession/avocation/love is a particularly apt site—alas!—for thinking about the conjunction of alienation and intense affiliation that seems to govern intellectual and artistic work right now.

Sarah IrvingSarah Irving [] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.

Categories: translation

2 replies


  1. New article: Marilyn Booth interviewed | Sarah Irving
  2. A translator’s process | The Translator's Corner

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