On Translations

As I bounded through The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, I found myself torn. As much as I enjoyed the story, as much as I related to the characters and realized the trials of women aren’t so different across the globe, I couldn’t help but feel that my reflection in the glass was somewhat warped…. I kept turning my face to investigate, trying to figure out why I recognized my face there but also felt it wasn’t quite my face — like the eyes were the wrong shade of brown or the nose was a little shorter or the jaw line slightly higher than I thought.

It wasn’t until I read an article from the translator that I figured out what seemed wrong.

I was reading a novel about girls in Saudia Arabia, a country that was religiously, environmentally, historically, culturally, linguistically, socially, governmentally, etc. etc., different from mine, and it was too easy to get. That was the problem — it was too easy to read.

I don’t mean that it was a simple story. I mean that I didn’t have to look up anything. I didn’t have to google one single Arabic word. I didn’t have to google one single historical or political event. I didn’t once sit in discomfort. I was hand-fed this country and it’s varying cultures and beliefs on a silver spoon. I’ve read American novels that required more work on my part than this novel did. Sure it was nice to not have to work for it, as I have had to with most of my other reading for the Global Challenge, but at the same time, I felt like I had missed out on something big. I wanted a firework and I got a sparkler. Sure, it was nice to look at, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d missed a chance to feel something.

I did a little googling about the novel, thinking that I had a vague idea that the book had been banned in Saudi Arabia (it had), and stumbled across one sentence in the Wikipedia article on the novel that sparked my interest. Basically, it said that the translator, Marilyn Booth, wasn’t pleased with the published translation of the novel. I was already vaguely surprised that the Alsanea’s author acknowledgements didn’t mention Booth, who as a translator I would have thought played a bigger part in the story of the novel reaching the North American audience. Intrigued, I did a little sleuthing and found a very enlightening article from Booth herself.

In an article for Translation Studies, Booth remarks upon the impossible position she was put in when translating the novel and how she believes that position caused the novel to be a simplified version in translation. She found herself torn between loyalty to the text and the language it was originally written in, and Alsanea and the North American publisher, Penguin, who sought to make the novel as palatable as possible to a North American audience.

Booth, a renowned translator and scholar of Arabic languages and cultures, says that her “preferred translation strategy is ‘foreignizing’ in its determination not to succumb to a homogenizing language that erases or diminishes the differences within the original text, and that forces the reader (rather than the text) to accommodate to ‘the other’.” I think this is a really noble way of looking at the work of translating, especially when approaching a story about a place that has been so demonized, colonized, and over-all destabilized by the Western world. After the long and complex history of destruction and abuse that people in the Middle East have faced at the hands of American oppressors, the least an American audience can do is google words they don’t understand in a novel and learn a little about the world they’re reading.

I’ve constantly run up against the problem as I’ve worked through this challenge. Books in translation from areas of the world that the U.S. would rather forget about or control is extraordinarily hard. Any viewpoint or experience that the U.S. thinks would reflect unfavorably on their image as “The Free World” (a moniker that is ironic as it is false), is either tamped down completely or so hard to get your hands on that you give up looking for it. This successful attempt by Penguin and the author to make the text as simple and palatable as possible is another example of how the U.S. is as able to take criticism or appreciate other cultures as the President is willing to pay income taxes.

There is, of course, some merit in collapsing boundaries. Penguin and the author likely wanted the story to be easy for American readers to slip into in order to say “hey, look! Saudi women aren’t so different from you after all! We’re all the same deep down and we are all just humans spinning on this great ball in the Milky Way trying to get by!” Sure, okay. Using the whole, “we’re all the same on the inside” line can be a useful tool in removing bigotry, prejudice, racism, and hatred. It’s hard to hate someone else when the things that make you different aren’t clear. If we all look the same, it’s a lot harder to make it “us” versus “them.” But, at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s what happened with this story.

What I think happened here, after reading the differences between passages that Booth translated and passages that made the final cut of the novel, is that everything non-Western got clipped out or else twisted to sound or look Western. Any phrase or passage deemed too tricky for the American mind to navigate was omitted. They didn’t pare the story down to make two disparate societies seem similar. They took out almost everything distinctly Saudi about the novel and left all the bits that were Western, or changed bits to look Western, and said, “hey, they’re more like us than you thought.” And further, and perhaps most insidiously, they clipped anything that might suggest any bad blood between America and Saudi Arabia, and when that historical context is removed, the novel can go down as easily as a fine whiskey.

For example, Booth mentions a particular metaphor that is common in Saudi Arabia which she translated and was eventually cut out. In the beginning chapter, the character Gamrah reflects upon her mother’s advice to withhold sexually from her husband on their wedding night to increase his desire for her, and then her subsequent retraction when the strategy of leading the husband on backfires, as weeks pass without consummation. Gamrah’s mother, in the original text and in Booth’s translation, remarks “the that the policy of withholding was probably what had “brought Christmas to the Muslims”. The metaphor “bringing Christmas to the Muslims” was left out of the final text. Booth remarks that “To familiarize such a metaphor as “bringing Christmas to the Muslims” by omitting it assumes that North American experience and language are sufficient to represent a very different cultural context, rather than letting the reader partake in the hard work of translating cultures from within ‘the space between’, as Carol Maier puts it, where a multiplicity of ‘interchange’ rather than ‘failed exchange’ can take place”. Basically, by removing that phrase, the novel stops asking Americans, who are by and large Christians, to question the spaces where their culture collides with Islamic cultures, and thus, to ignore them entirely.

Did Alsanea write this novel to be a political tract to dismantle American imperialism and destroy Saudi patriarchy? Not specifically. It’s a chick lit novel about the ways that modern affluent Saudi women navigate life and love. But any novel about gender is inherently political, any novel that questions religion is political — especially in a place as rigidly ruled by a religious patriarchy as Saudi Arabia. Alsanea may have written the novel to expose the hypocrisy (relatively harmless at that) of the wealthy echelons of Saudi society, but tied up in all of that is a critique, no matter how quiet, about the way things are run in Saudi Arabia. And you can’t talk about how things are run in the Middle East without pointing some fingers at the West.

That said, I didn’t feel like I read a book about Saudi Arabia, a place as societally, religiously, environmentally, etc. etc. different from my rural Georgia upbringing as imaginable. I didn’t feel like I learned much about Saudi culture except what reinforced what the U.S. has been telling me about them for years. This book could have been set in Philadelphia for all the difference it would make. If you told me the heroines were from Detroit, I would shrug and say, “seems legit.”

I’m not doing this reading challenge to say, “Hey, everyone is more like Americans than I thought! How neat!” I’m doing it to gain a new perspective. I don’t want it to be easy. I want to have to work for it. I want to see cultures and people and societies as different from mine as possible and then do the work to say, “despite all of this, I can find the common threads of humanity.” The power of acceptance, of openness to others, of compassion isn’t in the ability to look at something familiar, or to make something familiar to you, and recognize it as the same as you. It’s to look at something different, something unexpected, something unknown, and recognize it as having the same basic parts as you. I’ve read some really amazing novels this year so far that have inspired that in me, and I’m disappointed that Penguin thought it would be too hard for me to see parts of myself in Saudi women.

Booth’s work is not just to match the Arabic words to the English ones, but to convey an entire set of cultures, dialects, histories, and more across the text. Further, The Girls of Riyadh is a novel about challenge and about subversion, so the burden to make it comprehensible to non-Arabic readers is expounded. In refusing to make the translation perfectly palatable and smoothly readable, and in fact, simple, for North American readers, Booth is keeping in line with the subversion and rebellion of the girls themselves. I feel that Booth’s attempt to keep the translations as close as possible to the original Arabic was a great feat of decolonization, and I wish I could read her version of the novel.

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