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A Conversation with Marilyn Booth

This month, Yale University Press published Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat, a chilling novel that weaves together a series of devastating confessions about life in contemporary Arab society. 

Set in an unnamed, war-torn country, the novel consists of six letters—all intercepted by unintended recipients, all of whom are compelled to write their own letters of confession. We sat down with translator Marilyn Booth to discuss the art of translation and how she synergizes the author’s creative impulse with her own.

Yale University Press: We want to start by asking you about your experience as a translator. When you sit down to translate a book, how do you begin? 

Marilyn Booth: What draws me to a work is the narrative voice and the language, rather than other aspects of fiction that are also important. What is most important to me is conveying that sense of voice. 

I approached this work first of all by thinking about voice, or voices. I would also say that one of the biggest challenges for me in this book (and it was a fascinating challenge) was that these characters are speaking to us, but they’re speaking to us by writing letters, at least in the first part. And writing letters is different than speaking orally, so you can’t just translate it as if it’s someone speaking orally. You have to think about the fact that here’s a character who is actually trying to justify themselves in written form. And they may not be writing very elegantly, but they are writing. So my choices were quite often modulated by that fact—this is someone reporting, maybe remembering reported speech, remembering conversations. To me that was very important.

YUP: How do you choose what to translate?

MB: When I first started translating, I deliberately wanted to try to get more works by Arab women into English. Nawal al-Saadawi was known—and I translated her prison memoirs—but I knew there were these other amazing women who were writing and needed to be heard. That’s still very important to me, but now there is so much more being translated. It’s a very different scene now, which is fantastic, although there is always more to be done. 

If I’m going to translate something, it has to appeal to me as a reader, and again, the most important thing is the voice and the writing. I really love very complex writing and slightly difficult writing. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a difficult work to read, it’s just tricky to translate. But I also have to be comfortable with the politics of a work to translate it. I can’t translate something I don’t believe in.

YUP: When you translate works by Hoda Barakat, do you collaborate with her in the translation?

MB: Yes, we have an excellent working relationship—we always have—one of mutual respect. She will respond to my questions, and we communicate in a mix of Arabic, French, and English. She has said some very beautiful things to me in public, where we’ve done readings—she has said, “I feel like when I’m listening to Marilyn, I’m listening to myself.” 

YUP: That is amazing.

MB: It is amazing! I have to say, one of the things I’ve loved about translation is that I’ve developed some very strong and intimate friendships through translating literary works that I love. It’s a very intimate thing you’re doing, translating someone. But there also needs to be the understanding that translation is my craft, and we can talk endlessly about a particular choice, but in the end, it needs to be my decision.

YUP: What is one thing you wish people knew about the art of translation, or about translators and their work?

MB: I think there’s a lot more appreciation for translation now. But I think people still don’t understand just how many choices one has to make, and how as a translator, you’re also such a close reader of the work, and you are interpreting the work. It’s important both to recognize the translator as a co-author and also as a creative writer. But as a creative writer who is also extremely dedicated to a particular text, and always in the context of a collective enterprise.

YUP: It’s such a synergetic activity, completely focused on synthesizing and synergizing your own creative impulse with someone else’s creative impulse.

MB: Yes. It’s hugely frustrating at times, but mostly it is endlessly wonderful.

Marilyn Booth is professor of Arabic languages and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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