On Marginalized Arab Literature and Translation: An Interview with Professor Marilyn Booth

By Ethan Dinçer

How do pieces of Arab literature make it to mainstream Western presses? What does the process of translating works and researching fringe literary actors look like? I spoke with Marilyn Booth, Professor and Director of Research in Oriental Studies and Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor in the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at Magdalen College, about her work not only as a prolific translator but also as the author of monographs on lesser-known poets and literary figures of the 19th and 20th century Ottoman Empire. Infused with a focus on gender politics, Professor Booth reflects on her research, translating experience, and the literary scene in the Arab world, historically and today. 

Ethan Dinçer: Can you trace how you came to be at the place you are today—doing intellectual history, translation studies, and literary translation, and spending quite a bit of time in Egypt and Lebanon?

Marilyn Booth: I can’t really claim that I’ve spent a lot of time in Beirut, but I spent a very important 9 months there as a 12-year-old. My father was an academic, not in Middle East studies, but he wanted to learn more about Islam. His focus was sub-Saharan African religions. We went to Beirut on his sabbatical, and it was important because I was at an age where I hadn’t really settled on anything yet, but I was open to learning about the world. I also grew up in a very internationally-minded family, and what was super important about that year was that I not only developed a real fascination with Arabic, even though I didn’t study it at all at that age, but I became very interested in the politics of the region, especially Palestine and what was going on there. 

When we returned to the US, I think that was just as important because that was quite a long time ago. When you spoke about Palestine in those days, people didn’t even really know what that was. So, that made me even more interested, and from that time I really settled on, ‘I want to study Arabic, and I want to become a journalist who actually knows the language and knows something about the region.’ Now, that career choice didn’t happen, and although I’ve always loved writing, I then went more into academic work because I’ve always loved research, too, although I did not really intend on an academic career. 

I did an undergraduate degree in Arabic and near the end of that I had a fellowship to go to Cairo to study Arabic. I completely fell in love with Cairo, with Egypt, and with Egyptian Arabic. So, I started a DPhil here at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship and spent more time in Cairo, for more language study and to do my DPhil research. I was very taken with Egyptian history, culture, and the warmth of people there, and with the vitality and emotional resonance of the vernacular language. People more often think of me as a literature person; I think of myself more as a historian, but a historian who works on literary texts (including the rhetoric of journalistic writing and conduct-book writing in the nineteenth century), so I hope that my work more or less straddles the two areas. 

One of the things that fascinated me, and continues to engage me, is the choice that some writers make to use a colloquial Arabic for artistic and political purposes, when there’s so much ideological weight placed on the classical—what are the reasons one would do that? Of course, in different periods and contexts, writers have different reasons to turn to the colloquial. It’s also about choice of literary genre. I studied a poet-journalist active especially from the 1910s-30s who composed poetry and wrote satiric prose in colloquial Egyptian and Tunisian Arabics. Ever since I was working on that doctoral thesis, even though I’ve worked on different kinds of texts, I think what I have always gravitated to is studying the history of the Arabic-language press and of different genres in the press. Along with that, I have focused on writers who hold marginalized positions as intellectuals in society, for example, colloquial poets who were on the intellectual and artistic fringes, sometimes by virtue of their choices of how and where to write. (Of course, there have also been colloquial poets who have not remained on ‘the fringes’!) This interest in relative marginalities has converged with  my strong and longtime interest in studying the differences that gender identities might make to rhetoric and writing, and also reception by readers. As a feminist for as long as I can remember, my work over the past twenty years at least has focused on gender politics in 19th and early 20th century Egypt. But I do think there is a common theme concerning marginalized subjectivities and writers whose names have sometimes dropped out of ‘history.’  

ED: Can you situate this context in what you’re working on now? How does this intellectual history of marginalization, subcultures, and feminism translate into your work now? 

MB: My last three monographs, and even my dissertation in certain ways, have dealt with gender as a central political issue, focusing on Egypt but also with relevance to the Ottoman Empire and the Levant. In fact, I just finished my latest monograph, on the literary figure and early feminist commentator Zaynab Fawwaz, who has long fascinated me. She was really a marginalized person, she wasn’t from a well-known elite family. She was originally from the south of Lebanon, Jabal ‘Amil, at the time a rather marginal region of the Ottoman Empire. Yet, she made a career. She wasn’t wealthy, and she initiated two divorces, which means she didn’t have much family support, yet she did become quite an important commentator. I think that her social positioning and the fact that she was a Shiite from south Lebanon was significant to her perspective on gender politics. She was quite out of the mainstream, an early advocate of non-essentialism and someone who even queried whether marriage was good for women—quite a bold question to pose at that time! So, even amongst the many, many people weighing in on the gender debates in 1890s Egypt and Ottoman Syria, she was unusual. I think her somewhat peripheral position is one way in which my interest in looking at the intellectual margins has continued. And then, much of her writing was published in newspapers and magazines, although she also wrote works of biography, fiction, and drama, which I also scrutinize in this book and my previous one. 

ED: This makes me think about access—has it been hard to find sources or find trails of these marginalized voices? Because so many archives are mostly driven by what we consider as ‘the victorious men,’ have you found any struggles in trying to access archival material either here at Oxford, here in the West, or in the Middle East? 

MB: The short answer is that before the age of the internet, but even now, it is very hard to find things here because one tends to find more mainstream literature in European and North American libraries—and also in the libraries of the Arabophone region. I could not have done the research I’ve done without spending several years in Egypt and gathering a lot of material there, mostly by buying things from secondhand book dealers. Even in Egypt, some of the more marginal stuff never made it into archives and libraries. One caveat though. When I say marginalized characters, true, they are marginalized with respect to mainstream discourse and the still-dominant canon of Arabic literature. But in another way, they are not marginal figures because they were literate, and they were writing. Thus, they were part of a rather small intellectual elite. They were speaking subjects, and certainly not ‘subalterns’ in a Spivakian sense, and the reason we can even study them at all is that they managed to publish their writings. But even within these intellectual circles, some people were more central than others—and some were quite well known then but have not been remembered, at least not by scholars, since. That’s the case, for instance, with translators and adaptors of works from other languages, which is a major element in my current research. 

ED: In your search and research looking for these marginalized, or maybe not marginalized, voices, have you been able to come across—whether in secondhand bookstores or through more independent publications—the more truly marginalized voices? 

MB: That’s hard. There are scholars who really try to get to the people who would be much more socially marginalized; they do so by going to state archives and having to try to find those voices between the lines of what gets written, but also by rethinking the whole concept of ‘archive’ and perhaps of ‘voice.’ That’s a different kind of work, and I can’t claim to do that. In fact, I am not certain that ‘marginalized’ is the best descriptor to use for those I study. They are on the margins of the intellectual elite, which was generally part of an emerging urban-based professional middle class. Whether one considers them marginal or not is something to debate. A term that sometimes gets used is ‘second-tier’ intellectual, but I find that a bit too negative, too evaluative, too beholden itself to the notion of a canon that is based on unarticulated assumptions. 

ED: Switching to your role as a prolific translator of literature—how do you view the translator’s role in the literary community?  

MB: I’m involved in translation in more than one way. I do translate, I translate mostly contemporary fiction, although I’m increasingly translating 19th century material, which I love very much. And then that overlaps with my study of translation in the Ottoman Empire historically. Part of my work as an intellectual historian is looking very closely at the way people translated—not just what they chose to translate, but how. It’s totally fascinating to see how local agendas reshape the works that are translated, sometimes resulting in new works that you would barely recognize from reading the ‘original’ works. It seems like an obvious point, but I think, too often, studies of translation have stopped at the ‘what’ and not gone on to look at the ‘how,’ and sometimes the results when you really look closely are very surprising. So, that is becoming a larger part of my work, and I think my next big project is going to focus quite a lot on it. It certainly intersects with the historical study of gender, because a lot of what was translated from French, English, and Russian concerned gender polemics—including anti-feminist polemics. 

In terms of my own work as a literary translator, in terms of the Arabophone literary community, you probably have to ask the writers rather than the translators—I’m not sure I can answer the question of what roles the translator might play. But for communities of readers of (in my case) English, I would say that translators play a very important communicative as well as artistic, aesthetic role. It’s not only a matter of rendering the works in translation. We are often the ones who ‘find’ and advocate for the works that end up getting translated. In other words, publishers in the Anglophone world, more often than not, do not have specialist readers who are going out and looking for things in Arabic—I wish they did, but not many do. Publishers really depend on translators by and large to say, ‘Hey there’s this fantastic novel from Syria, are you interested? I’ve done a sample chapter I can send you.’ We do an awful lot of unpaid work in order to try to get translations published, and it doesn’t always succeed. It’s really hard even when you’re regarded as a successful translator.  Since co-winning the Man Booker International Prize, I have heard from many writers. That’s lovely, but I think sometimes authors believe I can snap my fingers and a publisher will come running—but that is absolutely not the case! To be fair, publishers are operating under very tight margins and it’s quite difficult, they have to be extremely careful about the choices they make. It’s unfortunate that there is not more support for publishers and translators. 

ED: In the modern day, as a translator, do you find that politics ever intersects with your work to elevate voices and bring representation to Arab writers, literary influencers? Do you feel that politics gets in the way? 

MB: Well, yes, in the sense that politics can, to some extent, drive publisher’s choices. Again, they must think about readers; they have to think about what is going to grab readers, and what readers are going to want to read. I do sometimes feel a bit frustrated, because I feel like it’s more political than aesthetic criteria that end up being important in what gets translated. But, at the same time, I think that has changed, and it’s not nearly as true as it used to be. And also, it can be an opportunity. In general, there’s been a lot more interest in the aesthetic dimensions, and that’s been helped a lot by the fact that, even though there’s not a lot of Arabic literature published in translation, relatively speaking, there are many more publishers interested in it, particularly independent literary publishers who care about publishing top-quality fiction and poetry. But we should also not forget the crucial role that university presses play in supporting and sustaining literature in translation. So, I’m fairly optimistic about Arabic literature in translation, going forward. There are also a lot of people translating now. 

Of course, another way that politics comes into it is that we all have our politics, we all have our outlooks on life. Inevitably, one’s own formation and one’s own political choices shape one’s work as a translator. I wouldn’t say that it is always at a conscious level, but I’m not going to translate a book that I’m not comfortable with. In general, I’ve translated works that I really love, and often they are ones that I have decided I must translate, even if I don’t have a publisher lined up. (I don’t recommend doing this…). Sometimes, I’ve been asked to translate works that are a very good fit for me. There have been one or two that I’ve started enthusiastically but finished with less enthusiasm for as creative works—but I have not felt politically uncomfortable with any of them. I would be incapable of translating a misogynist work of literature. Some of the 19th century stuff that I’m translating is inimical to my feminist politics, but as a historian it’s important to have those things available. After all, they were the works that early feminists were often responding to. In a sense, that is politically part of what I’m doing by showing what some of these feminists were up against. With contemporary fiction I have to feel comfortable, I have to feel that I’m doing something that squares with my own principles, and with my own readerly self. 

ED:  Do you think that diaspora writers are helping to bridge that gap? There have been so many more Arab or Middle Eastern diaspora writers who live in the West but still speak both languages and can speak about some of those intricacies about being in the middle.

MB: I definitely think they do, whether they’re writing in Arabic or writing in another language. They also sometimes have more of an entree to publishers than people in the Middle East do, although they may or may not have an easier time getting some of their work out. 

ED: Going back to the study of translation, can you talk a little more about your experiences looking at 19th century translation? What have been the most thought-provoking things you’ve found? Not only with respect to translating from English to Arabic or Arabic to English, but also regarding the translation between communities themselves and across cultures? 

MB:  Yes—one is translating not only across cultures, but also time periods and ecologies, in a sense. I think one of the questions that comes up is what language do you translate into. When I’m translating polemics, for example essays, the main challenge is contextualizing the work. That means writing around the text, as part of translating it. Placing it for the reader, and being very, very careful about key words and how their meanings might have shifted over the past century plus. An obvious example is hijab. It has more than one meaning, and in the 19th century it had a much wider range of signification than we tend to think of it as having now. You must be extremely careful about how you translate but also about how you explain that term. You must preserve  the continuity of the term for the reader while also trying to evoke the many different shades of meaning. That’s true of any word, but it’s especially true historically, when you’re translating from an older time period. I always want to preserve the Arabic term itself in the translation, because I want readers to be able to trace, and I want them to realize that a particular term is being used in related but different ways. But sometimes, keeping the Arabic there can get a bit clunky. That’s a very difficult one. 

One thing that I’m just now starting to do is translating fiction from the 19th century, which I love doing. Not only is it a period that I’m really engaged in as a researcher, but also as a reader. I love reading Victorian and pre-Victorian English and Scottish fiction, and 19th-century French fiction. One thing I’m playing with at the moment is to what extent, for a novel published in 1890s Beirut, can I use a literary style evocative of Victorian language. Is that going to work, or is that going to sound weird—is it appropriate, or is it not?  Of course, it depends on the novel—one that I’m working on now really has elements of Gothic in it, so I think it makes complete sense to think in terms of European gothic and translate that way. But those are choices, and you have to be very careful because if you overdo it, it’s just going to come out a mess and it’s not going to be fun to read.

Another challenge is that the texts from that era are not always edited, you face challenges with a lot of typos and, in some cases, having more than one version of something. Those are standard text editing issues. 

ED: Thank you so much, Professor, for your time! Translation is an area I’ve been increasingly interested in applying to my own work, so thank you for sharing your great ideas and experiences.