The 2009 novel by Lebanese author Alawiyya Sobh Ismuhu al Gharam has been named by some (Youssef Rakha in particular) as the book that should’ve won the Arabic Booker. The novel, which has received excellent reviews from the Arabic press, did make the prize’s longlist, but not the shortlist.

From the excerpt translated into English and published in Banipal 36, I would put it on the shortlist—indeed—but I wouldn’t gnash my teeth and scream that it didn’t win the prize. (Note: I am a Scandinavian Midwesterner, and it’s quite rare for me to gnash my teeth and scream.)

Of course, these things are a) difficult to judge from an excerpt and, b) exceedingly difficult to judge in translation even if they’ve all been translated with equal artistry.

And Ismuhu al Gharam seems to rely a great deal on the beauty of its prose and imagery, rather than high-interest storytelling. For instance: “His body hair, which I had taken to be a sign of virility and one of the indicators of a man’s masculinity, seemed to me like lilies of the valley—their flowering formations carpeting his slender body, shimmering across the expanse of his skin like a sheet of water that tenderly nurtured the flowers as they hummed into bloom.”

I can see how this is interesting imagery (describing her lover), but the sentence structure, particularly at the tail end, frustrated me.

This worked better, I think: “It was raining, the droplets trickling down the skyward edge of the window like falling tears, or little percussive incantations, dancing on the breeze.” I liked the idea of the droplets dancing on the breeze; it resonated with her mindset; I got it in English.

Some have rendered Ismuhu al Gharam as Its Name is Love and others (including translator Maia Tabet) as It’s Called Love. Based on the excerpt, I’d have to go with Its Name is Passion, although with that sort of moniker I suppose it requires a cover with a horse and a sunset and a woman’s hair blowing wildly in the wind.

The excerpt did have interesting views on pregnancy, repetition, creation, and love—but this was clearly not where the text’s heart lay, and I’m afraid Maia Tabet’s brief translation hasn’t captured the reported elegance of Sobh’s prose. If this book appears in English—and I hope it will—it will need to be very carefully and beautifully done.

Insha’allah.

3 thoughts on “Review of (an excerpt of) the One Not Shortlisted: Its Name is Love

  1. Is there a reason translators are so bad at titles and/or insist on making them sexier? All jokes aside, I think that is also a poor translation. Not as bad as _Sparks As Big As Castles_, but still. I would say the proper translation of gharaam is romance, not love. As you can tell by the separation and meaning of their respective counterparts in English, there happens to be a big difference in Arabic.

  2. Although “romance” in a title might give the reader certain chick-lit notions about what the book should be about.

    There seems to be a great deal of theory about translation (foreignizing vs. domesticizing, etc.), but not as much thought given to the art of it.

    I think they didn’t have much time with the Booker-shortlist excerpts, although the translation of /Cloudy Day on the West Side/ came out quite well.

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