Barbara Romaine on Translating Radwa Ashour

Khaled Mattawa and Barbara Romaine — the winner and runner-up of the 2011 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation — are either in London or on their way. Both will be in attendance at a ceremony on Monday, February 6 to honor their contributions to literary translation.

Mattawa must have been expecting the honor. But Romaine, like commended translator Maia Tabet (who will not be able to make the ceremony), seemed happily surprised by the accolades. I write about Romaine’s relationship with Specters over at the Egypt Independent (go on; read it). Below, a more complete version of my email back-and-forth with Romaine.

ArabLit: So how did your relationship with Radwa Ashour’s work begin? Was it your proposal to translate Siraaj or did the publisher approach you? I understand you worked closely with Bahaa Taher on translating Aunt Safiyya; he described it almost as a co-translation. Did you work as closely with Radwa Ashour? How was the process different between the two writer? How was working with Dr. Radwa to translate Siraaj different from working with her to translate Specters?

Barbara Romaine: I was studying in Egypt during the summer of 1996, and I paid a visit to Dar el Hilal in Kasr el Aini. I was browsing idly among the books when I happened to pick up Siraaj. I turned it over and read the biographical information on the back, only to learn that Radwa Ashour–of whom I’d never heard, up to that point–had gotten her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from which I graduated. It was too much serendipity–I had to buy the book. When I read it, I loved it, and thought it would be a good novel to translate. So I started on the work, although I had no idea whether I would ever find a way to publish the translation. Some six or seven years later, my friend and colleague Bill Granara published his translation of Granada, so I wrote to him and asked whether he could put me in touch with Radwa about another possible project. He did, I sent her a sample, and after she’d read it she agreed to go forward.

Bahaa Taher very kindly and generously allowed me to cut my translator’s teeth, so to speak, on Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery; he had good reason to want to supervise my work on it pretty carefully, since it was my first full-length project–this was in the days before widespread Internet/e-mail, by the way, so quite a lot of paper got sent back and forth between Virginia (where I was living at the time) and Geneva (where he was still employed by the United Nations). I have worked very closely with Radwa as well–on both novels, but especially on Specters, which, with its dual narrative, is more complex than Siraaj.

AL: What would you say the particular challenges were, in translating this Specters? Were they different from the challenges of translating Siraaj? Were you able to take things that you learned while translating Siraaj and bring them to the process of translating Specters? Was it somehow easier because you had the experience of translating Siraaj?

BR: Easily the most challenging part of translating Specters was the passages from al-Mutanabbi. When I set out to translate Specters, I decided to do what Gregory Rabassa is reputed to have done with most of his translations from Spanish, which is to say, translate and read at the same time, rather than read the book first. If I had read the book first, I would have been so thoroughly intimidated by the idea of trying to translate tenth-century poetry, that I’m sure I would never have accepted the project. When I got to those passages, my heart froze. I struggled and struggled, ravaging every Arabic dictionary I owned (including Lisan al-Arab), and finally, with a fatalistic sense of closing my eyes and plunging forward into heaven-knew-what, I sent the results off to Radwa. I had no idea whether I had done the lines anything like justice, but, to my astonished gratification, she was pleased. She had a number of emendations and suggestions, but she said that I had managed to bring off what was most important to her: above all she wanted a sense of the poetry’s original power to be preserved in the translation, although a translation could never equal the original (I agree with her there).

Siraaj consisted of elegant but fairly straightforward prose, and I encountered no difficulties with it of the magnitude of al-Mutanabbi. The experiences of translating these two novels were very different, and are somewhat difficult to compare. If I were to suggest a similarity, it might be in the passages in the two books that depict atrocities, which I find quite painful to work with, whether they are fictional (as in Siraaj) or factual (as in Specters).

AL: How do you see the importance of Specters, both to Egyptian & to global literature? The importance of Radwa Ashour?

BR: Specters, quite frankly, strikes a singular blow for Palestine. This is by no means the only significant aspect of the work. but I think it is a huge piece. Radwa’s own position relative to the question of Palestine may be informed by her marriage to Mourid al-Barghouti, but even before that it is informed by her own sense of justice. Among the things I love about Radwa’s writing is her courage in confronting the unthinkable–like those atrocities I referred to a moment ago. There is room for sentiment in her writing (in some of her depictions of family relations, for instance), but ultimately she does not shy away from harsh truths, and accordingly she doesn’t spare the reader, either.

As for your question about Specters‘ importance to Egyptian literature, specifically–well, that’s an enormous question, not one I could really address in a few words and do it justice. The significance of any work of literature can shift with the times, and of course Egypt has seen cataclysmic events since Specters first appeared in the original Arabic. Radwa’s documentation of Egyptian resistance to repressive institutions is and always has been of great importance, but now it resonates powerfully with the events of last winter, when Mubarak was at long last brought down. Specters also paints a portrait of how corruption on the national level is duplicated in other realms, such as the university: this is an issue in which Radwa continues to be very involved as an activist, a reformer within the university.

AL: What role does the Banipal prize play in developing the field of Arabic-English translation, if any? What sort of effect do you think it has, both on how you might conduct your work and the field in general?

BR: The Banipal competition and prize encourage the notion that translation–conventionally accorded a somewhat degraded status in the academic realm, compared with research and original writing–is a legitimate scholarly activity in its own right; meanwhile, global events of the past decade or so have advanced Western interest in Arabic literature, and the convergence of these phenomena–the development of the Banipal Trust, the legitimization (at least to some extent) of translation as a sophisticated intellectual pursuit, and a heightened interest on the part of Westerners in what Arab writers and poets have to say–helps to foster opportunities for, in particular, those of us in Arab-Islamic studies who work mainly with the language itself (often as teachers of Arabic).

AL: Do you think it helps the translator to establish a relationship with a particular writer’s work? (For instance, the pairing of Catherine Cobham & Hanan al-Shaykh seems to have borne fruit…) Do you hope to continue the association with Dr. Radwa and her work?

BR: I think it can be helpful to establish that relationship, although as I said previously Siraaj and Specters are sufficiently different that I’m not sure the principle applies so much in that particular case. I like working with Radwa–I have enormous admiration, respect, and affection for her. I would also like to have an opportunity, some time, to work with other writers. In the meantime, I’m very pleased indeed to have been offered the contract for Radwa’s 2008 novel Farag.

Romaine was tickled to see that she now has a Wikipedia page, which one imagines is the work of the intrepid @Zuberino.


  1. The translation is beautiful in general, but I have my own reservations concerning the last chapter which was not as emotionally strong as the original. Ashour’s language(Arabic) in the last chapter conveys deep grief suppressed to an incredible level, almost silent!

    1. The last chapter, as I remember it, was very quiet. I’ll have to re-read it…I’m certainly in a mood of deep grief this morning.

  2. Ahaha almost missed that comment at the end… yeah it was me, actually, and a great pleasure it was too 🙂

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