Translator Barbara Romaine was unable to make the March 22-23 conference on Radwa Ashour and her writing. She presents her tribute to a novelist of “exceptional humanity” here:
By Barbara Romaine
I couldn’t tell you the date — some time in the spring of 1993 would be the best guess I could make. I was at Dar el-Hilal, which was about a twenty-minute walk along Kasr el-Aini from the apartment where I lived during my year at the AUC. I had gone to Dar el-Hilal simply to browse, to see what might be appealing, and for the pleasure of being completely surrounded by nothing but books for a little while. I picked up titles at random and looked them over, occasionally tucking one under my arm to purchase on my way out. At one point, in a stack next to a window with bright sunlight streaming in (or that is how I remember it, at any rate), I spotted a slim paperback with a blue-and-white cover, which I picked up and examined. It was a copy of Siraaj. I turned it over to read the back.
There was a photograph of a smiling, dark-haired woman. Beneath the picture I read that this was Dr. Radwa Ashour. There followed some basic background information, including the fact that she had received her PhD from the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in 1975. I went back and read this part again, to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. Dr. Radwa’s departure from UMass had preceded my arrival there (as an undergraduate) by a mere four years. The coincidence struck me as almost eerily serendipitous; it seemed to me that I was meant to buy the book.
Although I naturally did not know it then, this event augured a relationship that would acquire dimensions both professional and personal. Some time after I returned to the United States in June of 1993, I read Siraaj, and loved it. Among other things, I was struck by its unusual approach to a subject that has been addressed repeatedly in Arabic literature (and alas remains all too pertinent), namely the phenomenon of ruthless tyranny enacted in the East, but supported by the West.
Radwa’s introduction of a literally enslaved African population living parallel to a virtually enslaved Arab one seemed to me ingenious. I thought then of translating the novel, and proceeded to do so, although I had no idea how I might track down its author and ask her permission to seek a publisher. Then, in 2003, my colleague Bill Granara published his translation of Granada, and I saw my chance. I contacted Bill, and he agreed to put me in touch with Radwa. From there, the pieces fell into place fairly smoothly. It took me some time to secure a publisher for the translation of Siraaj, but in an odd twist of events, the process led to a new and ambitious project: Specters.
I must now make some observations about my professional relationship with Radwa, which has always been very much a collaborative one. Because her English is so beautifully fluent and expressive, I have been able to rely on her to check my translations, to offer corrections when I missed a word or a nuance, and in general to work with me in a highly co-operative fashion. The result, I like to think, has been translations that are as respectful as possible to her original work. I say “respectful,” rather than “faithful,” for reasons that are perhaps self-evident; “fidelity to the original” is a heavily-freighted notion in the world of translation.
I do want to say that, in agreeing to work with me in those early days, Radwa took a chance on me and my capabilities, and I have always felt deeply honored that she did so. Not only did she graciously permit me to translate Siraaj — which was only my second full-length project — but she then gave me the opportunity to work on two more of her books, including the monumental ’ATyaaf (Specters).
All of this is history — I have so far said very little about the gifted writer, the fearless activist, and the altogether extraordinary person Radwa is. The truth is I am at a loss to know how and where to begin with this topic, which — as anyone acquainted with Radwa and her work knows — is vast. After all, a whole conference was organized around it! What I would like to do is to try to sum up succinctly, in a sort of anecdotal fashion, my feelings about Radwa Ashour, her accomplishments, her courage, and her exceptional humanity.
When I was a child, I was asked — as children are — what I wanted to be when I grew up. I suppose I had the usual sort of answers: a ballerina, a musician, a veterinarian. I didn’t really know what I wanted, and the question remained unclear for a long time, even after I had spent many years in the world of work. Now at last, in my mid-fifties, I can answer the question with more conviction. I know what I would like to be when I grow up. I haven’t a prayer — any more than I had a prayer of becoming a ballerina or a pianist or a veterinarian. Nevertheless, when I grow up, I would like to be Radwa Ashour.
Also, a documentary about Ashour that came out of the conference:
Barbara Romaine has been teaching and translating Arabic for more than twenty years. She has published translations of three Egyptian novels, with another on the way (Radwa Ashour’s Blue Lorries, forthcoming in May from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing). She has also published shorter selections of prose and poetry in various literary journals.