Marilyn Booth on Turning ‘Sayyidat al-Qamr’ into ‘Celestial Bodies’

Jokha al-Harthi’s Celestial Bodies is one of two titles translated from Arabic on the longlist for the 2019 Man Booker International. ArabLit’s editor M Lynx Qualey wrote a short piece on the book for The National; she and Bulaq co-host Ursula Lindsey also talked about it on Episode 29:

One of the remarkable aspects of the English edition of al-Harthi’s Sayyidat al-Qamr (Ladies of the Moon) is its musicality, its joy on the page. It was translated by award-winning but under-acclaimed translator Marilyn Booth, who answered a few questions about the process.

Whose decision was the title? Why Celestial Bodies?  

Marilyn Booth: Oh!! Titles… sometimes I think I stress over titles – and opening sentences – for more hours than I spend on the rest of the translation. In my experience, titles either work beautifully as literal translations of the original, or the original is impossible. There’s no in-between. The two I’ve struggled with the most are this one and Hoda Barakat’s Ahl al-hawa, and in both cases it is because the titles carry so many layers of meaning, so many idiomatic usages (not that other titles don’t carry layers of meaning – the layers just translate better.) So, sayyidat: ‘ladies’ totally doesn’t work, nor does ‘mistresses’ with that word’s various connotations in English, nor does ‘women’ (though that would have been better than the others). Sayyidat here is about authority and status both, and it is also about service – I could not find a word that worked well enough in English: in this case, English’s lexicon is just not rich enough (or I’m not imaginative enough). And ‘moon’ I also wanted to keep, but again, it just did not work in English to convey the layers of meaning in Arabic generally and in the novel specifically. (Will I get a hundred emails tomorrow suggesting brilliant titles?) The title we settled on happened in conversation, brain-storming… At first I resisted it, but the more I pondered it, the more I liked it. It doesn’t quite get across the nuances of the Arabic title, but it does other things. It responds sensitively to the novel. But, titles!! Ouch.

What was your discovery process? Where/how did you come across this novel? (Has your discovery process changed at all over the last decades?)

MB: I don’t have a single discovery process. Things are suggested, or I happen to read something. Or someone I respect insists! (Sometimes the latter has been a good thing, sometimes a bit less good.) In this case, I knew Jokha a bit, in another way, because she had been a doctoral student at Edinburgh, and I helped with the final stages of her thesis. She sent me her novel, I found it intriguing and a challenge and I wanted to do it. Also, a colleague with a lot of experience in Oman encouraged it and the Anglo-Omani Society were supporters. That was all important.

Sometimes we make choices because they stretch us. It was hard to translate a novel on and from Oman because I don’t know Oman or its intimate languages. But I was open to the challenge. Jokha was a great partner, helping with things I didn’t understand, and also respecting my artistry completely. Not all authors do that, sadly. Most do, thankfully.

How, ultimately, do you decide this is a project for you? What are you looking for in a book that makes you decide: yes, yes, this is a book I want to spend months rebuilding in English (or whatever your preferred metaphor)?

MB: So, the most decisive situation is when I read something and think: I cannot stand for someone else to translate this, it has to be me. That sounds arrogant and I don’t mean it to sound that way. Someone else would no doubt do an equally good translation. But I want to possess it (for the moment, contingently). Of the translations I have done, that has happened with the ones I am fondest of – so it is a clear signal. (I am not going to tell you which of my translations those are!! And there are often degrees…)

It is really hard to say, though, what this actually means. Above all, I am drawn to language that engages me (that’s also the biggest ‘love’ factor for me as a reader of novels written originally in other languages – so, in English and French). But of course, it’s also about all the other ways in which fiction works magically. How language makes character. Maybe that’s the key thing for me. I’m not sure.

I want to ask about just a few of the decisions you made: not using quotation marks (which there are in the original); the marked emphasis on rhythm and also rhyme (brilliant); and leaving in a somewhat scandalous amount of Arabic — not just for instance popping in Sanat al-kharsa when you’ve already got “Year of the disaster” or even “qaala al-ghuraab” since we need the long aaaaas, but also long stretches of “Bismillahi…ma sha’ allah…allahumma salli ala n-nabi… allahumma salli ala l-habib… bismillahi…”

I don’t remember feeling so much Arabic in your Daoud or Barakat or al-Zayyat translations, for instance. How do you decide when it’s the right thing to do, to evoke a certain linguistic insistence? Have times also changed, and we don’t have to worry so much about “scaring off” the reader? Or did you not ever worry about that? 

MB: Quotation marks, oh I don’t know, I don’t like quotation marks. And in some novels, speech runs into thought. In most, even when the author doesn’t mean it that way. Quotation marks are a distraction.

Rhythm and rhyme – so important when it is there in the original. One of the things I am still angry about concerning the ways that the author of Banat al-Riyadh wrecked my translation is that she destroyed the work I’d done on rhythms and rhymes  in the novel, both locally and more globally across the novel, which was about emphasizing the theme of the poems embedded in the novel, but also recognizing their poeticness and their resonance to the novel. And this is such a fundamental aspect of Arabic, of the language and of speakers’ identity with it. So, ignoring it? Now, that is a scandal!

Leaving Arabic in is not scandalous! Or if it is, scandalous in a good way, of course. It is interesting to think about whether that has become more acceptable. Maybe. But I still have arguments with editors about it. (I’m mostly implacable.)  I have used quite a lot of Arabic before in several of my translations, but not in the ones you mention, true. I think I do it most in the novels where dialogue is how the plot moves forward and where it is crucial to conveying character. Maybe especially female characters, their language. (In my translation of Alia Mamdouh’s The Loved Ones, I think I used quite a lot of Arabic). If Hoda Barakat and I find a publisher for it, I will translate her historical novel, and what I’ve done so far on that includes a lot more Arabic than my other translations of her novels do. The novel demands it. That’s the only answer I can give: the novel demands it.

But yes, I also want Anglophone readers to learn to enjoy having some Arabic in. They accept this for other literatures, why not Arabic? I do not ever (any more) do glossaries: the translation of the Arabic has to be there in the text, and that’s something I work on a lot. Actually, I think a bigger issue is insisting on literal translations sometimes where they are ‘awkward’ – but important. It’s only ‘awkward’ because it is unfamiliar. We need the ‘awkward’. I am unapologetic about trying for that (but one has to be strategic about it, of course. I am not trying to alienate readers, rather, to bring them along.)

The end result of your translation process is notably musical, and I was nearly always carried on the rhythm of it. How do you get from here to there? 

MB: I don’t know. I do read it out loud, and that sometimes yields some recognition of where things are still weak …. I think it is because I care so much about the language, and in the translations I’m happiest doing, the rhythm just comes. But that does involve a time when I am just totally inside the text. This is why I don’t like translating for commercially focused presses that want ‘copy’ (I am putting this a bit crassly, a bit unfairly, but not totally). I work back and forth through the entire translation and it isn’t there, it isn’t rhythmic, until it is totally there. I don’t think this would be a surprise to any caring literary translator, or to the wonderful editors at literary presses with whom I have worked.

Are there other books or writers you think “should be” in translation? Is there a “should be” when it comes to translation? 

MB: Thanks for asking this, because I have strong feelings about it. Obviously, diversity in every sense is important. But my irritation with the state of translation now is that publishers only want ‘the new’. We need to also be translating classics from fifty years ago. I and a couple of colleagues tried to start a project on that but we couldn’t find a press that was interested. That’s a shame. There are so many amazing novels and short story collections (not to mention poetry) from the 1940s-1990s (and before, and after) that ought to be fostered in translation. So if anyone reading this has any idea how to do that, please let me know.