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Author versus translator

October 4, 2007 |  1:54 pm

In considering Rajaa Alsanea's novel "Girls of Riyadh," the London Times Literary Supplement's reviewer complained, among other things, about the book's use of tedious clichés in describing the world of young Saudi women. (Our reviewer, Judith Freeman, found the book to be entertaining, but she too found the language uneven in its quality.)

A letter in the Sept. 28 issue of the TLS from Marilyn Booth, who translated the novel into English for Penguin Press, is a disclaimer of sorts, explaining what may have really gone on. Reviewer Stephen Henighan, she writes, "is correct about the English text's shortcomings.... When I submitted the translation to Penguin ... I was informed that the author intended to rewrite it, and thereafter I was kept entirely out of the process. The resulting text, with its clichéd language, erasures of Arabic idioms I had translated, and unnecessary footnotes, does not reflect the care that I took to produce a lively, idiomatic translation."

That didn’t cause Booth to strip her name from the text. It's there on the title page, beneath Alsanea's. Hypocrisy? I don’t think so. She spent enough time on the project that, as botched as she says the final result was, she probably felt her sweat and effort still deserved a mention going beyond the acknowledgments page.

The most troubling thing about her letter, however, is what she suggests about the conditions under which many translators work today. Booth, director of the University of Illinois’ program in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, characterizes it as a demeaning, combative relationship with publishing houses: "Perhaps the larger scandal, though, is that for some publishers and writers, literary translators remain derivative servitors rather than creative artists, a notion fostered by a long tradition within Euro-American letters of the writer as solitary genius and translation as a mechanical exercise."

Nick Owchar