If yesterday I was wondering how accurate the portrayal of life in contemporary Saudi Arabia was in Zoe Ferraris's Finding Nouf, today I am reading a book (gotten via ILL and serendipitously it arrived just in time to start when I finished the mystery) written by a Saudi Arabian novelist. Badriah Albeshr is an established writer, journalist and academic who has written several novels, Hend and the Soldiers is her first to be translated from Arabic into English. It is part of the Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation Series that is published by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. I am curious to see how much the stories in the novels overlap, rather how much the portrayal of contemporary life as lived by Saudi women overlaps. I was thrilled when I came across it as there does not seem to be a lot of literature readily available in English by authors from this country.
"The novel appeared at a time [it was originally published in Beirut in 2006] when Saudi writers had recently started to speak openly about social issues their predecessors usually preferred to leave alone out of fear of retribution or reverence for social values. Not surprisingly, it was admired by all those who embraced its frankness, its liberal views, and light humorous tone; but it was equally attacked by religious groups and those who frowned upon seeing old traditions scoffed at or challenged."
The introduction is written by the novel's translator, Sanna Dhahir, and she notes the themes of the passages that caused a stir, which include references to God "in terms perceived as unprecented in a Saudi novel" as well depictions of female sexuality as well as unflattering references to religious police. However, it was never banned in Saudi Arabia. This book is apparently the most popular of her published works. Albeshr was born in Riyadh and has published newspaper columns, books of short stories, nonfiction as well as three novels. She has taught at university but now is a full time author, and hopefully more of her work will be translated into English.
I was interested in what the translator had to say about why the book was chosen for translation as well as the challenges it presented. As there is a dearth of books by Saudi writers . . . "It spans several decades of Saudi history and culture, all vividly portrayed through the eyes of a passionate insider. It would dispel a number of fixed judgments about a people and many aspects of their lives in a place imperfectly understood by other cultures." It's not just outside perceptions of women's lives that she writes about but of men as well.
As for the actual translation, English and Arabic have vastly different structures and as she says the languages represent very different cultures. How can a translator make it all come together to convey the sense of the story and storyteller accurately to a very different audience?
"To render a readable and interesting target text, I set out to domesticate the translation in all parts that required idiomatic, clear English. At the same time, I strived to preserve the source text's local color, as in passages with religious sayings, salutations, and specific mannerisms."
Happily she has used footnotes to further explain cultural or linguistic references that may not be obvious to the reader. I get the sense that Arabic is a very difficult language to learn, but it must be quite beautiful and lyrical if this translation is anything to go by, which you will see in my teaser below!
"The histories of this household's women are tales woven around coffee. Each woman has a story living in the heart of her cup. If not given to her by fate, the woman herself creates a story to sweeten the acrid taste of life, and she relishes her own narrative over the bitter coffee. Each woman's tale emerges from the womb of a long cardamom pod, where her story had been growing."
That passage really struck me when I read it, it seems so evocative and lovely. I like the idea of every woman having her own narrative hidden away.