This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Palestinian literary scholar, author, educator, and translator Dr. Issa J Boullata died peacefully on May 1, 2019 at the age of 90:
He was with his children.
Boullata was a dedicated scholar, translator, and professor who was passionate about literary craft. He was born in Jerusalem on February 25, 1929, and graduated secondary school in 1947. Although he had been considering a career in law, the Law School closed down in 1948.
Between 1949-1968, Boullata worked as an educator at secondary schools around Jerusalem. In the early 1960s, Boullata enrolled in the University of London, and he went on to earn his PhD in Arabic literature in 1969.
He started out as a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, moving to McGill University in Montreal in 1975. Throughout his career, Issa authored both scholarly and fictional works, and was also a translator of many books of poetry, fiction, and memoir, including works by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Mohamed Berrada, Emily Nasrallah, and Ghada Samman. He was a two-time winner of the University of Arkansas Press Award for Translation from Arabic, and he also wrote in Arabic, including a novel Returning to Jerusalem and a biography of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.
Boullata retired from McGill in 2004. In 2007, he published a collection of his own short stories, A Retired Gentleman, and, in 2014, he published a memoir of his youth, The Bells of Memory: A Palestinian Boyhood in Jerusalem. He also continued to translate, bringing out Three Treatises on the I’jaz of the Qur’an in 2015.
Kamal Abdel-Malek wrote in Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature: Essays in Honor of Professor Issa J. Boullata, which he co-edited, that “what has struck me about Professor Boullata is his resilience, his ability, despite national and family tragedies, to forge ahead, and not only to survive, as an intellectual exile, but build and prosper, and in the process contribute eminently to the life of the mind.”
Back in 2011, Boullata also participated in ArabLit’s “10 Rules” series. He wrote:
(1) Translate only a text that you like and that gives you satisfaction on being published.
(2) Read the text well and, if possible, ask the author about meanings you may have missed or wanted explained.
(3) Accept the fact that cultures are different from one another, and that each has its own way of saying the same thing in possibly different words or ways.
(4) Be acquainted with the idioms and lore of both cultures by intelligent and continued readings in them.
(5) Use all kinds of dictionaries that relate to the subject of your text to be translated, and have a thesaurus at hand to consult for subtleties of word selection and choice (Roget’s is the best).
(6) Let not your first draft of a translation be your last. Write and rewrite, then rewrite again after several readings of your translation. You may often have to sleep on a translation and be later surprised by an additional inspiration for change.
(7) Consult a native-speaker about your translation, and recognize him or her as a reviewer of it, if it is a sustained consultation.
(8) Accept the suggestions of a good editor in whom you have confidence.Good editors with long experience have seen many more translated texts than you think.
(9) Don’t be surprised if your translation efforts are not recognized by critics and book-reviewers, and be thankful when they are. Translators are usually considered of less importance than the original authors they translated, but without them those authors would not be known as widely. Therefore, be conscious of your contribution and proud of it.
(10) Translation is a creative literary art: you should consider it as such and act accordingly.
-Issa J. Boullata
Ten translations of Boullata’s:
1) Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood, (1995) which earned Boullata the 1993 University of Arkansas Press Award for Translation from Arabic.
2) Princesses’ Street: Baghdad Memories, an autobiography by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.
3) Ghada Samman’s The Square Moon (1998); Boullata’s translation of this book earned him the 1997 University of Arkansas Press Award for translation.
4) Mohammed Berrada’s Fugitive Light.
5) Berrada’s The Game of Forgetting.
7) “A Stranger in His Own Icon,” by Ghassan Zaqtan, on Words Without Borders
8 ) “May Love Be Praised,” by Reem al-Lawati, on Blackbird.
9) An excerpt from the novel In Praise of Deserting, by Khalil al-Neimi, on Banipal.
10) Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats: And Other Stories, by Mahmoud Shukair.
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