On Raja Alem’s ‘Sarab’ & Translating an Arabic Book Not Published in Arabic

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Last fall, Hoopoe published an English translation of Raja Alem’s Sarab. The novel — written by the celebrated and International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning Saudi novelist — has also appeared in German translation, by Hartmut Fähndrich. But it has not appeared in the original Arabic:

Raja Alem Sarab,

ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey reviewed the novel (“Gender under siege”) for Qantara, and she also asked the book’s English translator — Leri Price — a few questions about working with the book.

Although she’s given interviews about it, I’m still not entirely clear on why Raja Alem decided not to publish Sarab in Arabic (not that I necessarily need to be). But I’m interested in the idea that she’s not happy with the language of it, and yet she wanted this — draft, essentially? — to be translated. I know the controversy narrative is more compelling for a publicist, but I would be delighted by the idea that it’s experimentalism, that she’s playing with the book, and seeing it translated is another way of shaping it…before it’s published in the “original.” It certainly in any case complicates what the original is.

Anyhow, as to you: How did its relationship to Arabic — and its being in flux — change the way you translated (vs. how you’ve translated other books)? Did you see the prose itself as…unfinished? 

Leri Price: I love that you describe it as complicating the notion of what an original is. I agree – it does do that, and it really calls into question the act of translating. I was honoured to work on this for many reasons, but I have to say that Raja’s process of not publishing the Arabic first really felt like a mark of faith in what translators can do, and recognition of the different value they can bring to a text.

Most of the actual translation process didn’t change much for me – I wouldn’t be able to immerse myself fully in the text if there was a chance it would change drastically halfway through. But I would be interested to read the Arabic version if and when Raja does decide to publish it to see if the changes made to the translations (or the different nuances brought out) found their way into the Arabic.

Raja did want some unity between the English and German versions, so while of course there are differences which arise from having different editors, the outline and structure of the work is the same in both. There were a couple of fairly significant cuts which myself and both editors all independently agreed on for example, which was interesting.

Who were the different parties — you, Hartmut, Raja’s agent Charlotte Seymour, the editor at Hoopoe, Raja..? — and how did you work together on this? How was it similar to (and different from) the way you worked on Death is Hard Work?

LP: The process was very different from any other novel I’ve worked on, because Sarab involved a lot of editing on the part of the translator, over and above the usual process of checking the copy edit. I knew this when I took it on, but it was still quite a strange experience to edit my own translation. I was lucky to have two fantastic editors to work with, Nadine and Lucien, who were both very thoughtful and sensitive in the way they engaged with the book, and discussing the novel with them gave me more confidence to make bolder suggestions in the editing process. Nadine is the editor at Hoopoe obviously, and it was a bit of a fluke that I also ended up speaking to Lucien, but it was very helpful to have two different perspectives on this already very interesting work.

I didn’t really interact much with Charlotte, as our work involved very different parts of the process. But I believe she looked at some of the intermediate drafts of the translation.

The ever wonderful Nadine and I worked on a first draft which involved a lot of thinking about the structure of the book and the progression of the characters. We shaped the first draft together and then we both went on leave.

Hartmut and I had similar questions for Raja so she ended up putting us in touch with each other when the first draft was being prepared – it was very enlightening! We spoke about language and specific translation issues rather than getting into the psychology of the characters. Incidentally, Hartmut was also working on Death is Hard Workat the same time in German, and we ended up reading each other’s drafts for that book too! My German isn’t good enough to be able to catch the nuances of his work, but I could read enough to see the choices he had made. It always made me shiver a bit when I could see he had made similar decisions to me.

For the later draft, I spoke with Lucien Leitess, the editor at Unionsverlag (the German publisher) while Nadine was on leave. While I was editing my translation, we ended up having some fairly in-depth discussions. He and I worked a lot on one particular character, Rosaline, and we had many long discussions about the structure of the final chapters – after having a break while the first draft was copy-edited, it was a real treat to come back with fresh eyes and think about how the reader would follow the characters on their journeys. When Nadine came back from leave, we were able to discuss further and make the final version

Raja was on hand throughout the process and was very insightful when discussing potential changes. I think we all felt afterwards that together we had produced the best versions of the translations. I would be interested to see if the changes to the translations will appear in the Arabic!

How did this book find you?

LP: I was approached by Hoopoe and I didn’t have to read the text to say yes – I knew I’d love anything by Raja.

Did you do any additional reading or research about the siege on Mecca or its participants, toget a visual on it?

LP: Yes, I used a very helpful book called The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov who I believe is a Russian journalist. It was useful to get a sense of the day by day progression of the siege and also provided some context. I also sought out as many maps and images of the mosque as I could in order to get a better handle on the events, I read some journal articles about Juhayman Al-‘Utaybi (the original for Mujan). I did my best to research the figure of the Mahdi and his role in Judgement Day, but as I’m sure you can imagine you could spend a lifetime researching Islamic eschatology, so I can’t say I did more than scratch the surface.

Raja herself interviewed people who had knowledge of the events, and there were some points where her narrative departed from the official version of events, or at least the version that seems to have emerged over time.

I loved the inter-layering of religious text as menacing and religious text as comforting (during the siege), the fighters juxtaposed with the Azhari scholar’s melodious But forever will abide thy Sustainer’s Self, full of majesty and glory. How did you deal with quotations from the Quran, did you translate or take from a particular translation? What did you look for in a translation of the Quran?

LP: Hoopoe uses two standard translations for the Quran, so I wasn’t looking very far! When quoting from it I tried to find text that sounded musical when read aloud, and the Muhammad Asad translation appealed more to me.

This made me think of other classic stories where women disguise themselves as men (The Nights, of course) and…this was the first I could remember where a woman’s menstrual cycle was a plot point. Now I seriously wonder how this ever worked for anyone. 

LP: I know! This was the moment I lost my heart to this book. Isn’t it amazing? I can’t think of any writing in any language where the logistics of periods are dealt with in such a straightforward manner. I really felt as if I was physically enduring Sarab’s experience when she was trying to find anything to work as a sanitary towel. Even as a woman, this had never really occurred to me before, but like you say it’s now all I can think of – a simple yet radical rethink of so many stories.

As I read, I thought of parallels between this book and In Praise of HatredDid the two remind you of each other at all? What intertexts or resonances did you find as you worked with the book?

LP: There definitely were parallels in the story of an isolated young girl finding a refuge in an extremely violent group, but if I’m honest I don’t think it affected my translation of Sarab very much. The motivations of both the characters were very different – in IPOH the narrator was fully committed to the cause, whereas Sarab was always more ambiguous and distrustful of their aim and was more invested in protecting the people she loved. Sarab was much more isolated within her group, but IPOH’s narrator felt, if not important, then at least welcomed, particularly due to her uncle’s position in the group. Plus, in IPOH the narrator spends most of the novel within the confines of the group and finding solace there, whereas Sarab spends most of her novel adjusting to life outside the jama’a (or rebelling against it, in Yemen). But both turned away from hatred when they were confronted with the inevitable outcome of it, the reality of the consequences of destruction and violence. So I suppose the unifying message of both was that love and common ground will be our salvation from violence and hatred.

One thing that needled me a little: Everyone is generally speaking in perfect English, even though Sarab doesn’t know much French, and I assume Rosaline’s (Egyptian) Arabic can’t be particularly good (and Sarab wouldn’t have grown up watching Egyptian TV). Also Raphael’s apparently speaking Algerian darija but he doesn’t have any communication problems with Sarab. Was this a consideration? Did you ever think about breaking the English?

LP: Yeah, this question did come up in the editing process. I did experiment a bit in an earlier draft, but in the end it became more distracting than just having the characters communicate normally with each other. Raja writes such beautiful prose, and it seemed like a shame to lose that, or to distort it. And although it might have been an interesting piece of writing to have characters who were never able to speak to each other and communicate fully, I got no sense from the Arabic that that kind of experimentation was what Raja wanted from her work. To me, it seemed more important to chart the characters’ evolution through their interactions with each other and their journey towards mutual understanding, rather than to experiment with different kinds of prose. And that character development relies quite heavily on Raphael and Sarab being able to communicate freely. Breaking the English seemed to make it a different book entirely, and while the Arabic isn’t regarded as ‘finished’ yet, it seemed too much of a stretch to take the translation in that direction.

If I had pursued the avenue of experimentation, my idea would have been to have each character have their own brand of slightly off-kilter English, but that would have been a really difficult book for a reader to invest in – and it still doesn’t address the fact that the characters do understand each other and they do have conversations which get quite philosophical and intense. Wouldn’t that have been a little unbelievable if they couldn’t properly talk to each other? (For instance, I have definitely had these kinds of conversations with people even when we didn’t really share a language, but they tended to be one-off – I don’t think I could live with someone and have the conversations that Raphael and Sarab have if we didn’t have a certain level of shared language.)

So I decided to have everyone speaking normally. The dialogue, like the rest of the text, is all written in MSA so changing it would be a decision that belongs to the writing process, not the translation process. I decided to translate each character’s voice in a way that fitted their personality and in the way that they would have considered themselves to sound like.

Read an excerpt of Sarab at the Hoopoe Fiction website.

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