How an Omani Novel Gets Translated from Arabic into English

Author Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth on their novel "Bitter Orange Tree"

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Omani author Jokha Alharthi’s new novel Bitter Orange Tree, translated by Marilyn Booth, is beautifully sad. The book is narrated by Zuhour, a young Omani woman attending university in the cold of England, who is grappling with an unspeakable, internal ache. Her pain could go by many names: depression, nostalgia, homesickness, loneliness, or regret—but it is never able to be fully captured in a singular diagnosis. 

As a way of coping with this unpinnable pain, Zuhour sinks into a dreamy web of memories, allowing the past to overlay her present like a palimpsest. Throughout the novel’s image-centric chapters, Zuhour tumbles back into her childhood, and into imagined scenes from her grandmother’s time. She loops back to specific vignettes: a man slapping rice from his son’s hand, the beckoning movement of a crooked black fingernail, a woman’s beaded necklace that trembles with a death to come. Words touch down delicately on each page to evoke these moments, the result of both Alharthi and Booth’s creative labor.

Truly, Alharthi and Booth together make a formidable literary pair. The two dazzled readers worldwide in 2019 with the publication of Alharthi’s novel Celestial Bodies in Booth’s translation. The multi-generational, women-centric saga of an Omani family won the Man Booker International Prize, and became an international bestseller, garnering a list of “firsts”: Alharthi became the first Omani woman author to be translated into English, and Celestial Bodies the first book originally written in Arabic to win the prize. In a global literary landscape that has long centered on male authors working in English, Alharthi and Booth’s work with contemporary Arabophone literature feels daring and exciting.

Anna Learn: In Bitter Orange Tree, the story shifts from the narrator’s present moment in London, to her memories of her childhood in Oman, to those of her grandmother, and of other women in her family. Jokha, why do you tend to use this fluid and nonlinear mode of narration?

Jokha Alharthi: Actually, I’m not sure that I choose it. It’s just my way of thinking. When I’m thinking about time, I can’t think about it in a linear way. For me, time is open to possibilities. The past is open to possibilities, just as much as the future is open to possibilities. We look at the past differently every time we think about it, or, sometimes we find out new, different information that we didn’t know before, so we start to look at the past differently. Or we grow up, or things happen. We become open to the past in different ways, at different times. I’m always interested in jumping back and forth, and seeing different angles of what happened, in seeing the past from different angles. 

AL: Marilyn, what was it that struck you stylistically about Bitter Orange Tree that you wanted to animate in your translation, and what were the main challenges you experienced as a translator? 

MB: The main younger characters in the book are a young Omani woman, a young Pakistani woman, and a young Pakistani man who are all studying in the UK. It was quite challenging to deal with their voices as cosmopolitan young people, but [who were still] from certain places. I kept asking myself, “how exactly do I represent that sort of cosmopolitanism?” And also I’m somebody of a certain age, and I do remember a couple of times thinking, “hmm, I wonder if actually getting somebody younger to translate this might be better?” I don’t think the voices of the younger people in Bitter Orange Tree are particularly edgy. In Arabic, their voices are quite standard, they’re not using any kind of youth [slang] or anything. But I did worry whether I was being a little bit too much “of my own generation” to get it right. And that’s a challenge we don’t often think about. We think about, “oh, do I know this society well enough? Do I have the kinds of sensitivities and backgrounds that are needed [to translate a text]?” But I think generation is something that we don’t always think about enough. 

AL: The generational difference between the translator and the author or characters is definitely not often discussed! What other issues came up for you? 

MB: Another strong feature of Jokha’s writing, that also posed a challenge in translation, is her writing style. She has this sort of deadpan, almost sardonic or abbreviated way of writing. She doesn’t mince words, and she doesn’t waste words. And sometimes, she juxtaposes one sentence with another, and [the reader has] to work a little bit to see the relationship between the two, but it’s very much there. And I really like that—it’s a feature of her writing that I think is very effective. However, the publisher felt that sometimes there were just too many juxtapositions, and that the meaning wasn’t clear enough for the reader. Now, Jokha and I disagreed with the publisher on that. I didn’t want to dilute the effect of her style by adding to it [in order to “clarify” it]. Of course, any kind of writing is a piece of negotiation and compromise… But it was a bit frustrating because I felt like to dilute that aspect of Jokha’s style would be really wrong, and unnecessary. I think that’s just something that happens quite a lot in translation. Sometimes editors want a level of explanation that they don’t ask for in a text that’s written originally in the language of publication, so it can be extremely frustrating for a translator. 

AL: Did you consider using an introduction or translator’s note to further frame the book for an Anglophone audience? I ask because, in your academic work, Marilyn, you have also written about the reductive tendency towards “memoir fixation” in the marketing of fiction books by Arabophone Muslim women writers in English translation. Given that Bitter Orange Tree is written in the first person, and that it (mainly) adopts a realist style of narration, do you worry that it might come to be categorized in its English-language reception as a mode of autobiography, muting Jokha’s imaginative capacity as a writer? 

MB: Well, that’s a really interesting question. I think if I had decided to use paratext, it would have been more focused on Oman and Omani history… My feeling as a translator is that I’m not responsible for [how readers choose to interpret a book]. If somebody chooses to read it as an autobiography or as autofiction, then that’s kind of their business. All we can do is say, on the front, this is a novel. And then if people choose to read it differently than that, it’s really their issue… First of all, that really drives me crazy when people do that, because it’s almost as if somehow Arab women or Muslim women are not allowed to write fiction. It’s like anything they write is taken autobiographically. And I really, really, really object to that. But also, this is a very persistent, and trans-cultural phenomenon, isn’t it? Women’s fiction in general, across cultures, is so often taken to be autobiographical, as if somehow their fiction is supposed to explain their lives. So it’s almost as if women writers are not allowed to be, you know, novelists of the imagination

JA: Unless you are writing a crime novel.

AL: I want to talk about the weight that’s put on individual words in this novel. Zuhour, the narrator, regularly thinks about the weight that words carry. She lingers on the meanings of words like “ignore,” “depression,” “remorse,” or “broken” in particular, and describes these words as if they were physical, material things. For example, the word “ignore” is linked to the black nail of Zuhour’s grandmother, a dark presence that grows with time. Jokha and Marilyn, you both have emphasized how important precision in language is to you and in your writing. Were there any words from Bitter Orange Tree that really stuck with you, that you wanted to emphasize, or that you thought a lot about? Was “ignore” one of those words? 

MB: I guess for a translator, the problem is that the word in Arabic is always going to be richer than what you can encompass in a single word in translation. I mean, in whatever language you’re translating from [this is the case]. For the word “ignore,” I do think ignore was the right word in the context of [Bitter Orange Tree]. But I also wanted to be able to use both “ignore” and “neglect,” which are not the same thing exactly, but they’re both part of what’s going on in that element of the story. I did decide on “ignore” precisely because I wanted to emphasize the notion that this was an act of choice [by Zuhour to ignore her grandmother]. It wasn’t that Zuhour was sort of neglecting something passively, like she didn’t even notice it. There isn’t that same emphasis on willed action [with the term “neglect”] that I think “ignore” connotes. 

Women’s fiction in general, across cultures, is so often taken to be autobiographical—as if their fiction is supposed to explain their lives.

JA: I also just remembered a scene in the beginning of the book when Zuhour wishes that words had strings. She says, “Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside ourselves?” Thinking about that makes me think that the entire world is made up of words, actually. 

MB: And another feature of this in this novel [in regards to word choice] is the question of repetition. It’s clear that in Arabic, a word like “ignore” is important and it needs to be there, and it needs to be repeated in English just as it is repeated over and over in the Arabic. Sometimes, though, the repetition works in Arabic, but it seems a bit clunky in English. So sometimes you have to vary things. I’ve had a few arguments with the editors where I said, No, look, this repetition has to stay there. It’s really, really, really important. And, you know, sometimes just kind of as a matter of style, you’re told, Oh, well, no, it would be better if you vary the vocabulary. And, well, no, there’s a point to the repetition. The author isn’t repeating a word because they don’t have other words to use. If the author wanted to use other words, she would use other words. The repetition is there for a purpose. 

JA: I totally agree with Marilyn on this issue of repetition. I think this insistence on avoiding repetition came from all these, sorry, creative writing courses [laughs]. [Students in these courses] are not supposed to use the same word on the same page twice. But when you read classical literature, you see that these great classical authors didn’t hesitate to use the same word again and again, when needed. And for the word like ignore, as you said, Anna, it is a very important word [in Bitter Orange Tree]. Using it more than one time is fundamental for the novel, because [the narrator’s guilt about ignoring her grandmother] is what Zuhour is suffering from, it’s connected to the feeling that she’s fighting. And it’s important for her to, as we say, in Arabic, Marilyn, taqallub ʾiḥtḥmāl ʾlkalima…

MB: [Interpreting] To turn over and sort of reverse and think about the meaning of a word, to let it kind of turn over and generate new things…

AL: Yes, words and names in particular have so much power in this book. What someone is named or how they are labeled affects how they’re treated by others and the opportunities available to them. And often, the act of naming in Bitter Orange Tree is closely tied with violence. Naming almost becomes a form of violence in of itself. For example, there’s the scene in the chapter entitled “The Gypsy Woman” with the ghagariyya in which Zuhour remembers that a woman who came begging at their door was called a “filthy ghagariyya” by her mother. And because the woman was labeled in that way, the community treated her very poorly, and this caused her to end up murdered (in my reading). Marilyn, I’m really interested in your choice of how to convey the really loaded word of ghaghariya in your translation.

Sometimes editors want a level of explanation that they don’t ask for in a text that’s written originally in the language of publication, so it can be extremely frustrating for a translator.

MB: Well, that was really interesting because, to be honest, I started by just using the term “gypsy” in the translation for ghagariyya. I did that because the term “gypsy” is now considered to be a derogatory term. And I thought that “gypsy” would be the term to use, precisely because it’s such a loaded term. It’s not a neutral term at all. But the editor was very nervous about using that term. And I was like, well, they’re using it in a derogatory way [in the Arabic version]. The derogatory element is the whole point. But then I played with it a bit, and tried to use the Arabic language a bit more. It’s also quite a hard-sounding word in Arabic. So I thought maybe [transliterating the Arabic word into English] would be the best way to go. But it was sort of ironic that, you know, the editor was saying, “Well, you can’t use this word ‘gypsy’ because it’s derogatory.” And I’m like, “I know! It’s being used in a derogatory sense in the book!” If it had been somebody speaking respectfully, I might have used the word “traveler,” or something else. That was an interesting example of a moment where my choice of an appropriate way to convey this attitude in a name really made the editor nervous. 

JA: Yes, I remember this discussion about the ghagariyya, and it made me nervous as well because [the derogatory use of the term] is meant to be that way. It makes me think of a book I just read. A few hours ago, I finished reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I liked it. It’s a very interesting book. But the point that I want to make is that, in that novel, there are a lot of words that would have to be deleted if treated with the logic [that to use a derogatory word is for the author to condone it]. For example, in Shuggie Bain, Catholics and Protestants who are neighbors are calling each other by derogatory words. And the derogatory word is meant to be there. The character is thinking about it, about people who are different from her, and she is using that word to describe them. So it perfectly fits. You can’t have characters in a novel who all just believe in and only use the modern words that are acceptable. I mean, the normal thing is that we have different people in the world. Some of them look down on other people. And they put certain names on them. And that’s happening all the time, in every culture, just as I said, with the example of Shuggie Bain.

MB: And it is tricky because I mean, obviously, it’s understandable that people have sensitivities towards the use of certain terms. But yeah, this is it. A character has a particular perspective and is expressing it through that use of vocabulary.

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