Title: The Translator
Author: Leila Aboulela
Publication Year: 1999
Source: Purchased at a book signing at Luminato Festival
From the cover:
Sammar is a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a Scottish University when she begins to translate for Rae, a secular Islamic scholar. The two develop a deep friendship that awakens in Sammar all the longing for a life she has repressed. As Rae and Sammar fall in love, she knows they will have to address his lack of faith in all that Sammar holds sacred. An exquisitely crafted meditation on love, both human and divine, The Translator is ultimately the story of one woman’s courage to stay true to her beliefs, herself, and her newfound love.
To be honest, I had never really heard about Aboulela before I noticed her on the bill for a Luminato event a couple of months ago. I had seen the cover for her newest book, Lyrics Alley (which I’ll be reviewing soon) on some blogs, but that was about it. After I attended the event at Luminato and heard her speak about herself and her work, I was definitely intrigued. So I started by reading her first novel, The Translator. Figured I might as well go in order, yanno? And it was a great place to start.
Sammar’s story is fairly simple, and yet Aboulela manages to create layers of subtle complexity through the way she writes. There are nuances in the relationship between her and Rae that are communicated without any dialogue, but also without much in the way of description. It’s definitely a story that benefitted from a light touch and a lyrical sense of narrative, rather than the outright showing and telling of so many contemporary works. One of the side effects of this is that it never really feels like there’s any action going on in the book … because, to be completely honest, there really isn’t.
The Translator does well in this area, though. Even though there’s no major events happening, and the main plot revolves around the relationships between Sammar and those around her (Rae, her aunt, and her deceased husband are the major ones), it still draws you into the story and makes you feel for the characters. It’s as though Aboulela finds a way to weave the narrative in such a way that all you see is the beauty of the threadwork instead of necessarily keeping an eye on what it will look like when it’s finished.
Having said that, I’m usually someone who’s more interested in plot and details and less in the lyrical aspect of writing. (I know, I know, whack me so that I can hang my head in proper shame.) If you’re like me in this regard, you may or may not like The Translator. But you will definitely love it if you’re the kind of person who enjoys literary fiction and ruminations on family, love, and faith.
You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.