The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Those girls of Riyadh!

A few weeks ago Gamal Al Ghitany (the novelist and editor of Akhbar Al Adab) wrote a column about Arabic best-sellers. He was talking about a general trend, but he focused on the novel "Banaat Riyadh" ("Girls of Riyadh") which has been a best-seller in the Arab world and has recently come out in English. Al Ghitany talks about how Arabic literature, after 9/11, has become of interest to the West, and how Arab writers have (consciously or unconsciously) met a prospective Western audience's particular demands. "What is required?" he writes. "What's required is a peek into this society which seems closed to Westerners, and in which women occupy a particular place..." Al Ghitany describes "Banaat Riyadh" as "a modest, ordinary work from an artistic point of view" but he says, according to the "new literary standards" it's a "treasure trove, starting with the title." Al Ghitany wouldn't mind the work's commercial success if it weren't taken for a direct indication of its literary value so that, he writes, a British newspaper mentioned the work among a list of "six essential works to understanding Arabic literature." 


While I share Al Ghitany's frustration with voyeurism and sensationalism, and with the generally quite superficial and misinformed Western coverage of Arab culture, I've actually heard some pretty good things about "Banaat Riyadh." No one says it's a masterpiece, but three women friends whose taste in books I trust have told me they greatly enjoyed it. I haven't read it yet (it's part of a big pile of books on my shelf that I often eye with guilt) but based on what I've read about it, it sounds like the author exploits the desire to see into the life of women in Saudi Arabia in conscious, funny and perhaps subversive ways. And she seems to use different dialects, registers, and languages to great effect. 


Anyway, this column reminded me of the controversy that has surrounded Marilyn Booth's translation of "Banaat Riyadh" into English. Booth has written at length about the ways the author and publisher changed her translation without consulting her. She gives many examples in this article in Translation Studies (unfortunately not free to the public) of the kinds of changes that were made. I have to say that based on the examples she gives it certainly looks as if the changes flattened the narrative voice she'd created into something more formal and less charming.

For example, here is the opening passage as Booth translated and as it was eventually published:

Ladies, Girls, and Gentlemen: Get ready, because you are about to rendezvous with some of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your correspondent - and that's moi - is going to lead you into a world that's closer to you than any of your minds can imagine. It really exists. We all inhabit it but we are not really livingit. After all, we all tend to believe in whatever we find easy to swallow and refuse to accept the rest.4


The published version is as follows: 

Ladies and Gentlemen: You are invited to join me in one of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your personal tour guide - and that's moi - will reveal to you a new world, a world closer to you than you might imagine. We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest. (Alsanea 2007, 1)


Booth says she favoured keeping the flavour of the Arabic voices over creating a text that might be more accessible to a Western audience. Characters in the novel use English words in the midst of their Arabic; Booth had kept this by writing, for example, "soo falguur," to show how a character might throw the expression "so vulgar," with an Arab accent, into a sentence in Arabic. In the final text it was just spelled "so vulgar," giving no sense that in the original it was actually a borrowed expression from English. She also kept Arabic idioms and translated them literally, rather than looking for English approximations; this was also changed. And certain references that were considered too culturally specific were omitted alltogether.


Booth advocates keeping the text "strange" enough to challenge the reader to learn more, on his or her own, about the culture it comes from. She also is clearly an advocate for greater appreciation and understanding of the creative work of the translator. It would make for an interesting debate if the author of "Banaat Riyadh", Raja' Al Sani', would respond.