Friederike Knabe's Reviews > The Translator

The Translator by Leila Aboulela
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's review
Oct 13, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: africa, african-lit

Aberdeen, Scotland and Khartoum, Sudan, cities more dissimilar than one could imagine, form the backdrop to this finely crafted, tender cross-cultural love story. They are intimately connected through the main character, Sammar, as she experiences the stark contrasts of culture, history and climate. Yet, she remains very much attached to both places. Leila Aboulela builds on her own experience to create the very personal associations between place and character. The author's brief, yet rich, novel is not only a delicate and moving love story, seen primarily from the heroine's perspective, it also touches, in a more general sense, on general human emotions such as longing and belonging, tradition and change, loss, faith and personal growth.

Sammar, a young Sudanese widow, works with Scotsman Rae Isles, a recognized Islamic scholar, at the university in Aberdeen: she as a translator of Arabic, while he is the primary beneficiary of her work. Having returned from Khartoum where she had left her small son in the care of family, she hopes to free herself from the traditional constraints imposed on her there. Here, however, she has to come to terms not only with the bleak surroundings of a wet and grey winter, but with loneliness and memories of happier times. The author sensitively captures Sammar's state of mind: as a devout Muslim, she is sustained by her faith, her prayers providing a quiet rhythm for daily life. At the same time there is her growing attraction for Rae, his serious kindness, his extensive knowledge and "otherness". Her feelings are returned, yet remain unspoken until Sammar is about to leave on a home visit to bring back her son. The encounter does not turn out as Sammar would have hoped. Back in Khartoum, her "other" life, absorbed in her extended family, is conveyed with a similar intimate familiarity and social awareness. Will they or won't they... ever get together again? The essential question for any love story is touchingly revealed by Aboulela, totally in tune with her characters and the wider cultural contexts, yet completely unpredictable until the end.

"The Translator", Aboulela's first novel, was originally published in England in 1999; the author won in 2000 the initial Caine Prize for African Writing, also referred to as the "African Booker". Reading the novel today, post 9/11 and with the ongoing crisis in Darfur regularly in the news, the novel strikes my as one of a more innocent time past, an excellent example that deals with a level of human intimacy and innocence, of cross-cultural understanding that is more complex to find today.

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