Catherine's Reviews > The Translator

The Translator by Leila Aboulela
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Apr 09, 2009

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bookshelves: 2009, 50books_poc, scotland, sudan
Read in April, 2009

I was both absorbed by and ambivalent about this book - which is an oddity, because I wouldn't have thought it was possible to be both at once. But here I am - absorbed and ambivalent - having wanted very much to see where the story would go, and yet not really finding Aboulela's writing particularly compelling.

The Translator focuses on the life of Summar, a young, Sudanese widow in Aberdeen, who translates Arabic texts for a department at the local university. There she meets Rae, an Islamic scholar, and they fall in love - which is, of course, only the beginning of everything.

It sounds like a trite premise, but there's nothing trite about the telling - the obstacles Summar, in particular, faces as she tries to understand this new relationship are particular and moving (the power her first husband's mother has over her, the longing for home, a son in another country, her heartfelt faith). Yet the prose here is so stilted, so blockish and precise that much of what I wanted to get from Summar's story never came - no particularly deep sense of empathy or understanding, no real honest sense of her emotional landscape. I began to wonder, in the end, if the prose didn't match Summar's character - but that seems unfair, since when Summar is disconnected and displaced, she's sad and grieving, not acting on any particular character impulse. Does the prose match the clumsiness of English to someone who's used to speaking the grace of Arabic? I'm not sure.

I never think the word 'interesting' really conveys very much, but this book was, definitely, interesting. I'm glad I read it, and I feel like I briefly saw the world through very different eyes - but I wasn't captivated in the way I have been with other literature.
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