I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
One of the most exciting things about being based at Edinburgh University’s Dept of Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies for the past two years has been people who make up the department, and the community that results. The overwhelming trend in academia seems to be one of bureaucratisation and creeping facelessness; one only has to look around south Manchester to see the innumerable buildings being thrown up by MMU and Manchester University, high-rise blocks the interiors of which house rabbit-hutch rows of offices where academics and students are cut off from one another and there is no sense of any academic community.
IMES at Edinburgh seems to be one of the few exceptions to this (for now). Located in an old Georgian townhouse, with a central common room through which most people have to pass at some stage in the day, even if they don’t sit in it, there is a real sense of community in this department. It’s a genuinely warm and welcoming place to study, and many of the staff seem prepared to go beyond the official demands of their jobs to support students. Given the total lack of planning which went into my ending up here, I’ve been unbelievably lucky. And a big part of that has been Marilyn Booth, the Edinburgh head of CASAW (when she’s not on leave) and the departmental professor, as well as being a leading translator of Arabic literature into English. And here’s my interview with her for Arabic Literature (in English), published 27th May 2013:
Of course on another level there are also lots of decisions you have to make: How much Arabic do you retain in the text? That really varies. Some novels are really enriched by it, some aren’t, and also of course there are issues around use of the vernacular. To what extent is it important to retain that vernacular voice and intimacy? Usually I think it is quite important, although it’s very hard to do, and of course we can’t have the same effect in English that switching between levels of language has in Arabic, because that movement in Arabic between ‘ammiyyas and fushas is one that immediately conveys a range of messages – whether it’s political or local intimacy or a place or moment – it’s never going to come across in the same way but one can approximate it. I remember when I was translating The Loved Ones by Alia Mamdouh, her use of Iraqi colloquial was enormously important, as a counter both to what was going on in Iraq from outside and in terms of a masculinised war culture which this novel challenged. I worked very hard with that to try and make sure that the colloquial-ness of that came through – partly by using Arabic words and partly by coming up with an English that would convey it.
The full interview is here.