Leila Aboulela’s assured debut is about a widowed Muslim mother living in Aberdeen who falls in love with a Scottish secular academic.
Sammar is a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a Scottish university. Since the sudden death of her husband, her young son has gone to live with family in Khartoum, leaving Sammar alone in cold, gray Aberdeen, grieving and isolated. But when she begins to translate for Rae, a Scottish Islamic scholar, the two develop a deep friendship that awakens in Sammar all the longing for 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.
“A story of love and faith all the more moving for the restraint with which it is written.”
– J. M. Coetzee
“The Translator is un utter joy to read; a novel to savour and treasure.”
– Anne Donovan
“The difficult journey from sun to snow, from friends to strangers, is a central part of this gentle and melancholy novel. ..Aboulela is a wonderfully poetic writer. . . . It is a pleasure to read a novel so full of feeling and yet so serene.”
– Carrie O’Grady, The Guardian
“Aboulela has an unmistakable style, full of poetry and very moving. The Translator is an enveloping story of the tentative possibilities between a man and a woman, and between faiths; two people, and perhaps peoples, between nations. It is an apt, resonant caution filled with love and poignant understanding of the world. It is exactly what fiction ought to be.”
– Todd McEwen
“Aboulela’s lovely, brief story encompasses worlds of melancholy and gulfs between cultures…A miraculous ending….A strikingly poised, cherishable novel.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“It is refreshing to read a novel that tries to give the Muslims their due. The Muslim characters of The Translator are characters who exist both as individuals and as integral parts of extended families and larger communities. And, what is rather important, they are believing Muslims who do their utmost to live by their faith and tradition. For Aboulela, faith is not an ossified, overbearing cross that crushes its followers and transforms them into proverbial, all-too- familiar fanatics and fundamentalists. It is a liberating force. Her characters live and breath Islam to become fully human, to free themselves from the oppression of their own egos and the crushing burden of uncontrollable desires.….The love story is worked out within a narrative of manners that presents Muslim norms and values, mores and etiquette, as a living, breathing reality…. The Translator is an exceptionally well-crafted and beautifully written novel. Aboulela shows the rich possibilities of living in the West with different, non-Western, ways of knowing and thinking. In Sammar, the heroine of this reviewer’s dreams, she has created a personification of Islam that is as genuine as it is complex.”
– Ziauddin Sardar , The Sunday Herald
“With authentic detail and insight into both cultures, Aboulela painstakingly constructs a truly transformative denouement.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Beautiful passages on Islam’s essential purity and poetry… A sensitive portrayal of love and faith.”
– Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Aboulela’s refined descriptions reveal intense emotion with staggering restraint, our attention assured with her first words.”
– Christine Thomas, Chicago Tribune
“Above all, the book offers the uncluttered pleasure of a story that feels simultaneously reduced to its essence and full to the brim.”
– Elisbeth Lindner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“The Translator is a subtle investigation into the meaning of exile and home, doubt and faith, loss and love. The story it tells is sometimes sad, often troubled and troubling; but moves towards a conclusion that’s unforced, affirmative and finally very moving. Aboulela’s writing is always beautifully observed, her voice one of restrained lyricism: she is a writer of rare and original talent.”
– Duncan McLean
“A lyrical journey about exile, loss, and love . . . poetry in motion.”
– The Sunday Times
“The first halal novel written in English.”
– Riffat Yusuf The Muslim News
In 1990 I moved with my husband and two children (the youngest a two weeks old baby!) to Aberdeen. I found the contrast between Scotland and Sudan immense and worthy of contemplation. The weather, the customs, the lifestyle were all different and I was keen to find a place for myself, conscious of the fact that so few around me knew or understood the two main things that made up my identity- Islam and Sudan. In the middle of the cold and the homesickness, I started to write for the first time in my life. I had always been an avid reader, but now I had my own stories to tell. Attending writer’s workshops and having my first stories successfully published, opened new doors for me and turned my life around. My work was warmly welcomed by other writers and I began to make connections and friends. In time, I grew to be fond of Aberdeen and to have a sense of belonging to the British literary community. This was my personal entry into The Translator. The sense of gloom lifting, a re- birth, the discovery of something new, precious and amazing in the most unlikely of places. For this reason the setting- Aberdeen- is crucial to the novel. So is the contrast with Khartoum, the back and fourth comparisons, the going and coming. As I was bringing Rae and Sammar together in The Translator, I was letting go of Sudan and accepting Britain as my new home.
Westerners converting to Islam have always been of great interest to me. I was moved by testaments such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and I also attended lectures to hear the personal stories of how the speakers became Muslim. Several of my friends were also British converts and I admired their articulate fresh faith and their ability to navigate between British and Muslim cultures with confidence and ease. It was from this angle that I approached the character of Rae Isles. I found it challenging to write about a Scottish man and was constantly searching and picking up details from around me. For example I stumbled across the name Isles in the outlet Crombie Woolen Mill. The clans of Scotland were listed alongside samples of their tartan!
I was aware when I was writing The Translator that I was writing a Muslim Jane Eyre. Not only was Jane Eyre one of my favourite classics, but I had often been fascinated by the Christian elements in the novel: Jane’s strong faith and Mr. Rochester’s conversion at the end. I wanted to put Islam in fiction, to reflect Muslim dilemmas and choices. I knew that the average Sudanese girl was devout and that by moving to Britain, she would not shake off her faith. I visualized Sammar as the ordinary girl- next-door placed in a romantic predicament.
She dreamt that it rained and she could not go out to meet him as planned. She could not walk through the hostile water, risk blurring the ink on the pages he had asked her to translate. And the anxiety that she was keeping him waiting pervaded the dream, gave it an urgency that was astringent to grief. She was afraid of the rain, afraid of the fog. . . . Last year when the city had been dark with fog, she had hid indoors for four days, eating her way through the last packet of pasta in the cupboard, drinking tea without milk. On the fifth day when the fog had lifted she went out famished, rummaging the shops for food, dizzy with the effort.
But Sammar’s dream was wrong, it wasn’t raining when she woke that morning, a grey
October sky, Scottish grey with mist from the North Sea. And she did go out to meet Rae Isles as planned, clutching her blue folder with the translation of Al-Nidaa’s manifesto.