Aberdeen, Scotland and Khartoum, Sudan, cities more dissimilar than one could imagine, form the backdrop to this finely crafted, tender cross-cultural love story. The two cities are intimately connected through the main character, Sammar, as she experiences the stark contrasts of culture, history and climate. In The Translator, 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 moving love story, told primarily from the heroine’s perspective, it also touches, in a broader 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, with him being 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 for a quiet rhythm in her daily life. At the same time, Sammar admits to a growing attraction for Rae, his serious kindness, his extensive knowledge and “otherness”. Her feelings are returned, yet they remain unspoken. A last encounter just before she leaves on a home visit to bring back her son does not turn out as Sammar hopes. Back in Khartoum, her “other” life, that absorbed her in her extended family, is conveyed with intimate familiarity and reflects her social awareness. What will happen when she returns to Aberdeen? The fundamental question for any two lovers 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 crises in Sudan regularly in the news, the novel strikes my as one that takes us back to a more innocent time in the past. It is an excellent example of stories that deal with human intimacy and innocence, of cross-cultural understanding that is more complex to find today.