We met with Prof. Marilyn Booth أ. مارلين بوث Scholar, Arabist, Literary Translator & Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at University of Oxford. In an interview with Joanne we asked her the following questions:

  • Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
  • How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
    What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?
  • What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
  • Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
  • What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
  • What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

Beirut, September 1966: My father, a scholar of history of religion in central Africa, had decided a few months before to spend his sabbatical at the American University in Beirut because he felt he needed to learn more about Islam. He had also, already, become concerned about American attitudes to Palestinian aspirations to nationhood, and wanted to learn more about that. He and my mother made the quite amazing decision to move a family of four young children to Beirut for a year: we took a ship from New York to Naples, picked up a VW bus that they had ordered, and had a crazy drive from Italy to Beirut.

I was the oldest of four children: three of us attended the fabulous American Community School attached to AUB (and I still remember the walk every afternoon up those stairs from AUB… and I’m still in touch with friends from that time, which is significant for language and caring in a global sense). We were kind of jealous of our very little sister, who went to an Arabic-language nursery school and came home singing songs in Arabic. I didn’t learn any Arabic that year except for the usual phrases. I did have a fantastic French teacher and so, a bit ironically, my understanding of the fierce importance of studying language, in a city where my desire to study Arabic was formed, also came through French.

Beirut politicized me, and Beirut made language political and therefore elementally essential, like having food. Because becoming politicized is about opening up to the world, and that means you need language. But there were very specific elements to this. We (as a family) spent time in Palestine (the ‘West Bank’ was then in Jordan), and we also knew Palestinians in Lebanon. Not only did I become aware then that Palestinians were and are a nation, in their own land, denied that land and that nation: this was sharpened by the particular time in which I was there. I remember an almost surreal week, one of our last weeks at school in the spring. We had been writing plays to perform: I co-wrote one on ancient Greek women, and we were literally performing this, when parents started showing up to remove their children from school. We were wearing togas made out of bedsheets. It was the 5th of June, 1967.

I remember an awful evening when my parents said, we are leaving now, we have a chance to get on a ship, and we children were crying. I remember I had made an art piece, a sculpture out of toothpicks (probably awful, but I still remember it!) and I was so upset that we couldn’t take it. On the other hand, the trip back to the US was pretty great. We were on an American freighter, just us and a couple other passengers. My brothers and I made elaborate road systems on deck with chalk for our toy matchbox cars, and I learned how to play Pinochle from the sailors that we did (amazingly) hang out with.

But getting back to the US was also a shock. At age 13 I had arguments with people about Palestine. It was actually going back to the US that made me realize that Arabic was my future and my fate. I never intended (even when I was doing my doctorate!) to be an academic. I intended to be a journalist who knew Arabic and cared. This might seem a standard (and still important) goal now, but when I was a teenager, very few people in the US were studying Arabic. My father, as a quiet but steady supporter of Palestinian rights, went through so much challenge and pain.

I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, to study Arabic. It wasn’t a fab place at that time to study Arabic, but nowhere was. (Thankfully, a lot has changed!). But maybe in some ways that was good. A few of us went through intensive Arabic boot camp as freshers, taught by a visiting professor whom I later visited in Irbid, Jordan, as he and his wife were retiring. He was a teacher whom I came to adore but who didn’t know how to teach language to American 19-year-olds. In some ways, that was good.  Because of those three-hour-long gruelling classes, I was able to recite (and sort of understand) Surat al-Nur a couple of months in, and then, we were reading the amazingly beautiful style of Taha Husayn in al-Ayyam before I’d finished my first year. So I got a great and intense introduction. And I was able to continue Arabic, read texts and even work on manuscripts with incredible people (Muhsin Mahdi, Annemarie Schimmel, William Graham, and Widad al-Qadi – all fabulous teachers who gave me a lot). I feel very fortunate, and I try to model what I was given in the way I teach, though no doubt I do it much more imperfectly. I have to say, though, that at Harvard no one ever really taught me how to deal with the hamza! I am still really bad at that! And we were never taught how to speak, in either fusha or ‘ammiyya. I got the latter from years of living in Egypt, and from my academic interests. I never got the former as well as I should have, though a year in the CASAW programme in Egypt helped a lot with that, too. I’m glad Arabic is taught more as a living language now than it was when I studied it.

I’ve emphasised the political because that was so important to me. And it still is, even if I now work in the realm of academic history. Politics is everywhere, of course, and my research area now, focused on early feminism and translation as intellectual history, is resonant for politics today. I feel the same about literary translation. The choices we make – what to translate, how to translate it, what to accept from editors and publishers in the way of changes, paratexts, and cover art, how to write about translation – are political as much as aesthetic choices. I have been translating literary works ever since my PhD dissertation, where translating Bayram al-Tunisi’s ‘ammiyya poetry in a way that would speak to contemporary Anglophone readers was important (and I won an American Association of Teachers of Arabic award for those poems!). Ever since, translating novels and short stories from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and most recently Oman has been for me an artistic outlet and a political contribution in the broadest sense. My ‘politics of translation’ involves bringing Arabic terms into English lexicons, weaving the Arabic into the English in a way that confronts readers with unfamiliar expressions, beliefs, and modes of material life, but does so in a way that welcomes rather than alienates readers. I’ve also written forthrightly about the politics of translation between the translator (or second author of the novel) as agential, the first author, and the publisher. It’s good that this is an area that Translation Studies is paying more attention to now.

When I started to do Arabic, it was a ‘weird’ thing to do. It no longer is, and that is a very good thing. But let’s keep the political edge. There’s so much to do. And that was my original fierce reason to study Arabic.

“My journey to Arabic”, or MJTA for short, is an online initiative to capture learners’ stories across all spectrums and document their journeys, motivations, struggles and successes towards mastering the Arabic language and culture. Each story is published here at the eArabic Learners Portal as well as shared via our social media on Twitter