10/01/17: The Translator (1999)
Column: Collected Works: Literature


The Translator
by Leila Aboulela

View the book cover


A woman sits on a bus, winter darkness outside. At each stop she plans to alight, to cross the road and go back. But she remains seated in the warmth, moving towards the hospital where she once gave birth to her son. Her husband took his exams in the medical school there; she last saw him in the casualty ward. Now she is here to visit another man. When she sees the inpatient, propped up in bed, his familiarity causes her to catch her breath. She knows him separately from this place, and better than anybody else here does.

Sammar is met with ‘shades of surprise’ everywhere in the city of Aberdeen. Left alone – her child in Khartoum, her husband deceased – she finds few friends. People's chatter bounces ‘against her skin and ears’, leaving her ‘perfectly still, untouched’. Rae proves the exception. An academic for whom Sammar works, he shares neither her faith nor her nationality, but he speaks to her soul. Words are important to Sammar, whether prayers or the translations that she carries out at Rae’s request.

Leila Aboulela’s exploration of life in exile centres on what she considers the secrets of belonging: communication and mutual understanding. Home need not be a place; it can be a voice. When Sammar speaks to Rae from the payphone in the tiled stairwell of her flat, bathed in yellow light, she feels like a hostess at a busy party. For once, she is at the heart of things, in demand. For the most part, though, Scotland is cold, ruthless rain, and the incompleteness of sentences that miss the words insha’Allah.

When Sammar returns to Sudan, she is faced with another period of exile: life without Rae. She wants to speak about him, but nobody knows him. She wants to hear his name sounded, but in Khartoum his name does not exist. She keeps the oval-shaped bottle of perfume that Rae gave her at the hospital, liquid the colour of amber. But the gift was nothing besides an invitation to think and talk. That was all that kept Sammar in her seat, sheltered from frosty air, guided towards his bedside.

Words by Emma McKinlay


More to discoverYou can read an excerpt from The Translator on Leila Aboulela's official website here. There are a number of interviews with the author online, including those conducted by Mariella Frostrup for BBC Radio 4's Open Book (audio, 2015), Rosemary Burnett for Edinburgh Book Festival (video, 2015), Claire Chambers for Oxford Journals (print, 2009), and Anita Sethi for The Observer (UK) (print, 2005).


Today's questionWhich works of literature from 1999 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. A novel of exploitation and immorality, packed into two hundred severely uncomfortable yet beguiling pages. ()

– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor