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The Translator Paperback – September 14, 2006

3.8 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sammar, a young Sudanese widow, is working as a translator in a Scottish university when love blossoms between herself and her Scottish supervisor, Rae Isles, a scholar of the Middle East and of Third World politics. A religious Muslim who covers her hair, Sammar has left her young son in Khartoum to be raised by her aunt and quells her loneliness by throwing herself into her job translating terrorist documents for kindly divorcé Rae. The two signal their growing love for one another with sympathy (and chastity). On the eve of her trip to Khartoum to see her son and bring him back with her, she confronts Rae, desperate to know if he will accept Islam—since a relationship to her is impossible without marriage, and that marriage is impossible without his conversion. His hesitation reveals the cultural gulf between them, and Sammar is pierced to the quick. Though The Translator is Aboulela's second novel to be released in the U.S., it is the Sudanese-British author's first, published in the U.K. in 1999. (Her third, Minaret, appeared here last year.) With authentic detail and insight into both cultures, Aboulela painstakingly constructs a truly transformative denouement. (Oct.)
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From Booklist

Aboulela's debut novel, the second to be published in the U.S., touches on themes of culture shock, religious fervor, loneliness, loss, and love, each illuminated by her lyrical yet understated writing style, and her uncanny ability to capture a fleeting moment with photographic precision. Sammar, a young Sudanese widow, leaves her 4-year-old son with her aunt and returns to Scotland, where her husband died, and where she works as an Arabic translator. She begins translating for Rae, a Scottish Islamic scholar, and their work relationship gradually becomes a tentatively romantic one. But Aboulela has left subtle but frequent hints of how important Sammar's faith is to her--prayer bringing her "something deeper than happiness"--so it comes as no surprise that Rae's inability to profess his faith in her religion, in which he is so intellectually engaged, causes her to flee. Aboulela's perceptive description of Sammar's aching loss of both Rae and her profession leaves an indelible impression, as does the conclusion of this beautifully crafted novel. Deborah Donovan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 203 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat; 1 edition (September 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802170269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802170262
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #166,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
This short novel by a Sudanese author living in Scotland is as simple as it is rich, beautiful, and emotionally true. Most other books that I have read about the Moslem immigrant experience* lament the dilution of an ancient culture by modern Western values. But here the influence is in the opposite direction, portraying the immigrant with the power to enrich the lives of those around her. Sammar is a young Sudanese widow who works as a translator for Rae Isles, an Islamist at the University of Aberdeen. Their mutual respect, first professional then personal, blossoms into an unspoken love. But this can go no further because Sammar is a practising Moslem while the study of Islam is merely an academic discipline for the secular Rae. What happens is as much a matter of faith and the nature of belief as it is an account of the relationship between these two people.

But that relationship is beautiful, and it results in a love story whose outcome is by no means predictable, since both leading characters are too honorable for short cuts or compromise. It is made more poignant by the social distance between the two and saved from sentimentality by the cold grayness of the northern Scottish city that is its setting. Later, the action moves to the Sudan, and the scenes in Khartoum -- brighter, more colorful, where Sammar is surrounded by an extended family -- have the ring of a very different truth. I do not think I have read any recent novel that has presented Islam in such sympathetic light. There is much that Abouela might have developed into a much longer novel (for example, hints of Rae's involvement with offstage political activity), but book that she did choose to write is a tour-de-force of compact simplicity.
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Let e start by saying that Leila Aboulela's prose is just stunningly beautiful. Her characters were portrayed thoughtfully and with great detail. However, I had a real problem getting past the way atheists/agnostics and Christianity are dealt with in this novel. At one point Sammar fears the man she is falling in love with may be an atheist and denies that this could be possible because he is "not empty inside." This is a narrow, bigoted view of non-believers and it made me sad to read it. May non-believers are wonderful, loving, morally-grounded people (far more so than many who claim religion.) Christianity is described as a sad religion that focuses on owing something to someone for redemption. Christians don't see their religion this way. If these had been Sammar's views and they had been dealt with in a thoughtful and critical manner I would have been more accepting of them, but I felt like they were the author's views being put into the voices of the characters. Literature like this is not going to reach non-Muslims who are curious about Islam. It alienates them. I finished the novel because of the beautiful prose, but I was disappointed in the ending. The moral of the story seems to be Sudan=Good, Scotland=Bad, Islam=Good, All Other Religions (or a lack of religion)= Bad. The book presented an extremely narrow world-view and lacked complexity. I hope some of Aboulela's other works express more complex and balanced ideas. Her prose is so beautiful that I intend to attempt more of her work. I hope I won't be disappointed.
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This is a lyrical and compelling first novel by a talented Sudanese writer. The story is told from inside the head of the protagonist, Sammar, a Sudanese woman who falls in love with a secular scholar of Islam in Scotland.

Aboulela's prose is wonderfully rhythmic - not rhythmic in the manner of lines of poetry, marching to the meter of linear feet, but on a larger scale, in the progression of the drama in each chapter and the progression of the chapters through the book. We feel the ticking of time as we work through each day's prayers and meals and each days interior monologue. Her pacing is virtually perfect.

Unfortuately, in a few places Aboulela's story line is flawed, perhaps most notably in a major climactic scene where Sammar's tortured confrontation of the man she loves devolves into a lecture on the Shahada (one converts to Islam by sincerely speaking the Shahada). Given his expertise and background, I found the lecture out of place and jarring. Sammar is saying things that would not need to be said, and doing so only for the benefit of an assumed Western audience. Suddenly, the reader is all too much in the middle of the story at a very awkward time and place. There had to be a better way to handle this scene.

While there are two or three other places where there are other modest flaws in the storyline, the strength of the storyline and the power of the prose overcome these flaws, making this one of the better stories I have read in some time. I can think of no other work of fiction in English that is as empathetic to an Islamic protagonist. Highly recommended.
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The Translator is one of the best novels I've ever read. Leila Aboulela is a beautiful, honest writer who gave me a hundred precious, wise, funny insights into Islam, Sudanese family life and Western culture as viewed by a non-Westerner. It's not just the character of Sammar, whose goodness is striking but not perfect, or the character of Rae, whose opinions made me love him. Her novel had the ring of authenticity and believability, not an easy feat anyway, but especially in the current geopolitical climate, nor among Muslims who wish to show only flawless personifications of Islam. And yet she managed to write a "halal" novel in English. It is a blessing for English speakers who seek to understand Islam through a Muslim's eyes. I also can recommend Ms. Aboulela's collection of short stories, Coloured Lights, and her second novel, Minaret. Inside are all wonderful, genuine examples of Islam and the West meeting, circling each other warily, touching, and being surprised by what they find.
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