The Translator

Collected Works: Literature


The Translator

by Leila Aboulela

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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 discover

Read an excerpt from the book here. Mariella Frostrup has interviewed Leila Aboulela for BBC Radio 4's Open Book, as have Rosemary Burnett for the Edinburgh Book Festival, Claire Chambers for Oxford Journals, and Anita Sethi for The Observer (UK).

Question of the day

Which 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 (via Patreon →)

William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton. First published in 1919, but reprinted 80 years later by the excellent Persephone Books, which gives a new lease of life to the neglected works of twentieth-century women writers. (→)

– John Wadsworth, Silent Frame's Editor-in-Chief (via Facebook →)

Read more: African literature