An Unnecessary Woman
291 pages (hardcover)
Up until my senior year in college, I spent very little time in the library. I had managed to study abroad for three semesters. I majored in foreign languages (French was my primary language, Japanese was my secondary . . . and I took a little Wolof and Spanish for fun), so my “studies” consisted largely of reading, writing, and speaking languages that I had picked up through immersion.
But at the start of my senior year I made a foolish decision: I elected to do an honors thesis project. Theses were not required for foreign-languages majors, but I (ridiculously) thought it might be a fun challenge to translate a book. After much research, I found a book by a Senegalese woman written primarily in French with a smattering of Wolof phrases. I submitted my thesis proposal and found an advisor.
The book was a short 133 pages, and I had about six months to complete the translation. I thought it would be a cakewalk. I was wrong.
I didn’t want to do a passable job—translations can be clunky and lifeless if done poorly. I wanted to get it right; I wanted to do the book justice. So, I read French books and compared them to their English translations obsessively, trying to get a feel for the appropriate balance between doing a verbatim, literal translation and taking liberties with the exact wording to maintain stylistic integrity. I lost entire days holed up in the library, massive French dictionaries all around me. I agonized for hours over how to translate an idiomatic expression appropriately, how to maintain the author’s voice and style, and how to describe unique words or phrases (often related to culture or celebrations) with no direct English translation.
That translation was, without question, one of the hardest projects I have ever undertaken. It gave me an appreciation for how difficult and impressive a good translation is. It is a form of art . . . a form of art that I will never again attempt.
The idea, therefore, that someone could do a new translation every year, beginning like clockwork on January 1, is a little mind-boggling to me. But that is just what Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman, does. Aaliya translates her favorite books (Anna Karenina, The Encyclopedia of the Dead) into Arabic.
Aaliya is a hermit. She is a divorced, childless woman, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut. She has lived all her life in Beirut, and she uses her books to get away and to gain perspective.
She never translates books written originally in French or English, “since some Lebanese can read English or French.” But she is only fluent in French, English, and Arabic, so she has invented “her own special system”: “to achieve the most accurate representation of the work” she can, she uses both the French and the English translations of a novel to create her own Arabic translation—her translation is actually a translation of translations.
She has completed thirty-seven translations so far, and they fill the extra bedroom and bathroom in her small apartment.
Crates, crates, boxes, and crates. The translated manuscripts have the two books, French and English, affixed to the side of the box for identification. Tolstoy, Gogol, and Hamsun; Calvino, Borges, Schulz, Nádas, Nooteboom; Kiš, Karasu, and Kafka; books of memory, disquiet, but not of laughter and forgetting. Years of books, books of years.
Her translations have never been sold or published. In fact, no one else has ever read them. But her translations are what keep her going: “I made translation my master. I made translation my master and my days were no longer alarmingly dreadful.”
Rating: 3/5 📖
Above all else, this book is an homage to books. Proust and Pessoa are two of Aaliya’s favorites, and they are mentioned frequently. There are quotations from dozens of works (from Cioran’s A Short History of Decay to Kant’s The Science of Right) and references to dozens of others (from Lolita to The Shipping News). Some are obscure, others are well-known masterworks. A love of and respect for great books jumps off every page.
In addition, as a window into life in Beirut, the book gleams:
Hear me on this for a moment. I wake up every morning not knowing whether I’ll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn’t show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they’re important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beirut is much too random. I can’t force myself to believe I’m in charge of much of my life.
Aaliya’s memories paint a picture of the city during the hard times (her acquisition of an AK-47, which she slept with, after a group of Palestinians broke into her house and one of them shat on her floor; Black September; cease-fires that don’t last) and of her life there (the death of her best friend, eavesdropping on her gossipy neighbors, her aging mother, being shunned after her husband leaves her, her work at a bookstore).
Despite these strengths, as a whole, the book is only OK. It fails to live up to its potential.
In the beginning, Aaliya has just accidentally dyed her white hair blue. Her reaction lets you know immediately that she is a complex character: grumpy and reclusive, but also lonely; aging and slowing, but still smart and sharp. You learn about her translations, which she views as an escape from her life in Beirut (“My books show me what it’s like to live in a reliable country where you flick on a switch and a bulb is guaranteed to shine and remain on, where you know that cars will stop at red lights and those traffic lights will not cease working a couple times a day.”), but also as a pointless exercise (“A waste of time, a waste of life.”).
It is an excellent introduction . . . but then the book falters. There are some interesting anecdotes–memories relayed by Aaliya about her friends, family, and lovers. But most of the middle of the book is repetitive and slow. Aaliya trudges through life. There are no chapters, so the long, boring stretches seem even longer and more boring.
Thankfully, the book picks back up a little at the end (the last 40 or so pages). A tragedy befalls Aaliya, and it shakes up her life, her systems, her routine, her reclusiveness. It is sad but hopeful.
I wish the book had been more consistent or better edited. During most of the book, nothing happens. Perhaps that’s intentionally symbolic of Aaliya’s life at this late stage, but I prefer a story that is more plot driven.
Who should read it: Heather O. (i.e., book lovers who are also language and culture nerds).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak (Novak was Ryan Howard on The Office, which he co-wrote and co-produced; this is his first collection of short fiction)
- Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home by Mary Matalin & James Carville (No parenthetical explanation necessary, right? The title and authors pretty much sum it up.)