‘I think it helped a lot that I was very unfamiliar with the Arab world in general and Oman in particular, as it enabled me to stand in for readers in a similar position.’
As part of our Translation as Conversation strand of articles this year in association with A Year of Conversation, BooksfromScotland got in touch with Kay Farrell, editor at Sandstone Press. She acquired and edited Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, which has just been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. We spoke to Kay about the story of its english-language publication.
By Jokha Alharthi
Published by Sandstone Press
Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about Celestial Bodies?
Celestial Bodies initially tells the story of three sisters living in a small village in Oman. From this starting point it sprawls out to talk about their families, families connected with theirs and a transitional period in Omani history, drawing an intimate portrait of a culture undergoing rapid change. It’s ambitious and sweeping, complex and beautiful.
Why did you want to acquire this book?
When I first read Celestial Bodies, I was struck by how different it was from anything else I’d read at the time. It’s dense and perhaps best seen as a fable, where the prose is injected with poetry, philosophy and history throughout but has at its heart the relationships between people. By shifting the point of view, Alharthi enables us to understand not only why a character acts or feels as they do but also the impact it has on others. The chapters add layers to each character so that the reader’s understanding of their personalities shift and change as we encounter another facet of them. I found I was constantly adjusting my opinions of particular figures but understanding their problems and triumphs made both their actions and reactions more plausible and relatable. There is such a strong sense of a culture outside of time combined with a traditional storytelling sensibility that there’s quite a sense of displacement when signs of modern life start appearing which I think mirrors the way it must have felt to live through this time superbly. It’s all so elegantly done that I just fell in love and practically begged to acquire it!
Working with a translator adds an additional layer to the publishing process – how was working with the author and the translator?
Working with two people rather than one does add a level of complexity, but Jokha and Marilyn had worked together already and developed a good rapport, which meant they were largely in agreement and had some clear ideas of how they wanted the English language version to be. That meant that most of the discussion was on the finer details. Celestial Bodies includes quite a few Arabic terms so a lot of discussion focused on use of vocabulary, how much to explain in the text and so on. I think it helped a lot that I was very unfamiliar with the Arab world in general and Oman in particular, as it enabled me to stand in for readers in a similar position.
Working with a book from another culture is always a learning experience – what was the most interesting thing you learnt about Oman while working on Celestial Bodies?
There are lots of really lovely details in the book, from the hot stones wrapped in fabric to preserve a young mothers’ figure to the belief in curses which led to Merchant Sulayman having his head burnt as a child. What has stayed with me, however, is discovering that slavery was legal in Oman until 1970. There are some really harrowing details in the book about the situation of slaves and the stigma which followed their descendants even after abolition. I think it’s important to confront such topics: in the West we like to think slavery is in the dim and distant past but that’s simply not true.
Which character from the book would you most like to have dinner with?
Zarifa, definitely. To me she’s one of the most interesting characters. A slave in Merchant Sulayman’s house, she raised Abdallah and became almost a stand-in wife for Sulayman. She has a strong personality and is fascinating to read about, as her station means that she’s not faced with the same expectations as other female characters. She’s fierce and loving throughout and definitely knows more than she tells the other characters. I’d like to ask her a lot of questions!
How does it feel to have a book you’ve edited shortlisted for the Man Booker?
I may have screamed and danced a bit when I heard! The original Arabic edition had already won prizes, of course, so we hoped but you can never be sure. When I met Jokha back in August last year she was really sincere in thanking Sandstone for taking a chance on her work and I’m so pleased that it’s being recognised in this way. When you’re an editor all you really want is for the author to have enjoyed working with you and for others to see what you saw in the text. So this is fantastic!
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi is published by Sandstone Press, priced £8.99
Find out more about A Year of Conversation at www.ayearofconversation.com (#AYOC2019)