Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Bookseller of Kabul

I’ve been reading Ǻsne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul in the English translation by Ingrid Christophersen; the original is in Norwegian. I’m aware of the controversy and the lawsuit in Norway that the book provoked and I have my sympathies, but I’ll stick to matters of translation.

The best tribute I can pay Ingrid Christophersen is that to me her translation reads seamlesly like it was original English writing. I disagree with the New York Times reviewer who said it was "slightly stiff". A Norwegian-speaking reviewer on says:
"Finally a note about the translation: overall it does the book justice. The book in its original language is not a literary masterpiece and the language is often riddled with overly simplistic expressions."

In short, it’s journalism not literature, and I think Christophersen’s text is of the kind an English-speaking journalist would write.

It’s not only a good translation, it’s also a very successful one, since it must have contributed in no small measure to the book’s becoming an international bestseller. I’m glad to see Christophersen’s name appears prominently on the title page.

It may be trivia, but it’s interesting that it was the English translation and not the Norwegian original that led to the thinly disguised main character in the book suing the author for defamation and invasion of privacy. Something that may pass unnoticed in a language of limited diffusion may cause a stir when translated into a major world language.

What is relevant for this blog, however, is not the translation of the book but the translation within the book and underlying it.

It’s a work of what might be called imaginative ethnography. The author lived like a family member in the house of an Afghan family for five months, observed their personal and social lives at close quarters, and built on what they told her. But how did they tell her? She's honest from the start, in the Foreword, about her language problem: “I never mastered Dari, the Persian dialect spoken by the Khan family.” She could hardly be expected to in a few weeks, and yet she needed Dari-speaking informants.
"Readers have asked me: ‘How do you know what went on in the heads of the various family members?’ I am not, of course, an omniscient author. Internal dialogue and feelings are based entirely on what family members described to me."

Fortunately, help was at hand:
"…several family members spoke English. Sultan [the father] had picked up a colourful and verbose form of English while teaching a diplomat his own Dari dialect. His young sister, Leila, spoke excellent English, having attended Pakistani schools when she was a refugee, and evening classes in Afghanistan. Mansur, Sultan’s oldest son, also spoke fluent English, after several years of schooling in Pakistan.”

That leaves the family members who did not speak English but whose conversation was invaluable. Again she was fortunate. The presence of English-speaking Afghanis meant there were Native or Natural Interpreters available to her:
“Sultan didn’t allow anyone outside the family to live in his house; so he, Mansur and Leila acted as my interpreters. This, of course, gave them a large influence over their family story, but I double-checked the various versions and asked the same questions of all three interpreters, who between them represented the large contrasts within the family.”
Elsewhere Seierstad has said, “I did formal interviews with everyone in the house, and Shah Mohammad Rais [the real name of Sultan] himself translated several of the interviews.”
Sultan/Rais was certainly a Native Translator: he had long exposure to translations and experience as an interpreter.
"Rais, 53, says he even carries [in his bookshop] Western favorites, including the Harry Potter series translated into Farsi."
About Mansour and Leila, we don’t have enough background.

Even in more scientific ethnographic studies than Seierstad’s, it has constantly been necessary to have recourse to interpreters, and they are unlikely to be Professional or Expert Translators, because of the unusual languages involved and the remote locations. This poses problems of verification (see the Borchgrevink reference), and it’s customary to use a checking technique such as she did. But had The Bookseller of Kabul been written without such aid, it would be a much poorer tale.

Ǻsne Seierstad. The Bookseller of Kabul. Translated from Norwegian by Ingrid Christophersen. 2003. Numerous reprints in English and many translations in other languages.
Richard McGill Murphy, The war at home. New York Times, December 21, 2003.
‘Kattepusen’. Despite unsophisticated language, a worthwhile read., 2005.
Shah Muhammed Rais. Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul. Kabul, 2007.This is Sultan’s rebuttal. It’s been translated into Norwegian and Portuguese.
Axel Borchgrevink. Silencing language: of anthropologists and interpreters. Ethnography, Vol. 4, No. 1, 95-121, 2003.


  1. I can't agree with you.The translation is just really bad.Sometimes I doubted the translator was a native English speaking person,so bad it is.Ex: page 85 Burka women are like horses with BLINKERS (?),shouldn't it be Blinders?That is just one example out of the many i've found.Her English is just not natural at all.Best wishes. Yod

  2. Sorry but you're wrong about 'blinkers'. It's just that 'blinkers' is British and 'blinders' is North American. See the entries for both in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. If you speak North American English yourself, that may be why her English doesn't sound natural to you. Anyway, thanks for writing.