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The Translator: Imagining Islam in the West

Falling for your co-worker? That’s normal, it happens all the time. But what happens when you fall for your co-worker who has an opposite skin colour as well as belief to you whilst you are still mourning over the loss of someone who was very dear to you?

The Translator, written by a Sudanese author Leila Aboulela, portrays a story about a strong and courageous woman whose past is not so bright. Sammar is a Muslim Sudanese widow who has been living in Scotland for quite some time. Her much-beloved husband, Tariq, passed away due to a car accident happening a few years prior, causing Sammar to wallow in misery and isolation. Her only distraction in the ‘cruel’ world is her faith in her religion and God. Otherwise, she lives her life in zombie-likeness, haunted by the memories of the horrible past she has been through.

Sammar works as an Arabic translator in one of the universities in Aberdeen. That’s where she meets Rae, a senior Scottish colleague who sees Sammar’s faith in Islam as something fascinating. Although he is an agnostic, he does not discriminate nor hate her. In fact, he is an Islamic scholar and is very much interested in learning about Islam. That’s when things start to turn around for Sammar. Hope for living as well as a happy ending blossom. And just like any other cliché love story, she falls for him and becomes brave enough to finally confess. However, it is sad to say that Rae’s lack of belief in Sammar’s God then crushes her.

This novel is one of the most intriguing novels I have read. It allows me to see the English literature world from a different perspective since the point of view of the story is from Sammar, a Muslim from the East living in a western country. Aboulela manages to show that a person who holds on to Islam will survive to live anywhere, even if the majority of the people there are not.

The storyline really catches my attention as well. Love and marriage between a widow and a widower who are from completely different worlds—physically and emotionally—is very uncommon, especially in western countries. Nevertheless, the two main characters in The Translator succeed in making that happen because of Sammar’s stronghold and prayers to God. I think this is Aboulela’s way of conveying a message about the power and greatness of God. He can make the impossible possible.

Although the plot is a little confusing, as it goes back and forth between the past and the present, Aboulela still manages to create a piece of writing that is really powerful and touching. She has successfully expressed all emotions such as anger, sorrow, and happiness throughout the story with her beautiful descriptions. Furthermore, the words in each chapter are easy to digest and understand.

All in all, The Translator is a great short novel to read in one’s spare time. It does touch upon the issue of proselytization because of the Islamic teachings it talks about, but when looked deeper, there is more to it than that. It is a story of freedom. I personally recommend this novel to older teenagers and adults because it contains sensitive topics such as religion and race. Other than that, this novel will suck you right into the story, going to a different world. It will make you question things that you have never even thought about before.


Aboulela, L. (1999). The Translator. Edinburgh: Polygon.

7 thoughts on “The Translator: Imagining Islam in the West”

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