- Textual MigrationSelf-Translation and Translation of the Self in Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman and Ruju’ ’Ila Al-Tufulah
A comparative examination of the autobiography of Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid in its self-translated American edition, Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman1 and in the original Arabic, published five years earlier as Ruju’ ’Ila Al-Tufulah,2 shows how and why an Arab Muslim woman writer attempts to write, rewrite, and in this case translate, the self when addressing different audiences. As Susan Stanford Friedman explains with regard to her work on H. D.’s autobiography, there is significance to be found in what an author elects to reveal or hide in different versions of a particular work.3 When translating his or her own text for a new audience, especially an “other,” an author might emphasize, conceal, or transform elements to suit the demands of that audience and avoid alienating it. As Amal Amireh demonstrates in her “reception study” of Nawal el-Saadawi in England, America, and the Arab world, it is useful to consider how a text’s peritext (to use Gerard Genette’s term4) and content (omissions, additions, and changes) “accommodate the expectations of [the] new audience.”5
Abouzeid’s status in the West does not approach that of el-Saadawi, “whose reputation as an Egyptian feminist activist and novelist . . . has always been an overtly political matter.”6 El-Saadawi is a more prolific writer who was known to the West earlier, who appears more often on university syllabi, and whose corpus is more familiar and popular than Abouzeid’s (sixteen works in print in translation versus four). Abouzeid does resemble el-Saadawi, however, whose emergence, as Amireh notes, “into visibility has been overdetermined by the political-economic circumstances of first-world-third-world relations of production and consumption.”7 Abouzeid’s first translated text, Year of the Elephant, was published in 1989;8 in 1998 came Return to Childhood, the memoir discussed here; this was followed by The Last Chapter (2003)9 and The Director and Other Stories from Morocco (2006).10 The Last Chapter was Abouzeid’s “first work to appear almost simultaneously in Arabic and [End Page 1] in English,”11 indicative of her growing stature in the West, while Year of the Elephant “remains in wide use as a text in courses on the Middle East and women’s studies.”12 This increase in her popularity is perhaps partially attributable to the interest in Arab and Muslim women in a post-September 11 world, to America’s interest in Islam in general, and to the perceived plight of Muslim women under the Taliban and other regimes. More specifically, the 2003 Casablanca bombings called attention to Morocco and Moroccan feminists. Still, although Abouzeid’s visibility in her native Morocco has risen of late, it does not match el-Saadawi’s notoriety (or infamy) in Egypt. Abouzeid herself admits that even “intellectuals and the university teachers hadn’t read [her first published work]”13 and that she was not recognized positively by Moroccan and Arab critics, writers, and academics until after their Western counterparts reacted positively to the translations.14
Though Abouzeid’s lower profile means that considerably less material is available for examination than is the case with el-Saadawi, a study of writings by and about Abouzeid reveals why and how she writes for various audiences and how she is in turn received and understood by them. In performing this study I pay special attention to the ways in which “an Arab woman writer’s text is transformed through translation, editing, and reviewing once it crosses cultural and national borders.”15 Such a study rests on a comparison of the peritext and paratext of the two versions, English and Arabic, specifically with regard to how material is added, deleted, mistranslated, and packaged to tailor the work to the needs and expectations of a particular audience. Also essential in understanding the ways in which Abouzeid constructs both of her selves in her autobiography (or rather autobiographies) is a comparison of epitexts, the texts’ receptions as...