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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

Rescuing Her Voice

Updated: Feb 29

Sayyida Salme took a monumental step when she became Emily Ruete at the age of twenty-two in 1866, shattering rules, traditions, and expectations. Behind that name change lay an expression of self that defied the rigorously preserved and protected princess royalty of the Omani/Zanzibari Sultanate. But her self-expression took an even more tangible and lasting form in her writings. At least as consequential from a historical perspective was the publication of her Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin in 1886, the first book ever published by an Arab woman.

Although originally written in German, the book is now more widely read in English, through the two contemporary translations from 1888 and 1907. That makes sense – her story fascinates audiences far beyond Germany, and it has become all the trend to revive old tomes with cheap reprints. But who stops to think about how much of her they are reading? Most of these reprints do not even indicate that they are translations. The Memoirs are special because we hear her remarkable voice, but not if that voice is distorted.

This is the sad fact that I came to realize. It had never dawned on me that the available translations would be anything but faithful. But when I did my own translating to go deep into getting to know my ancestor, I was shocked by the comparison.

Of the two early English translations, the 1907 Lionel Strachey edition – the one that shows up again and again – is the most painful. It mangles her original, both by what it leaves out and by what it puts in. I will not mince words. It is a travesty that uses her name and story to put words in her mouth. (More on that under "Translating" on my website.) I am seeking to replace this translation, to rescue her voice. Even while acknowledging that translations necessarily depart from the original, my new translation, painstakingly and lovingly developed together with my mother, is meant to be as accurate as possible in letting Sayyida Salme’s voice ring out anew and true.

This endeavor follows on three ironies that are worth highlighting. The first one bears on Sayyida Salme’s own stated mission:

Having been born and bred in the East, I am in a position to set down the unvarnished reflection of my Oriental experiences—of its high life and its low life—to speak of many peculiarities, and lift the veil from things that are always hidden from profane eyes. This, I hope, will constitute the main value of my book, and my object will have been fully gained if I have been able to contribute my share, and above all, if I have succeeded in removing many misconceptions and distortions current about the East. (Memoirs, Afterword, p. 229).

If her main point was to contravene the prevailing stereotypes and caricatures of Arabs, so often also aimed at her, then it is the height of irony that people would read her in a form that perpetuated and exacerbated those very slights. For example, where she describes her breakthrough accomplishment in secretly teaching herself to write, Strachey supplies a demeaning subheader about “Lessons in Calligraphy.” Huh? Strachey also added photos to his edition, no doubt one reason why this version is favored for reprints. One of them features “harem women” with fully bared arms and elephant-trunk-like face masks, a staged and insulting departure from her own refined culture. Quoting Hielke van der Wijk on this specific photo from his unpublished collection of Photos and Postcards Relating to Oman and East Africa, Volume 1C: “We can safely describe this as an example of the Orientalism that Emily Ruete hated.” It then adds insult to injury that Strachey leads the reader to believe that his embellishments were her words and images.

Indeed, the second irony is Strachey’s oddly crafted introduction, entitled “Authenticity of these Memoirs.” To his credit, the very first sentence of this introductory essay notes that this is a translation, but he then proceeds to comment that “to the world at large the Black Continent and its peoples then meant less than to-day. In connection with these memoirs arises the question of their authenticity.”  Quoting from an English government official’s confirmation of this “so romantic a supposal,” he thus pronounces the story authentic, thereby underscoring the erroneous implication that all that follows is a true rendition of her original. Authenticity is admittedly a slippery term, but even under the most generous interpretation, Strachey manages to deliver a truly unauthentic image of a story that could not have been more authentically her own.

The third irony lies within Sayyida Salme’s own family. After her children discovered her Briefe nach der Heimat when she passed away, they ultimately decided to make the manuscript public and turned to the very publishing company that had put out Strachey’s translation. But Doubleday, Page & Co. turned it down,[1] and no other publisher was found at the time. Which is just as well. At least with this later manuscript, I do not have to worry about an errant historical edition distorting her views. Even so, my Letters to the Homeland translation, as a sequel to the Memoirs, gives new voice to her authentic cri de coeur about the hardships of an émigré life in Europe, faithfully transmitting her raw and searing account – an account that may still feel surprisingly true to some of her readers today.

Let history surprise you; let her story inspire you – let her authentic voice speak to you.

(c) Andrea Emily Stumpf, January 26, 2024

[1] We know this from correspondence placed for posterity by Rudolph Said-Ruete, the author’s son, in an envelope pasted – of all places – at page 16 of the family’s edition of Lionel Strachey’s Memoirs translation, which is located at the Leiden University Libraries Special Collection, SR 618. See also footnote 7 in my edition of Letters to the Homeland, where I clarify that Strachey’s translation was unauthorized, without family approval or involvement, under the weak copyright laws of the time.

* Photo of the embossed imprint on the cover of the original Strachey edition from Doubleday, Page & Co. (1907).



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