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After Sayyida Salme published Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin in 1886, an English translation rapidly followed in 1888, with some revisions she apparently authorized. That same English version also showed up in New York the same year, probably bootlegged. Almost a decade passed before Lionel Strachey then produced another translation with some fanfare.

Speaking as the translator of a new edition of the Memoirs, my own assessment is that the 1888 translation is well done in most respects, but appears to have been done in haste. A more diligent approach would have caught any number of omissionswords, sentences, paragraphsto be truer to the original. The text, moreover, while no doubt pleasing to nineteenth-century ears, does feel like a nineteenth-century text.

The 1907 translation is another matter. Unfortunately, this is also the one that is most frequently reissued and repackaged. Lionel Strachey had been making a name for himself with accounts of "charming" women's lives, according to the inner sleeve. This was his fourth such translation, another feather in his cap. Not only was the translation unauthorized, but he also apparently had no issue putting his imprimatur on Sayyida Salme's work. That included, for example, liberally embellishing each chapter with dozens of subheaders, his choice of characterization and emphasis taking complete liberties with the author's own views. He also shortened sections, merged chapters, omitted chapters, and generally rendered his gloss across the board. 

The point here is not to disparage prior translations, but rather to appeal to modern standards of authorship and authenticity. My own new translation may have sought to respect the author in the extrememaintaining the same chapter, same paragraph, even same sentence structure, with virtually all the same punctuation (other than many periods in lieu of semi-colons)but my choice was to emphasize accuracy, while still striving for readability.

There is, of course, no single right way to translate a phrase, sentence, or paragraph. And there is a limit to how much any translator can truly stand in the shoes of the author and know exactly what she meant to say. And yet, with my three watchwords of accuracy, authenticity, and respect, I hope the result reflects the intentions: a book worthy of her original voice.

Andrea E. Stumpf, December 2022      


For those interested in the details, a few examples out of many in the Memoirs may make the point:

First Example
Original German
Strachey 1907 Translation
original excerpt 1.jpg
strachey excerpt 1.jpg
New Translation
djilfidan example thumbnail_IMG_1742_edited.jpg
Why did Strachey leave out this sentence?
Kinder hat sie nur zwei gehabt, naemlich ausser mir noch eine ganz jung gestorbene Tochter.

Sayyida Salme does not say much about it, and she may have known very little, but the fact that her mother had lost a first daughter is hardly a trivial detail. Interesting to note also that if Djilfidan's first child had been a son, there would have been no additional child. Sarari were taken out of circulation (so to speak) after they gave birth to a male, so as to avoid succession collusion.

Page 7 of the new translation (missing text in blue):
The father always had a special regard for her and never turned down her requests, which she usually made on behalf of others. He would regularly walk towards her when she came to him, a recognition that was very rare. With a good and pious disposition, she had a most self-effacing manner and was sincere and open in all things. Although
not particularly gifted intellectually, she was very proficient in her needlework. She gave birth to only two children, namely a daughter who died at a very young age, in addition to myself. She was a tender, loving mother to me, ....
Second Example
Original German
Strachey 1907 Translation
original excerpt 2.jpg
strachey excerpt 2.jpg
New Translation
teacher ex thumbnail_IMG_1741_edited.jpg
Why did Strachey conjure up subheaders?
Why did he combine two chapters?
Why did he drop the first paragraph?
Why did he misspell the author's name?

Sayyida Salme gave her chapters straighforward titles. She then wrote each chapter without any introductory subheaders. Strachey not only added chapter subheaders in every case, but in this case (and elsewhere) combined two chapters into one - and then promptly skipped the first paragraph. Why not share how much she loved her first teacher, in contrast to all her other siblings? What an interesting detail that says so much about her personality and how she fit in! 
Clearly, there was also more going on in these chapters than his list of selected topics, and who is to say if he got the characterizations and emphasis right. We can, for example, feel his trivialization of her accomplishment in learning how to write, when he refers to it as mere "calligraphy." We know the author was a proficient writer as a teen because that is what got her into trouble later with the coup attempt.
Strachey even manages to misspell the author's birthname, even though she used it in the first chapter. There would have been no need to modify Salme to Salamah for an American audience. The earlier 1888 translation was content to leave her name as written.
With changes like these, Strachey's fabrication was a significant stretch from Sayyida Salme's original that continues
 to distort her memory and undermine credible scholarship about her to this day. 

Missing paragraph pn page 26 of the new translation:

All I want to say about my new teacher is that I will forever owe thanks to the Almighty for also giving me such a faithful friend while I was still young! She was a strict, but fair teacher. I was often the only one with her, since my siblings disliked going into her dark sickroom and instead took advantage of her infirmity by staying away. I could not bear to see her, my poor, wretched teacher, ask something of me and then not fulfill her requests. Of course, my obedience brought me not only her satisfaction, but also much teasing from my absconded siblings, on top of the frequent beatings they made me endure.

Third Example
Ward and Downey 1888 Translation
shewane ex 1888 thumbnail_IMG_1740.jpg
New Translation
shewane ex original 1 thumbnail_IMG_1748_edited.jpg
shewane ex original 3 thumbnail_IMG_1746_edited.jpg
Original German
Why did the 1888 edition fail to include two revealing sentences, one about her sense of how people behave, and another about the character she is describing?
1. Bei solchen Momenten weicht ja der so sehr uns beherrschende Egoismus wenn auch nur auf kurze Zeit von uns.
2. Und gerade der Stolz war einer der vielen Raetsel in ihrem Wesen, da doch ihre Seele ein fester, voller Glaube erfuellte.

Shewane is one of the more interesting personalities among the siblings Sayyida Salme highlights. I won't give it all away here - and readers may ponder what the description reflects - but two concluding sentences were dropped from the 1888 translation. The 1888 edition is mostly quite good, but then it simply lapses like this, and key thoughts disappear. 
shewane ex thumbnail_IMG_1744_edited.jpg

Page 95 of the new translation (missing text in blue):

1. ... that no one, other than the woman who washed her corpse, would ever see her dead body. Her command was strictly observed. As soon as Shewane passed away, her room was firmly locked. Only after the corpse had been washed, bestrewn with camphor, and wrapped in white linen seven times around, including her face, all as prescribed, only then were we allowed to go to her. Speechless, I knelt before her corpse and embraced her, not heeding the fearful individuals that warned me of contagion and sought to pull me away. In such moments, even if only briefly, our normally very controlling egoism relents. 

2. Despite our considerable differences, I was devoted to Shewane with all my heart. I always defended her, and anyone who could see past her abrupt style and peculiarities was bound to love her. Her pride and ambition made her some enemies, especially among older people who chose not to tolerate them. And indeed, precisely this pride was one of her many riddles, considering that her soul was filled with a strong and deep faith.

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