September 20, 2012

This may be a leading question, but …


Throwing down the gauntlet with a blog post called “Is it really necessary to translate Arabic literature,” author Ibrahim Farghali has put his finger on what is clearly an extremely sore and important issue: the spotty and often seemingly random translation and publishing of Arabic literature in English-language markets. Farghali’s question is partly one of discouragement, partly of anger, and partly pragmatic, and it’s worth reading his post in full, translated and available here. However, briefly, Farghali writes that, for a number of years, he has been following the translation of Arabic literature into English, French, and German, and the Arabic literary prizes that European and American publishers are familiar with, the Arabic Booker and the Naguib Mahfouz Prize. And his conclusion is a grim one:

Taking together all the Arabic literature we see translated and celebrated today, in addition to the two aforementioned prizes and others, it is my view that nothing has changed. These translations have failed to give expression to the true nature of the Arab world’s literary output and they have proved unable to bring about any sort of audience for this literature.

The problem is not that nothing has been translated, but in what has been translated:

It is quite clear that there is a focus on the topics and not the techniques of writing on the part of publishers today, usually concentrating around subjects such as corruption, the role of Arab women in their societies and sexual relations (particularly in closed societies). This appears to be driven by a publishing market which offers the Western reader an image that says that, while such countries may not possess any “global” writers (in any case, a concept midwifed by Euro-centrism), they nevertheless possess societies that the reader can enjoy getting to know.

It is hard to forget in this context Claudia Roth Pierpont’s article on Arabic literature in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, in which many of the titles she talked about were published by the small academic press Lynne Rienner Publishers or were otherwise difficult to get in the US, and where the pitch of the article was often exactly what Farghali is objecting to, that the books would give us Westerners insight into a distant world, rather than that the books might be of interest as literature.

There are indeed publishers dedicated to translating Arabic literature for its own sake—Interlink, Saqi Books, the American University in Cairo Press—and the blog Arabic Literature in English regularly points to both what is and isn’t being translated. But Farghali’s point is a valid one, and it ought to occasion a lot of discussion. One place you might want to go do this, if you’re in New York this weekend, is the PEN Translation Committee event on “North African Writing in the Wake of the Arab Spring”, at 5pm this Sunday, at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.