Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 January 2004
Issue No. 674
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From Frankfurt to Cairo

The Cairo International Book Fair will provide the opening shot in promoting Arabic literature at the larger Frankfurt event, discovers Sonali Pahwa

Many readers of English first encounter recognisably modern descriptions of Egyptian life in Naguib Mahfouz's translated novels, with their echoes of Dickens' London rather than the mythical Orient of the 1001 Nights.

For years, a handful of bilingual enthusiasts who realised the value of translating Arabic literature produced English versions at a steady trickle. And then a fortuitous coincidence between Mahfouz's Nobel Prize in literature and the American University in Cairo Press's acquisition of an Arab authors series from British publisher Heinemann ushered in a boom in the translation business. Today it appears poised before another watershed: the Frankfurt International Book Fair, the largest publishing trade fair worldwide, has chosen to spotlight the Arab world in 2004.

The Egyptian publishing industry has responded to the honour with a predictable flurry of activity. A brochure produced by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) in consultation with the general coordinator of the Arab representation at the fair, Mohamed Ghoneim, and the chairman of the Arab Publishers' Union, Ibrahim El-Mo'allem, announces the mission of showcasing the contribution of Arab culture to human heritage. In addition to exhibits by 150 publishing houses, the Arab pavilion will include art exhibits, children's books, and publications on information technology and cultural tourism. The book project intends to produce 20 translations of leading works of literature and culture, 50 children's books and several booklets on Arab historical personalities. There will also be an extensive programme of cinema and the performing arts.

These ambitious plans have already produced a palpable buzz. Ibrahim El-Mo'allem, who is also the chairman of the private-sector publishing house Dar Al-Shurouq, has been going to fair for 30 years. But he is enthusiastic about the prospect of attending with a substantial Arab representation this time, and revels in the additional opportunity to present a comprehensive view of Arab culture at the fair. "We hope to initiate a dialogue of cultures," he says. "This will be a chance to find out what is known about our culture, and to demonstrate that we want to be part of the world, not against it."

El-Mo'allem indicates, further, the unique possibilities of a collective effort in this direction by Arab publishers. "We can do more this year than we have done in other years. We plan to produce catalogues in many languages, with book titles, author biographies and pictures, both for works already translated and those awaiting translation."

Mohamed Enani, editor of the General Egyptian Book Organisation's series of translated fiction, Contemporary Arabic Literature, anticipates building links with American publishers in particular.

"We arranged to publish a collection of contemporary poetry, Angry Voices, with the University of Arkansas Press last year," he reveals, "and we would like to publish more books with them. The project is taking shape."

A down-to-earth perspective on the practicalities of producing translations from Arabic is provided by the American University in Cairo Press, which has dominated the field in recent decades. Mark Linz, director of the AUC Press, believes that the selection of the Arab world as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair presents both an opportunity and a considerable challenge.

"In the past, single countries have been chosen for special focus," he notes, "but nothing as complex and far-ranging as the Arab world. About 8,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries attend the fair, and it is certainly the largest event of its kind. Arab publishers and writers will gain a great deal of exposure, which is very much needed at the moment to bridge the gap between Arab cultures and the rest of the world. But time to prepare is short, and making this opportunity concrete will be a challenge."

Linz elaborates upon the current status of translation in the publishing business. "Translations represent 10 per cent of the world's annual new publications, but less than one per cent of these come from the Arab world. Even fewer of these are of literary works in Arabic. Translation is always expensive for a publisher -- translators are rare, and a translated book is almost never as successful as one in the original language."

Linz believes that translation requires substantial subsidy. "There must be funding," he emphasises, "in order to put translations on a level playing field with other manuscripts." At the level of logistics, he suggests that regular channels of communication with foreign publishers about new books in Arabic would also help pave the way for translations.

Mapping a project of cultural translation for a global market requires a preliminary survey of the market. The history of the market for translations from Arabic after the increase in publicity following Mahfouz's Nobel Prize is instructive. At that time AUC already had the rights to nine of Mahfouz's translated novels. When worldwide demand for the Nobel laureate's writings grew after 1988 AUC developed a partnership with Doubleday to publish its translations in the US and UK.

But as Neil Hewison of the AUC Press emphasises, a range of initiatives were undertaken to ensure that the post-1988 expansion of a market for translated Arabic literature enabled more than just a Mahfouz industry. "The AUC Press started to broaden out with our acquisition of the Heinemann series of Arab authors. We wanted to make available a much wider range of Arab writing, extending beyond Egypt and across different generations."

This is confirmed by a glance at AUC's most recent catalogue of translated Arabic literature, which features the novels of Algerian Ahlam Mosteghanemi and Moroccan Bensalem Himmich alongside classic short stories by Yahia Haqqi and the novels of a younger generation, including a significant representation of women. The establishment in 1996 of the annual Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which offers the prize-winning author an English translation, is a notable example of the AUC Press' efforts to keep pace with new writers on the Arabic literary scene.

As the roster diversifies, Mahfouz retains the largest place in AUC's list of translations, testimony to both his classic literary appeal and saleability. Most recently the press has published Mahfouz's Pharaonic trilogy in English. These are Mahfouz's very first novels, but their appearance in English after the publication of 25 other of his books by AUC was due to the author's initial reluctance to have them translated.

"We have been working with Mr Mahfouz all along to develop the list of his books that we will translate, books that he considers the most important and accessible to English readers," explains Hewison, "and these three novels were not high among his priorities. But given the growing global interest in things Pharaonic, it seemed essential to us to get them translated and on the market." A sound business decision, and how indeed would a publishing house survive without a judicious balance between marketable and personal favourites?

Other publishers of Arabic literature in English seem to be seeking a comparable balance between representing it as a marketable genre and selecting unique, often genre-defying, works for translation. In the US three academic presses -- at the University of Arkansas, the University of Texas and Syracuse University -- have series of Middle East literature in translation. Each series consists of about ten novels, clearly chosen with care and translated as labours of love. Culled from across the Arabic-speaking world, these selections are not so much representative as suggestive of the riches of the literature.

On the other side of the Atlantic British publishers have far more extensive series of Arabic fiction in translation. Garnet Books' series in Middle East literature features a list of works with a high international profile, including plenty of Mahfouz, Abdel-Rahman Munif, Hanan El- Shaykh and the Burton edition of the 1001 Nights. They also have a separate series for Arab women writers. Al-Saqi Books' more idiosyncratic list includes Sahar Khalifa, Mohamed Choukri and Turki El- Hamad. An academic perspective on Arabic literature is provided by Quartet Books, which has published edited collections on genres such as poetry, the short story and drama, as well as literary criticism.

In October, when the world's largest trade fair for the book industry convenes in Frankfurt, this eclectic collection of publishers of translated Arabic literature will have a unique forum in which to share ideas and join forces. The stage appears set for more serious international encounters than those which the Cairo International Book Fair has been able to effect.

The Cairo Book Fair will, however, provide the setting for the first public discussion of the representation of the Arab world at Frankfurt this year. A panel discussion featuring Frankfurt Book Fair director Volker Neumann and other German representatives as well as ALECSO board members, and moderated by GEBO director Samir Sarhan, is scheduled for Saturday evening at the Lotus Hall.

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