Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Arabic translation boom

More Arabic literature is being translated into English and other languages than ever before, vastly extending the range of work available to international readers, writes David Tresilian

Mahfouz
Mahfouz
Al-Ahram Weekly

When the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 25 years ago, the first and thus far only Arab writer to have received the award, little modern Arabic literature was available in English translation. English-speaking readers hoping to read works by Arab authors had few to choose from, and even many of Mahfouz’s own works were not available in English translation.

This situation has been transformed almost beyond recognition today, perhaps partly as a result of the Mahfouz award. The past few decades have seen the arrival of growing numbers of translators of Arabic literature and of publishers willing to publish their work, along with international prizes that include the guaranteed translation of the winning works. As a result, the range of material available to international readers is vastly greater than it was in 1989 when Mahfouz received the Nobel award. The works of one contemporary Arab writer at least, the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany, have become international bestsellers.  

But while more material is available in English today than ever before, questions remain over whether this has always led to better translations, greater range and representation, or increased understanding among western readers. Some works sell large numbers of copies abroad, particularly if they touch upon hot button issues. Others, perhaps more challenging to western readers, sell less well if they are translated at all. Many of the perennial problems of literary translation from the Arabic are still present, though they are often buried beneath the larger numbers of works available.

Yet, the contrast with two decades ago is still extraordinary. Figures given by US academic Salih Altoma in his 2005 study Modern Arabic Literature in Translation indicate that between 1947 and 1967 only 16 modern literary titles were translated from Arabic into English, though this picked up to a further 84 between 1967 and 1988. Moreover, many of the early translations were directed at specialist audiences, perhaps students studying Arabic, and even if they were directed at a more general readership they were often not presented as literary works but rather as works having mainly sociological interest.

The autobiographical writings of the 20th century Egyptian writers Tawfiq Al-Hakim and Taha Hussein, for example, among the few works in Arabic to be translated into English before 1967, were often read as sociological reports on life in Egypt or as works providing ethnographic details of picturesque manners and customs. Even the earlier works of Naguib Mahfouz were presented not so much as works of literature as the literary equivalent of postcards from Egypt.

After 1989 the trickle of literary translations from Arabic became a flood. Altoma notes that whereas a handful of pioneering translators and publishers had been responsible for the translations that had appeared even as late as the 1970s and 80s, new publishers and translators began to appear in the 1990s to meet the needs of growing audiences. Pioneering translators such as Desmond Stewart and above all Denys Johnson-Davies, the latter editing the famous Heinemann “Arab Authors” series published in the UK, produced translations of Arabic literary works that showed that these did not have to be confined to specialist audiences but could be read with pleasure by general readers.

Stewart’s translations of Egyptian Earth by Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi and The Man who Lost his Shadow by Fathi Ghanem demonstrated the range and versatility of modern writing, the one a rural allegory and the other an urban thriller, while Johnson-Davies’s translations of, among many other works, Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Smell of It and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North launched these authors’ international careers and helped audiences worldwide become more familiar with the Arabic writing of the 1960s, one of the modern literature’s most creative decades.

Nevertheless, some of the questions raised by these early translations persist today, including the criteria for selection, the way works translated from the Arabic fit with the tastes and expectations of western readers, and the strategies adopted by different translators and publishers in presenting them to international audiences.



Prizes for translation: The award of the Nobel Prize to Mahfouz in 1989 demonstrated that there was an international market for Arabic literature in translation, underlined by the subsequent translation of most of his works into English, French and Spanish.

Since then, important prizes for literary translation from the Arabic have been launched both within and outside the region, these helping to attract readers and grow an audience for translated work. Perhaps the most high-profile is the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), launched in 2007, which is sometimes called the “Arabic Booker” because it was modelled on the UK’s successful Man Booker Prize for Fiction. While publishers submit works in Arabic to be considered for the Prize in order to encourage greater recognition of these in the Arab world, a significant component consists of arranging the translation of the winning works into European and other languages.

In the seven years of its existence the IPAF has recognised works by many Egyptian writers, including Bahaa Taher and Youssef Zeidan, the 2008 and 2009 winners, and the works of all its winners have been translated into English and other languages. Shortlisted and longlisted works have in many cases also been translated. Some works have been particularly popular with international publishers, with Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, winner of the 2008 prize, being translated into nine languages, including Bosnian and Turkish, and Youssef Zeidan’s Azazeel, the 2009 winner, appearing in 15, including Indonesian, Hebrew and Russian.

However, other works have been less successful, and winning the Prize is not enough for a work to achieve wide translation. Saudi author Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks, which won the 2010 prize, has only been translated into two foreign languages, for example, while Egyptian writer Mohamed Al-Bisatie’s Hunger, shortlisted in 2009, has made it into four, as has Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, shortlisted in 2008. This suggests that the prestige of winning the IPAF Prize does not automatically translate into wide translation, and foreign publishers may look at other criteria when considering whether to commission one.

The IPAF is possibly the best-known Arabic literature prize internationally, but there are also others that include a translation component as well as prizes that are designed specifically to recognise Arabic literary translation. Among the former is the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature awarded by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press since 1996, which recognises the best work of fiction to have appeared in Arabic each year and arranges for its English translation. Among the latter is the UK-based Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, which as its name implies is awarded for what the jury believes is the best English-Arabic literary translation.

The Mahfouz Medal has been awarded to 11 Egyptian authors since its inception, reflecting Egypt’s leadership in the literary field, along with two Syrians and two Palestinians. However, only two writers from the Maghreb have received the Prize, indicating either the Medal’s Mashraq bias — the prize is based in Cairo — or the fact that fewer works of recognised quality are being published in Arabic by Maghreb authors, many of whom write in French for a French-speaking audience.

Among the winners of the Prize have been established figures like the Egyptian author Edwar Al-Kharrat, recognised in 1999 for his novel Rama and the Dragon, and the Palestinian Mourid Barghouti, winning in 1997 with his memoir of Occupied Palestine I saw Ramallah.  

The Medal has also recognised younger and possibly less well-known figures like Hamdi Abu Golayyel for his novel A Dog with No Tail in 2008 and Yusuf Abu Rayya for Wedding Night in 2005. Eight women have been awarded the Mahfouz Medal, making the percentage of winning women authors almost equal to that of men. Among the women authors recognised have been the Algerian Arabic-language author Ahlam Mosteghanemi for her novel Memory in the Flesh in 1998 and the Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat, familiar also for her writings in French, for The Tiller of Waters in 2000.

The “feminisation” of modern Arabic literature, or at least the increasing recognition of work by women authors, has been a feature of Arabic literature in recent years.

Unlike the AUC Medal, the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize, begun in 2006, is designed to recognise work that has already been translated into English for the quality of the translation. The Prize is awarded to the translator of the work rather than its author, and its regulations rule out new translations of older works. All translations entered for the Prize must be of works in Arabic published after 1967, meaning that all the winning works have been by contemporary writers. It is administered by the UK Society of Authors, a writers association which also administers prizes for literary translation from French, German, Spanish and other languages.  

Translators recognised by the Prize include Humphrey Davies for his version of Gate of the Sun by Lebanese Palestinian author Elias Khoury in its inaugural year, Farouk Abdel-Wahab for his version of Egyptian author Khairy Shalaby’s The Lodging House in 2007, and Roger Allen for his version of Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide in 2012, one of the few winning works by a Maghreb writer. Himmich was also recognised, this time as author, for his novel The Polymath which won the Mahfouz Medal in 2002.



A modern Arab canon: These three literary prizes have significant translation components, the IPAF and Mahfouz Medal guaranteeing the translation of the winning works into English and the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize being explicitly for an English translation.

According to UAE national Omar Ghobash, sponsor of the latter prize, part of the intention behind it was to help form an “Arab canon”, in other words a set of works recognised for their importance. “The prize draws attention to the existence of Arabic literature and Arab writers,” Ghobash has commented, perhaps forgetting to add that unlike the IPAF and Mahfouz Medal the Banipal Prize does not aim to raise the profile of Arab writers among Arabic speakers, instead aiming to raise it internationally.  

There are other highly regarded Arabic translation prizes, all of them founded in the last two decades. Some are based in the Arab world, in which case they are intended primarily to recognise authors writing in Arabic while including an award for translation, and some are based in the US, in which case they are designed to recognise an English-language translation.

Among the former are the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, based in the UAE and in memory of sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi, and the Sultan Bin Ali Al-Owais Cultural Awards, also based in the UAE, which, though not specifically for translation, can help raise the international profile of winning authors. Among the latter is the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award, administered by Syracuse University Press, the University of Arkansas Press, and the King Fahd Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards do not specifically reward Arabic to English translation, but they have rewarded what might be called “cultural translation,” in other words the spread of ideas from one linguistic region to another. Veteran translator Denys Johnson-Davies was recognised as “cultural personality of the year” in 2007, the Awards’ inaugural year, for his contributions to making Arabic literature better known among English-speaking readers, and the Awards include prizes for translation into Arabic and for “contributions to the development of nations,” in other words for works judged to be of international importance.

Brill Publishers were recognised in the 2012 Awards, the Dutch publishers of the well-known Encyclopaedia of Islam, now in its third edition. In 2013, UK author Marina Warner was recognised for her Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, an exploration of themes in the Thousand and One Nights, and the Tunisian writer Fathi Meskni received an award for his Arabic translation of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, an enormous challenge that Meskni apparently brought off successfully.

Among the winning works of the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award have been older works such as Tree of Pearls: Queen of Egypt by the 19th century Lebanese writer Jurji Zaidan in a translation by Samah Selim, along with contemporary ones such as Dongola by Egyptian Nubian writer Idris Ali in a translation by Peter Theroux and Quartet of Joy, poems by the late Egyptian poet Muhammad Afifi Matar in versions by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden.

The guidelines for the Award say that it is intended to recognise the “best book-length translation of Arabic literature from [the genres of] poetry, novel, short-story collection, drama, or literary non-fiction such as autobiographies or memoirs,” opening it to contemporary, modern and pre-modern works.



Audience expectations: In his 2006 memoir Memories in Translation, Johnson-Davies says that when he started trying to interest English-language publishers in the modern literature of the Arab world the response was either to market the material as being of primarily ethnographic interest or as being primarily educational.

“It is interesting to see,” he says, “what Sir Hamilton Gibb [a Scottish orientalist] has to say about it in the second edition of his Arabic Literature, published in 1963: ‘All of these productions, short stories, novels and plays, remain bounded by the horizons and conventions of the Arab world. When translated into other languages they are more interesting as social documents than as literary achievements.’”

Worse, when Johnson-Davies was told in the late 1980s that the “Arab Authors” series he edited was not making a profit for the publishers and would therefore be closed down despite the contributions it had made to making Arabic literature better known in the West, he was unable to raise the money to help keep it running either in the West or in the Arab world.  

Once again, this situation has changed out of all recognition today, with publishers such as the American University in Cairo Press, based in Cairo but distributing in the US, now routinely commissioning and marketing translations of works from the modern literature for a general readership. Penguin books, one of the English-speaking world’s largest and best-known publishers, has published several titles from the modern literature in translation, as well as other works from the pre-modern period, and many of these have managed to find a readership outside the academic or student market.

Niche publishers specialising in literature in translation have taken on works translated from the Arabic, as have publishers specialising in materials from the extra-European world. In the United States, academic imprints put out by university presses have built up lists of works from Arabic in translation, among them the University of Syracuse Press, the University of Arkansas Press, and Columbia University Press. The international giant Random House, Penguin Random House since its merger with Penguin and responsible for 250 separate imprints, is the publisher of the English translations of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels worldwide, and it has also signed up the best-selling Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany.  

When giant publishers such as these take up the works of Arab authors in English translation, the fortunes of such authors in the West is clearly different to what it was a couple of decades ago when few apart from specialist publishers were interested in promoting such writers in English translation.

However, difficulties remain, with one issue being that of representation, whether of individual authors or of Arabic literature as a whole. While it is now possible to purchase almost all the novels of Naguib Mahfouz in mass-market English paperbacks, for example, something that would have been unthinkable before 1989, the works of other major authors have gone largely untranslated. Were it not for the valiant efforts of the American University of Cairo Press, the novels of the Egyptian writer Gamal Al-Ghitani, recognised as an important contemporary voice across the Arab world, would be unavailable in English translation, for example.

This situation would no doubt change were Al-Ghitani to win a major international award, but until then it is impossible for English-speaking readers to gain a sense of his writing as a whole since only a few of his works are available in translation.

Al-Ghitani is an example of an author whose works do not fit easily into the categories of western publishers. Long, sometimes difficult to understand, and drawing upon aspects of the Arab literary and philosophical heritage, they require more of an introduction than, for example, the works of Al-Aswany, which can be marketed as providing dramatic insight into aspects of contemporary Egypt, or those of Mahfouz, which have achieved the kind of canonical status referred to by Ghobash in his comments on the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize.

Literary works that deal explicitly with issues of interest to western readers, among them themes emphasised in the international media such as Political Islam and the status of women in the Arab world, are often more likely to interest western publishers than those that do not. Works that fit snugly into the western literary system, which has its own ideas of length, genre and literary style, are more likely to be considered for translation than less easily digestible historical or philosophical works, even if the latter enjoy greater prestige in their original contexts.

This situation is starker where earlier works are concerned, as anyone who has tried to read the works of 19th or earlier 20th century Arab authors in English translation will know. Taha Hussein, for example, one of the most important authors of the first part of the last century, is poorly represented in English translation, meaning that it is impossible for readers to get a sense of his activities across the literary field. The same is true of other important Arab authors whose names are likely to be known to English-speaking readers from one or two translated works, if they are known at all, the rest of their output being untranslated and thus distorting the estimate that foreign readers may have of their work as a whole.

As Johnson-Davies notes, such problems are worse where non-Egyptian writers are concerned since while Egypt has long been mined by western translators looking for works to translate from the Arab world, this has not necessarily been the case for other literary markets, among them Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Part of the reason for this under-representation may have been political, with some of these countries being more difficult to work in or having literary markets that are in important respects controlled and therefore less transparent to outside visitors.

While the modern and contemporary literature of Palestine and Lebanon is available in small quantities in English translation, with some Palestinian and Lebanese authors even gaining a following in the West, this is less true of Iraq and Syria where those works that have been translated can sometimes seem to have emerged from a surrounding fog and even writers who are known to English-language readers, such as the novelist Fuad Al-Takarli or poet Badr Shakir Al-Siyyab, are known at best from a handful of translated works.



A better position: The boom in literary translation from Arabic, reflected and encouraged in the recent proliferation of literary awards and the increasing numbers of translators and publishers willing to commission translations from them, has meant that English-speaking readers interested in the modern literature of the Arab world are in far better position than they were two decades ago. The development of alternative forms of publishing, notably on the Internet, has also opened up the choice of titles available.

However, many older problems persist, among them the desire of many western publishers only to commission translations of works that refer explicitly to the sociological or political interests of the moment, or that fit in with the generic or other expectations of western readers. Few publishers are prepared to commission books that do not attract readers, something which is bound to be the case for any foreign literature in translation until that literature has been become better known through media coverage, increasing interaction between readers and producers and the establishment of literary events, awards and prizes.

Speaking at the London Book Fair some years ago and reported in the Weekly at the time, Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy said that the reason Arabic literature was still not as well known in western countries as it should be was because western publishers were not selecting the right works for translation, giving a distorted picture of Arab literary production.

However, when pressed by questioners Salmawy performed a volte face. Having argued that only the best works should be translated in the interests of giving the “right picture” of the literature of the Arab world, he decided that “because one view of a country’s production may be different from someone else’s, we should translate as much as possible. Even things we don’t think are any good should be translated,” in order to allow foreign readers to judge for themselves.

Judging by the huge increase in the number of titles available to English-speaking readers over what was available just two decades ago, it may be that we are at last on the way towards the happy situation that Salmawy indicated.

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