Does anyone read translated Arabic literature?
London - At the annual Shubbak Literature Festival in London, a panel of distinguished Arabic language writers and translators disagreed on the popularity of Arabic literature in the English language.
The session, which was led by British-Syrian writer Robin Yassin- Kassab at the British Library, aimed to explain the significant growth in the availability of works by Arab authors in the English language in recent years, as well as the rise in the number of Arab authors winning mainstream literary prizes.
The panel, which included award-winning Iraqi poet and novelist Sinan Antoon; British Palestinian novelist and playwright Selma Dabbagh; Marcia Lynx Qualey, founder of the Arabic Literature in English website; and author, scholar and translator Daniel Newman, gave its assessment of this phenomenon, which ranged from the optimistic to the cynical.
Antoon dismissed the notion that Arabic literature is gaining prominence in the English language. “A lot of what gets translated falls under what I call ‘forensic interests’ and it’s not as literature; it’s anthropology, ethnography or getting into the Arab mind and that is not very good. So I don’t think there is a rise.” he told the packed auditorium.
Antoon said that in the 1980s, thanks to the critiques of Orientalism, there was a shift away from so-called Islamic to actual Arabic literature and, with the works of Edward Said and others, there was then an interest in translating contemporary Arabic literature. “With the events of 9/11 in 2001, it brought back and re-enshrined the whole discourse about the clash of civilisations and then we have a return to all things Islamic,” he said.
Another issue Antoon highlighted was the involvement of Gulf funding in the Arabic literary world, which he described as “quite sinister”, while labelling it the “Gulfinisation of Arab culture”.
“Something like Bloomsbury Qatar [Foundation Publishing], which takes the Bloomsbury name then publishes not necessarily the best literature that comes out in Arabic but certain books. They also commission certain books and then censor them and they don’t get published,” Antoon said.
Antoon criticised the International Prize for Arabic Fiction — the co-called Arabic Booker — which is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, saying it “gives money to translate certain books that are on its own short list, which are not necessarily the best books that come out,” he said. “The disparity between what people think is Arabic literature in English and actual Arabic literature is huge.”
Giving a more optimistic assessment, Qualey said the numbers tell a different story. “In terms of the number of books there has certainly been a rise, according to the latest Literature Across Frontiers report, Arabic was the highest minority language followed by Japanese, so there are more books being brought out numbers-wise,” she said.
Qualey highlighted the merits of Arabic literature in English, describing it as almost a metaphysical experience. “Arabic novels come from a different tradition, so you are bringing a different thing into English, you are feeding it 1,500 years of different forms of literary expression,” she said.
She went on to say that answering the question of “Why should someone read Arabic literature in English?” could be answered by answering the question “Why do we read?”
“Reading is freedom and reading outside of my tradition, from a different way of constructing literature is tremendously freeing and Arabic literature has 1,500 years of different word usage,” Qualey said. “So it’s a moment where I can be outside of myself. It’s incredible.”
Arabic literature appearing in English is by no means a new phenomenon, with translations dating to Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid, published in 1911, and Gibran Kahlil Gibran’s ground-breaking The Prophet, published in 1923.
Arabic literature in English went through a resurgence starting in 1988, after Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As a result, more Arabic works were translated into English. The introduction of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2007 also gave modern Arabic literature a boost in popularity.
Yassin-Kassab, the moderator for the July 25th event, emphasised how prevalent Arabic literature in English is today compared to the past.
“When I was a student, just about the only stuff in terms of literature that was translated and available in bookshops was Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel prize winner, and Nawal el-Saadawi,” he said, “but now when you look on Amazon, there suddenly seems to be a lot more stuff.”