German translator trying to change Western perception of Arabic literature

“Every book that was translated from Arabic and published contributes to spreading Arabic literature since it adds another missing puzzle piece to the knowledge void.” - German translator Sandra Hetzel
Sunday 12/08/2018
Changing perceptions. German translator Sandra  Hetzel.                                                                                             (Al Arab)
Changing perceptions. German translator Sandra Hetzel. (Al Arab)

BENGHAZI, Libya- German translator Sandra Hetzel is translating Arabic literature into German with the aim of overcoming misrepresentations of orientalism.

Hetzel, who speaks Arabic with a Syrian accent, has begun a project she calls “10/11” as a “literary lobby” to shed light on modern Arabic literature. The project brings together translators, publishers and cultural activists who want to create a literary agency in Europe and the United States.

Hetzel said she wants to dispel notions about Arab culture.

“The prevailing image in Europe of this area is that it represents the total ‘Other,’ who is completely ‘uncivilised’ and ‘pre-historic’ at least intellectually,” she said. “As I am saying this, I had this strong urge to translate more, it’s as simple as that, and with time this has become my profession.”

Hetzel said a good translation resulted in a new text that the reader forgets was written in another language.

She said that in Europe, novels come first in terms of sales, followed by collections of short stories, then poetry.

“Concerning Arabic literature in general, we can say that European readers, critics and publishers lack the right network of references and knowledge about it. There is a knowledge void about everything, from topics to genres, to the region’s literary history, all the way to names of writers and titles of books,” Hetzel explained.

“In addition to that, there is another point which at first sight may seem intuitive but turns out to be a real handicap for publishing any literary text: The translation must be started first because, in the case of a translation to German, no publisher who might be willing to publish an Arabic work will accept to publish the translation before reading at least some chapters of the book.

“Every major publishing house in Germany has employees who specialise in the major European languages, or at least know these languages. This is not true for Arabic. Consequently, everything comes back to the translator, even the choice of the original text. The translator must consider whether it is worth it to invest a lot of time and effort for free on a book that he does not know if it will please the publisher or not. This paradox is, of course, not typical of Arabic literature but is true of most of foreign literature.”

Hetzel said that after the “Arab spring” uprisings, culture and arts in Europe formed more positive view towards eastern and southern Mediterranean countries.

It was as if there were a stronger awareness about the Arab person, the one who fought for his rights and paid dearly for them, she said. This new consciousness about the Arabs motivated international and German cultural institutions to pay more attention to Arabic literary production.

The second reason for an increasing demand for translations from Arabic in Germany was the anxiety about refugees in Germany, with people trying to determine who the refugees were as a people.  It’s not a good thing to reduce literary works to just answering that question,” Hetzel said.

She said she chooses works to translate based on her literary taste as a reader as well as personal convictions, such as the political slant of the subject matter.

“My criteria are highly personal,” she said. “I don’t think it could be otherwise. It is the most truthful way, especially since literature is an art form and a literary translator is also an artist. An artist is not beholden to neutrality in the same way as, say, an anthropologist whose work requires to be completely objective.”

“We could say that every book that was translated from Arabic and published contributes to spreading Arabic literature since it adds another missing puzzle piece to the knowledge void,” Hetzel said.

“Out of the seven books I have translated only one was commissioned by a publisher. For the other six books, I had to look for publishers myself, which takes a while at times. Sometimes I had to auto-finance the book’s production. I try my best so that the books are not presented from what I call the ‘orientalist lens’. I would rather for the books to be showcased alongside contemporary German literature.”

Hetzel said: “Publishers in the West often perceive literature in Arabic to be immature and obscure. When I’m corresponding with a publisher about some book, I have to deal with the preconceptions surrounding Arabic literature; that it is bypassed by history, very traditional, romantic, exotic and difficult for the layman to relate to, et cetera. My approach with publishers and the wider literary audience is deliberate and practical. It leaves no room for such preset notions.”