Translation of Arabic novels expands at AUC Press

Friday 09/10/2015

London - Thirty-seven years ago, the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press pub­lished its first English-language translation of an Arabic novel, Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, opening October 14th, the press will announce a new imprint to expand and promote its stock of Arabic literature in English.

“We want to people to read the books not because they think it will ‘improve their minds’ but because they’ll have a good reading expe­rience,” Neil Hewison, associate director for editorial programmes, said.

From its tentative beginning with Mahfouz, the press now has 76 writers in print, ranging across the Arab world from Tunisia’s Has­souna Mosbahi and the southern Libyan Tuareg writer Ibrahim al- Koni to 12 Iraqis. Hewison has been at AUC press since 1986 as editor, translator and managing editor. He now supervises the programme of translating literature while leaving the final choice of novels to an ap­pointed group.

“We listen to recommendations from translators, professors and critics,” he said. “Sometimes, au­thors walk in and say, ‘Here’s my novel. It’s the best book ever writ­ten. Please translate it.’ Not every great book in Arabic will appeal to an English-language reading audi­ence. “If people are talking princi­pally about the language or style, then is it still a good book in trans­lation? Also, the matter may some­times be too parochial. The great thing about Naguib Mahfouz is that although his writing is localised, about Egyptian families in the old city of Cairo, he manages to univer­salise the human relations.”

Winning the Nobel Literature Prize in 1988 was a turning point not just for Mahfouz and the Ara­bic novel, but for AUC press. “It was partly our translations that led to him getting the prize,” said Hewison, “as the people in Sweden were reading French and English translations.” The resulting rush of interest in Arabic fiction led the press to translate Taha Hussein, Yusuf Idris and Tawfiq al-Hakim. From this came a broader pro­gramme reaching far beyond what might now be seen as classic writ­ing.

Hamdy el-Gazzar’s Private Pleasures (2013), for example, is described by the publisher as a “Milleresque” account of a “three-day sex, drink and drug binge of a 30-something news­reader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza”, fea­turing such characters as “philo­sophical prostitutes, nightmarish butchers, serene Koran-readers, pious family members, religious conmen, autistic tissue-sellers and others”.

Likewise Women of Karantina (2013), by Nael Eltoukhy, is hardly classical. Its cartoon cover opens to a cartoon-like but shocking open­ing and a direct, alluring style. “The Arabic edition had a similar cover, by the same cartoonist,” said Hewison, “and the author strongly requested we use the same artist [for the English edition] because he felt this captured the spirit of the novel”.

Women of Karantina also illus­trates the challenge facing a trans­lator. “The Arabic is distinctive and Robin [Moger] managed to capture that,” said Hewison. “The transla­tor must firstly reflect the spirit of the original text, secondly render it in natural, elegant English.

“Sometimes we can nicely match a translator to a particular author with a sense that they’re on the same wavelength. Some transla­tors are more comfortable work­ing with Egyptian writers, some with Moroccan and so on: even with modern standard Arabic there are regional differences in the way people write.”

Some writers want to be in­volved in translation, some don’t. This isn’t just because some know English well and some not at all. Mahfouz, said Hewison, wanted nothing to do with translating his books.

“He could read English, and French, but he wasn’t interested in reading translations. He said, ‘You’re creating a new work. You do it however it works for you.’ Similarly, when his novels were converted into films, he never had anything to do with the scripts. He wrote original screenplays but never converted one of his own novels.”

By contrast Radwa Ashour, who died in November 2014, took great interest in the translation of her epic about a Palestinian family, The Woman from Tantoura (2014). She made many suggestions to Kay Heikkinen, the translator, an Amer­ican who teaches Arabic at Chicago University.

Hewison modestly minimises his own role. Born in Yorkshire, Eng­land, he took a degree in linguis­tics at York University and opted for Voluntary Service Overseas, expecting to utilise his two years studying Swahili.

“I thought I’d be sent to East Af­rica. Well, I was almost right,” he said. “They sent me to teach Eng­lish in a secondary college in Fay­oum, an oasis town 100km south-west of Cairo. I knew nothing about the Arab world.”

That changed. Hewison learned Arabic, wrote a book about Fayoum and headed to Cairo in 1982, four years before he joined AUC press. He insists he has so much still to discover. “I don’t read enough,” he complained. “What we translate is a tiny proportion.”