What impresses one is the will to ignore and reduce the Arabs that still exists in many departments of Western culture, and the unacceptable defeatism among some Arabs that a resurgent religion and indiscriminate hostility are the only answers.

— Edward Said (1990)

Eleven years have passed since Edward Said’s polemic in The Nation exposed the dominating US book market’s prejudice against Arabic literature, but Said’s words remain depressingly relevant today. While the Nobel prizes awarded to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982 and Wole Soyinka in 1987 created an opening for the literatures of Latin America and Africa respectively, the 1988 award to Naguib Mahfouz has been little more than an obstacle to younger Arab writers and their translators in their attempts to get the attention of self-satisfied publishers, who prefer the Nobel laureate’s “proven record” in US markets. In the face of this lack of progress, the Arabic translation community — translators and the editors, critics, reviewers and readers who support and promote their endeavors — has found itself unable to advance the cause of Arab writing. The Arabic translation community is a bedraggled group, receiving virtually no encouragement or support from publishers. Only 3 percent of all books published in English are translated from foreign languages, and within this group translations from Arabic represent the weakest of the weak. Since 1990 and earlier, parts of the Arab world have quite literally suffered under embargo, but in the literary field, “market forces” have made a legal ban unnecessary. Where Said’s article saw signs of promise in the efforts of several translators and the small publishers who worked with them, the achievements since that time have been incremental at best. The reasons for Arabic literature’s lukewarm reception in US markets may be complex, yet the results of this reception are not. Arabs are still seen (perhaps must be seen) as one-dimensional — a flowing traditional robe, a catchy tune or a subtitled movie about fundamentalism. For to gaze at the Middle East in all its complexity and diversity might require a complete re-evaluation of the way America interfaces with Arabs.

Scraps of the Marketplace

Two of the small specialty presses mentioned by Said (Saqi and Quartet, both based in London) are still publishing translations of Arabic literature in limited runs. Other projects have begun amidst fanfare. These include a literary translation prize cum publication series produced by University of Arkansas Press, an annual Naguib Mahfouz Award for an Arabic novel to be subsequently translated and published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, the Garnett Arab Women’s Writers series out of England, the reissuing of many old Three Continents titles by Lynne Rienner Publishers and the Kassem Press initiative in Cairo, which commissioned and translated seven novels by younger Egyptian writers. The University Presses of Texas, California, Temple and Syracuse — among others — have produced noteworthy translations of Arabic fiction. Despite these efforts, the American literary marketplace may be more disinterested in and ignorant of contemporary Arabic literature today than it was eleven years ago. In 1990, Said reported that Anchor/Doubleday had just contracted with Mahfouz, and that Random House and Penguin had recently published translations of Arabic novels for the first time. In recent years, no new Arabic work not written by Mahfouz has been published by a large American publisher. The above initiatives have yielded mixed results. Kassem Press still has not published a book. The Arab Women Writers series, after a flurry of activity in its first year and a half, seems to have been discontinued. Lynne Rienner has not been active in acquiring new translations, and AUC Press has been plagued by questionable editorial and administrative competence and a less than sterling reputation among the Arabic translation community. It is widely rumored that the first Mahfouz award was rejected by the first writer to whom it was offered, and the Press has had trouble commissioning qualified translators and finding attractive outlets for distribution in England and the United States. The Arkansas contest is gradually compiling an impressive list of winners — including some of the best translators in the field — and translating interesting, even transgressive texts, yet I have never seen an Arkansas Press translation at any bookstore of any stripe. The award is apparently being “restructured.”

Clearly, Arabic literature in translation will not achieve a higher profile in the US through a Nobel Prize, a multiculturalism movement or the heroic efforts of understaffed and underfunded specialty presses. The conservative marketing strategies and general myopia of publishers and distributors — combined with the pervasive prejudices outlined by Said — cannot be overcome without a sustained and shrewd campaign. But such a campaign has not been forthcoming from the Arabic translation community. Rather, in the face of such obstacles, the community has fallen into its own brand of “unacceptable defeatism” by embracing the status quo, by competing amongst itself for the scraps that fall from the table of the literary marketplace and by loudly repeating ad nauseam the critique made definitively by Said in 1990. It is unfortunate, although not surprising, that disempowered translators should turn against each other. Still, such cutthroat competition should not be considered inevitable.

Toward an Honest Self-Critique

An alternative path might start from the premise that markets can be challenged and reformed, but that doing so requires an honest self-critique. The Arabic translation community, as a collective, can bring about change by starting to work in solidarity with itself, by striving to create constructive, progressive standards and by making its challenge to the literary marketplace more specific and strategic.

Divisions and differences amongst translators and those who review, critique and commission their work are inevitable and can even have positive results. But divisions within the Arabic translation community have rarely been productive. Opportunities for translation are so limited that members of the community repeatedly find themselves in competition with their friends and colleagues. Competition over particular texts is recurrent, and such situations are rarely resolved by the translators amongst themselves.

Identity politics play a marked role in pitting translators against each other. In working with translators and editors of translations, I have found that native speakers of English regularly dismiss — sight unseen — the translation work of native speakers of Arabic and vice versa. The former claim that translators with Arabic as a first language are incapable of producing a smooth, readable translation. The latter read the work of translators with English as a first language as though they were mining for mistakes. We should dismiss these prejudices. A rendering of Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley by Peter Theroux — a native speaker of English — is the only translation of an Arabic work to be nominated for PEN’s annual prize for best translation of the year. Meanwhile, the elite of the translators whose native language is Arabic have produced mellifluous translations for years, perhaps most notably Farouk Abdel Wahab’s Zayni Barakat, the only English translation of an Arabic novel ever to be published by Penguin books. Certainly, examples abound of bad translations that prove the negative stereotypes about the two groups, but these translations do not fail because of the personal language histories of the translators alone. The Arabic translation community would be much better served by critiques that consider what its standards and goals should be. Of this type of critique, there is very little. The result is a community with no standards, which leaves less experienced translators to wage Herculean efforts to complete and publish projects, only to see them panned by haughty reviewers.

Literalism vs. Literary Quality

Pointing out “mistakes” is one of the easiest ways for a reviewer, editor or publishing house reader to sprint through a new translation, but at this stage, the Arabic translation community must step back from what is easy. It is more difficult to initiate discussion about the literary qualities of the translated English text. Such an approach will usually fly in the face of the narrow and immediate interests of the community. Richard Jaquemond, one of the most prominent translators of Arabic literature in the French-speaking market — which has produced a considerably more sophisticated and complete body of work — complained several years ago about the obsession with literalism in the French-speaking Arabic translation community. “Under the tyranny of scientific accuracy, the Arabic text is often rendered too literally, and the reading experience is interrupted by the translator’s notes and explanations. The non-professional reader, who, out of good will and mere curiosity, chooses to read such a translation is soon rebuked by its harshness, its radical strangeness and its lack of appeal, and learns to [be satisfied] with the secondhand knowledge…provided through the Orientalists’ writings.” An equivalent commitment to literalism within the Arabic translation community in the English-speaking world leads one pair of editors to open their collection of translated short stories by announcing that “in the process of translating these stories, the idea was always to err on the side of literality.” Similarly, Arabic literature experts jealously grumble even now that the translations of Peter Theroux, currently the most prolific, bold and successful translator of Arabic literature, “cannot be trusted.”

There is another sense in which Theroux proves an interesting object lesson. His successes to date result largely from his talent and work ethic, but his connections in mainstream publishing have also greatly furthered his translation projects. To my knowledge, there is only one translation that Theroux, the younger brother of the well-known novelist and a master marketer, has been unable to publish after years of effort. That text is a translation of Emil Habibi’s Saraya, Daughter of the Ghoul — a novel which is the most experimental of any that Theroux has undertaken. The work’s avant-garde form surely makes it more difficult to market, for the mainstream American publisher shows a strong preference for the more traditional face of Arabic literature. The text presented to the publisher may be an apolitical bit of social realism, a politically committed text or a novel that reinforces Western presuppositions about the misogynist Arab, but it cannot by any means engage in any sort of formal experimentation, or in any other experiment that alters the current perspective on Arabs in the US.

With New Eyes

This point was driven home to me in a conversation with a fellow professor of comparative literature who was sincerely interested in expanding his extensive syllabi of international postmodern fiction to include writing from the Arab world. What, if any, novels were there that exemplified a postmodernist movement in Arabic fiction, he wondered? Several names jumped to mind. Indeed, elements of what could be called postmodernism are widespread among such distinguished contemporary Arab writers as Habibi, Sonallah Ibrahim, Edwar al-Kharrat, Mohamed Berrada, Ibrahim al-Kuni, Yahya Taher Abdullah, Yahya Yakhlif, Rashid al-Daif, Khairi al-Dhahabi and Ibrahim Aslan. Many of these writers have not been published at all in English translation. As for Sonallah Ibrahim — arguably the most provocative and important representative of “postmodernist” trends in Arabic literature — only his first work, a brief novella entitled The Smell of It, has been published in English translation. Initiatives have arisen to translate into English and publish at least three other novels, but none of these projects looks destined for completion any time soon. If so important a novelist as Sonallah Ibrahim is so poorly represented in translation, my colleague must get a very skewed picture indeed of the postmodernist movement in Arabic fiction.

My colleague also asked for works by Arab women writers that approached Middle Eastern gender dynamics with greater subtlety than Nawal El Saadawi, whose novels he had assigned for years. Again, several untranslated works sprang to mind: Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, several works by Radwa Ashour, the short stories of Ghada Samman, Sunflowers by Sahar Khalifa and A Compass for the Sunflower by Liana Badr. Although these works represent important moments in Arab history or discuss key themes within the public discourse of cultural politics in the Arab world, they aren’t centered around the two or three “gender issues” which the casual observer in the US would associate with the Middle East. Just as publishers shy away from formal experimentation when procuring a text, so they eschew thematic boldness. A fuller picture of what Arab women writers concern themselves with would force American readers to observe the Lebanese civil war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the role of the United States, petrodollar economics, Arab history and gender in Arab society from an Arab perspective. Saadawi-centrism, by contrast, focuses on her simplistic characterization of misogynistic Arab men and systematically ignores (or even edits out) her less consumable positions in favor of Arab socialism or in opposition to Sadat’s policies of economic liberalization.

The US book market’s divergent treatments of El Saadawi and Ibrahim have one thing in common. They both reinforce the superficial picture of Arabs in mainstream US culture. Understanding novelistic experiment in Arabic requires attention to histories of aesthetics, thought and language as well as history and politics. Once a reader has pursued such a course of study, the old truisms — that Arabs are fanatically religious, are always at war and hate modernity in all its manifestations — begin to crumble. But before a reader can embark on such an odyssey, a publisher must commit to translating and marketing such Arabic novels. Contracting a novel, commissioning its translator, finding its likely readers and marketing it to them takes several years. It is a painstaking process that is not commensurate with the current desire for superficiality in all interaction with the Arab world, be it negatively in the propagation of stereotypes, or positively in the dissemination of Arabic food and music.

The prejudices toward superficial visions of the Middle East engender a sharp divide between the writer of Arabic literature, whose influences are diverse and whose engagement with such influences is complicated, and the translator of Arabic literature, whose method is too often based on literalism and whose final product must conform to the narrow expectations of publishers and readers. The biggest mistake that the Arabic translation community can make is to accept these restrictions as unalterable. For just as Hollywood came to learn that viewers would buy tickets to movies starring African-Americans, and publishers learned to sell magical realism in literature and film, a truer, subtler front can force publishers and curious readers to look at Arabic fiction with new eyes.

How to cite this article:

Hosam Aboul-Ela "Challenging the Embargo," Middle East Report 219 ( ).
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