The Failure of Arabic Literature (in Translation): The Failure of Reviewers
Am in Bloomington, Indiana today for talk at Lilly Library & translation seminar. Here the latest debate on related matters from Arab Literature (in English) blog — a debate not unrelated to other publishing, such as poetry, as well:
Early yesterday morning — around 1 a.m. — I joined a talk with Prof. Robyn Creswell (The Paris Review) and Prof. Elias Muhanna (@qifanabki) at Brown University:
Courtesy Royal Irish Academy
Well, I wasn’t at Brown University, and it wasn’t 1 a.m. for them. The name of the panel was “New Media and Arabic Literature,” and one of the topics that came up, tossed at us by moderator Jake Karr, was about what gets translated, why, and who chooses? What are the issues at stake, in terms of politics, style, and theme?
I droned out a dullard sort of answer: Books are largely chosen by the translators. Only a few publishers (Bloomsbury Qatar, AUC Press) are informed enough to make their own lists. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is changing this somewhat, by making a “list,” and I imagine there will be a race to get Saud al-Sanoussi’s IPAF-winning Bamboo Stalk.
I dithered on: Translators offer many great works. But there’s too much interest in the author’s biography and how the book gives us a glimpse of that world. The fresh interest in Arabic literature — since autumn 2001 — has been motored in large part by 1) the news or by 2) scary-titillating tropes that hardly need mentioning.
We talked about how sometimes books brought out by academic houses get locked up in too-narrow boxes for too-narrow audiences. We talked about failures in translation. I mentioned some new books that trash narrow expectations: Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell (re-trans. Robyn Creswell) and Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report (trans. Kareem James Abu-Zaid). I could’ve mentioned two new books by Youssef Rakha. Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My Enemy (trans. Sinan Antoon and Peter Money). Many, many more.
So Prof. Creswell — I think rightly — tish-toshed my ramble. Plenty of publishers are doing great things. Plenty of publishers are interested in fresh translation projects from the “Middle East.” Forget blaming publishers.
The real culprits, he said, are the reviewers: There are too few reviewers who really engage with Arabic literature in translation. Too few can even hold the book the right-way up. The reviewers talking Arabic lit are often academics who discuss the “least interesting” aspects of a translation, Creswell said. Read more of this post