Is it really necessary to translate Arabic literature?

by qisasukhra

A translation (the irony!) of author Ibrahim Farghali‘s essay on the translation of Arabic literature as published here on his blog.

I have for a while now, in my capacity as a journalist and writer, and given my interests, followed reports of any Arabic literature translated into foreign European languages, particularly English, French and German. I also take a close interest in those Arabic literary prizes that receive attention from the translation industry, amongst which—and most especially—are the Naguib Mahfouz Prize (awarded annually by the American University in Cairo Press) and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly referred to as the Arabic Booker.

For a long time I would receive these reports in good faith and with an appreciation of those in the West that involve themselves in translating a literature that enjoys no great global popularity, smiling at times and always bitterly. Today, however, after much following and observation, I find myself posing a pressing question: Is it really important that Arabic literature be translated into foreign languages? Do prizes like these honestly lead to the spread of Arabic literature in other languages?

My response to these two questions is, I fear, a negative: a definite, unequivocal “No”. Taking together all the Arabic literature we see translated and celebrated today, in addition to the two aforementioned prizes and others, it is my view that nothing has changed. These translations have failed to give expression to the true nature of the Arab world’s literary output and they have proved unable to bring about any sort of audience for this literature. Nor do I anticipate this happening in the future, so long as the existing mechanisms for translation continue to operate as they do at present, especially given that the greatest obstacle facing the translation of Arabic literature is the absence of Arab institutions to fund, publicize and frame a systematic process of translation.

Perhaps it is necessary at this point to remind myself that we are living in what Guy Debord terms “the society of the spectacle”, that profiteering, capitalist imperatives shape values throughout the world, West and East, that institutions for propagating all-powerful consumer images strive to create markets for generating profit no matter the product and that, as it seems to me, the market for publishing and translation in both Europe and the Arab world is unfortunately no longer an exception to this rule.

But as an Arab author, my purpose here is to state that the Arabic book—exported outside its borders by means of translation, a representative of the Arab society that dispatched it—has become a victim twice over: once, of the superficial, commercial media, concerned with image at the expense of essence, which operates in its Arab country of origin; and then again, of the image of the book which the European centre attempts to present to the world.

It is quite clear that there is a focus on the topics and not the techniques of writing on the part of publishers today, usually concentrating around subjects such as corruption, the role of Arab women in their societies and sexual relations (particularly in closed societies). This appears to be driven by a publishing market which offers the Western reader an image that says that, while such countries may not possess any “global” writers (in any case, a concept midwifed by Euro-centrism), they nevertheless possess societies that the reader can enjoy getting to know. They are closed, incomprehensible societies, producers of terrorism and violence, whose inhabitants live through numberless manifestations of corruption and persecution, whose women suffer sexual and social victimization… and these books will try to open the door to this world for you.

In fact, this phenomenon has provoked comment from many Arab writers and concerned parties. I quote here from an article by the critic and academic Gaber Asfour, formerly General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Culture and Minister of Culture, published in Al Hayat, in which he examines the phenomenon and states that it is driven by what he calls “a neo-orientalist tendency”:

“A globally prevalent neo-orientalist tendency espouses a set of literary and artistic works from the Third World in general, and the Middle East in particular, abounding with denunciations and exposés of a ubiquitous vile backwardness and rampant corruption at every level, with the aim of marketing these works after translating, distributing and promoting them in the media to an unprecedented degree. This gave rise to the phenomenon of the modish, scandalizing novel of limited creative value that lets no corruption, oppression, perversion or deviance pass unmentioned, playing up portrayals quite dreadful in their backwardness.”

Asfour believes that this is no coincidence, pointing out the “the orientalist trend is coupled to a parallel ideology of hegemony associated with the rise of the ideology of globalization, which aims to achieve two things. The first, is to perpetuate in the minds of Westerners an image of an East in decline, simultaneously alien, fantastical, backward and oppressed, to justify the need for colonialist dominance of the region. The second, is to convince the inhabitants of this wondrous East of their abiding retardation, itself the source of the admiration they receive and their fascination. By keeping the backward East backward, this makes it a source of wealth to be plundered; a display case of human wonders and the prodigal rewards they bring.”

Arabist Stefan Weidner is one of those who lauded these limited works—in this case Khalid Al Khameesi’s Taxi—when he wrote:

“Some critics in the West might ask, ‘But is this book in fact not literary enough?’ Yet it is incumbent upon us to cast off a traditional Western understanding of literature if we are to comprehend what the author has accomplished here. We must admit that with a single, decisive blow, Al Khameesi has severed the Gordian knot of contemporary Arabic literature, to wit: that the problems these authors should be addressing in their works are too big for literature to solve.”

The fact is that, personally speaking, I do not understand why the literary text must be transformed into a sociological treatise stripped of its literary value, nor why stories of this sort are promoted as literature in the first place. In place of the purely commercial concept that is Taxi, the Lebanese researcher Dalal Al Bazri has written Politics is Stronger than Modernity, published by Dar Merit, an important book and of the two, the one that is actually capable of giving us a masterful explanation of the political and social changes through which Egypt has passed, by mean of testimonies constructed from interviews with a number of individuals of various backgrounds and ages, the oldest being ninety and the youngest twenty. The author describes her book as a piece of sociological research into the manner in which the elements of modernity were absorbed into society and how they were dealt with, positively or negatively, in comparison with traditional concepts. This, if he cares to, is what the Western reader should be looking at.

I shall offer up a little example of what it is that makes me feel an imposture is being practiced when it comes to the literary worth of Arabic fiction in the West. It concerns books produced in Asia that are translated and praised, not for their subject matter alone, but first and foremost for the manner in which they are written. I remember that when I visited the Phillippines two years ago, I asked about young authors there and was handed a novel by a young man which had won the Asian Booker in 2008. The book was Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. I was overawed by the novel’s quality, by the effort expended in its language, its construction and its skill. This to my mind is the true purpose of prizes and sadly, it is not one that pertains in Arabic literature.

For the sake of fairness, I should stress that many organizations and publishing houses, sometimes private or small and generally in Europe, outdo themselves in identifying the most important Arabic novels, ably assisted by noble knights from the translators’ ranks. But their task does not appear to be an easy one. The problem is that books translated by major Arab writers such as Al Ghitani, El Bisatie, Abdel Rahman Munif and so on, are not praised as highly as other, mediocre works. I shall give one more example which occurs to me now, that of the exaggerated praise meted out to Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, a book of limited artistic value to which no conscientious reader of literature would pay a moment’s notice. This, despite the existence of another book by a female Saudi writer by the name of Saba Al Hirz, who published an important and stylistically sublime novel about the minority Shia community in Saudi Arabia and the love affairs of young women within it, demonstrating the author’s considerable narrative skills. It was called The Others and no one paid it the slightest attention.

This is why I believe that an important aspect of the process of translating Arabic into foreign languages is missing: the literary aspect itself. In other words, literary worth must be made the primary, indeed the sole, criterion for selection, because at the moment, the process is based on a political consideration: i.e. the attempt to get to know a culture that exports the problems of its own backwardness to the West. Implicating literature in this process may benefit it in some ways but in the end it is likely to do it more harm than good.

The evidence for this is that translations of stylistically talented authors—with the possible exception of Edward Al Kharrat—are almost non-existent. This holds true for the group of authors known as the “90s generation”, the likes of Mustafa Zikri, a screenwriter and supremely gifted novelist who regards the presence of politics and society in literature as a pollution of the text. Zikri is a descendant of Proust, Borges and Kafka; his texts are complex, they deploy a unique language and evince a high level of culture. He has produced a number of significant works, including Mirror 202, considered one of the most important experimental Arabic novels.

There is also Youssef Rakha, another exceptional writer from the new generation who last year published The Sultan’s Seal, which in my view deserves to be viewed as one of Arabic literature’s pioneering, experimental novels, not only because of his exceptionally individual and unprecedented use of language, but because as a text, it cleaves to the concept of the novel as a literary entity concerned with the production of thought, as a vessel of literary philosophy, and not as a mirror held up to reality. It questions the meaning of identity in a society rocked back and forth by contradictions, and the reasons why some people accept these contradictions: living with them as though reconciled to tyranny or swapping that for unswerving obedience to a religious authority like so many bands of zombies.

Then there are those two voices, prominent in fashioning the new and non-commercial novelistic text and reliant in their writing on post-modern concepts: Nael El Toukhi (Leila Anton) and Tareq Imam (The Serenity of Killers).

The same is true even of those now dead writers of extraordinary experimental works from Mahfouz’s generation such as the supreme stylist Yehya Haqqi, hardly any of whose books have been translated with the exception of The Lamp of Umm Hashim despite his being the author of several short story collections of the utmost importance. There is Saad Al Makkawi’s novel The Sleepwalkers, a masterpiece of modern Arabic prose, which to the best of my knowledge remains untranslated. We find neither Rabee Jaber from Lebanon, an author dedicated to the novel and one of most prolific of his generation, nor his Iraqi counterpart Ali Badr, receiving the plaudits accorded texts of a much lower standard than those that they produce. There is also an important Egyptian writer to consider, Mohammed Al Makhzangi, a short story writer first and foremost and hugely talented, who is regarded as a successor to that giant of the Egyptian story, Youssef Idris. Al Makhzangi has not been translated enough and in my view, Idris himself has not received the attention he deserves.

The list of writers judged as important based on the literary worth of their texts and whose works have barely or scarcely been considered for translation is a long one. I will mention, by way of example, the late Egyptian writer Sabri Moussa, author of the beguiling Seeds of Corruption, Fathi Ghanim, an Egyptian who has written a number of significant novels including The Elephants, Ismail Fahd Ismail from Kuwait and Palestinian Ghaleb Halasa. I have scarcely heard of anything being translated from the generation of pioneering North African novelists such as Algerian Al Taher Wattar or Moroccan Mohamed Zafzaf, two masters of modern Arabic prose. There are any number of excellent young writers with important works to their name, none of whose texts I have seen in translation, such as Maha Hassan from Syria who wrote an extremely good novel called Umbilical Cord about the suffering Syrian Kurds face over their identity. We find Ali Al Muqri from Yemen and from Oman, Hussein Al Abri, whose beautiful novel The Pricking skillfully narrates the worlds of psychological illness and political oppression in the Sultanate. There are many more besides.

Visiting Stuttgart in 2004 I noticed that Germans have a hazy knowledge of Arabs. They are barely able to distinguish closed societies with desert cultures such as Saudi Arabia, from a land with an ancient culture like Egypt, or a quasi-European, liberated city like Beirut. In their minds, they treat Arabs as a homogenous monolithic mass, chock full of backwardness, violence and fundamentalism and all the other clichés inherited from the classic works of orientalism. In the presence of generalizing and distorted conceptions such as these the task of proving that this part of the world possesses literature and authors no less valuable than their counterparts elsewhere is no easy matter.

Today, I do not think that the idea promoted by Stefan Weidner—celebrating mediocre books in order to acquaint ourselves with the Arab world—will achieve its goal. Indeed, the opposite is true, as happened when Arab literature was showcased in Frankfurt in 2004 without making any real impact when it came to boosting readership, something that has taken place with Asian and South American literature due to the difference in the way their literary output is treated.