Last month I attended the symposium “The Study of the Arab World in Western Universities,” sponsored by ALESCO, the Arab League Educational and Scientific Organization, and hosted by the Arabic department of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, aka SOAS. The four-day symposium brought together scholars of Arabic language, literature, history, and culture from the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, and Austria. The diverse presentations were each fascinating in their own right and covered a dizzying array of topics, but the part of the conference that would be particularly of interest to readers of this blog would be the many presentations that touched on the translation of Arabic literature and its dissemination to readers in Europe and North America. Perhaps because two of the conference organizers, Sabry Hafez and Ayman El-Desouky, both of SOAS, are Egyptian literary critics, questions of literary translation occupied a substantial percentage of the discussion.
Apparently, our geographical distance from the Arab world has nothing to do with the relative paucity of literary titles translated from the Arabic on the shelves of our bookstores in the United States. It was surprising to learn that in Spain, literature written in English by Arab Americans or Arab Canadians is being translated into Spanish and is easily outpacing the sale of Arabic literature written in the Arab world and translated into Spanish from Arabic. This piece of information came from Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla, a Spanish expert in the contemporary literature of Morocco—produced just across the Strait of Gibraltar but not widely read inside Spain.
During another session we learned that Russia had gone from being at the top of the list of centers of Arabic literary translation in terms of sheer numbers, during the Soviet era, to being near the bottom after liberalization. At first this seemed counter-intuitive to me, but only until I thought of how often the “market forces” argument is made. “It just doesn't sell,” is a claim used against all translated literatures in the United States. The Soviet Union must have wanted a connection to the language, culture, and peoples of that region that went beyond salespeoples' dictates about who should and who should not be published.
Of all the Western countries represented in the room, including the Anglophone ones, the only representative who reported that contemporary Arabic literature had become part of the mainstream was the French academic present at the conference. According to Richard Jacquemond, professor of Arabic literature at the Université de Provence and prolific translator of the contemporary Arabic novel into French, novels from the Middle East are now published by the largest and most respected trade presses in France, including Actes Sud and Gallimard, and produce sales that justify their prominent publication. (The week after the conference I saw, for myself, evidence of the Arabic novel's high profile in France when I traveled to Paris and met an old friend, who had clipped out a full-page feature in Le Monde, France's top daily. The piece, from last September, covered the publication of Le petit voyeur, a recent Egyptian novel written by Sonallah Ibrahim and translated by Jacquemond. I was particularly struck by the subtitle of the article: “Sonallah Ibrahim discusses his most intimate novel to date,” which implied to me that readers might have an idea of the author's body of work already.) Both Jacquemond and my literary friends in Paris gave the same main reason for the recent emergence of a broader audience for Arabic literature there: the high profile in Parisian literary culture of Arab literary figures living in exile, who have educated, influenced, and won the confidence of French publishers.
My suspicion is that the actual market in France is not so dramatically different from our own. In the end, literature is written, published, distributed, and read by women and men, and not by a mysterious and impenetrable force called íthe market.ë I might have left the SOAS conference bemoaning a superficiality of understanding in the West and the Western antipathy to Arabs and their literature, and feeling a sense of hopelessness, had it not been for the French example. Instead I left feeling that it only takes a few people with a bit of will, vision, and knowledge to change things. Now I look around and see a new year that brings a new American presidency, more tragedy in the Middle East and more reminders of our deep implication in events there, and I think about groups like Words without Borders that are founded on the proposition that promoting translated literature can help in a small way to create a reading public that's more cosmopolitan, knowing, and engaged with the world. I watch the news and feel that the level of miscomprehension is dauntingly profound. Here's hoping my interpretation of this other French dynamic has some truth to it.
Hosam Aboul-Ela teaches in the department of English and the program in World Cultures and Literatures at the University of Houston. He has lived most of his life in two exotic foreign countries—Egypt and Texas. He is the English translator of the novels Voices by Soleiman Fayyad and Distant Train by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. He is also the author of a critical/theoretical text entitled Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition. He spent the spring of 2008 in Cairo, Egypt as a CASA III/Fulbright fellow.