English translations of Arabic books soar since 2010, says new report

The growing interest stems from geopolitical events and more professional translators

Photo prise le 13 octobre 1988 de l'écrivain égyptien Naguib Mahfouz à son bureau, au Caire, après l'annonce de sa nomination comme lauréat du Prix Nobel de Littérature.
Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfuz by his desk in Cairo 13 october 1988, obviously happy about his Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo by PETER OFTEDAL / SCANPIX SWEDEN / AFP)
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The number of Arabic books being translated into English is rising at a remarkable pace, according to a new study shared at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Between 2010 and 2020, research by the European non-profit Literature Across Frontiers found 596 Arabic-to-English literary translations — defined as fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction titles. This is in contrast to the 310 works released over a greater timeframe between 1990 to 2010.

The leading genres translated are novels and novellas with 301 titles, followed by 169 poetry works and 57 “classics” — translations of classical Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic era to the “cusp of the modern period”.

The report singles out NYU Abu Dhabi's Library of Arabic Literature for helping fuel that growth by publishing acclaimed translations of revered titles, such as Impostures by 6th century Iraqi author Al Hariri.

A key reason for the growing interest in Arabic literature is current news and current affairs, says Abdel-Wahab Khalifa, the study’s co-author and lecturer in translation and interpreting at Cardiff University.

“Whenever there is a geopolitical event, you'll find a spike in the numbers of translations from Arabic into English,” he said.

Egypt leads the list with 127 books, followed by 114 from Iraq, 71 from Palestine and 65 from Syria.

Other countries in the list of 26 Mena territories include Lebanon with 61 published titles, Saudi Arabia with 22 and the UAE with 11.

A benefit of these surges of interest, the report states, is the professionalisation of translators and the adoption of better business practices by Arabic publishers.

The report points to canny decisions by UK publishers such as Saqi Books and Comma Press, in addition to literary magazine Banipal, for seizing these moments and publishing translated books and anthologies dedicated to authors from the Arab world.

When it comes to the regional authors with the most translated works available in the UK and Ireland, Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz comes out on top with 16 titles.

He is followed by fellow Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi, Sudanese novelist Amir Tag Elsir and Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh, all of whom have six translated books each.

Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish round off the list with five and four works respectively.

Khalifa said he is heartened by the increase of non-academic Arabic women translators entering the industry through a number of training courses and workshops provided by UK literary organisations such as the Poetry Translation Centre.

"There is also that welcome change in that they are women of colour, they are more diverse and that their mother tongue may not perhaps be English," he said.

"They are doing really great work but there is still an obvious disparity between the number of males and female translators that will hopefully change over the years.”

While satisfied with the UK and Ireland’s market trajectory, Khalifa said more work needs to be done in the Arab world to ensure that growth continues.

The most pressing is the need for more quality control when it comes to original works being published in the Arab world.

"I am hoping that we will see more funding offered to Arab publishers right from the start of the editing process to support their writers, instead of putting that work as an extra burden on the shoulders of translators,” he said.

Updated: May 11, 2023, 7:11 AM