Why more international partnerships are key for Arabic literature to thrive abroad

The Abu Dhabi Translation Conference discussed the different ways regional and international publishers can work together

Arab and international authors and publishers gathered at the Bologna Children's Book Fair for a series of industry discussions. Photo: Bologna Children's Book Fair
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When Emirati author Noora Al Shammari finished the manuscript for her first children’s book in 2021, she didn’t know which publisher to turn to.

Disheartened by her interactions with local literary houses, which either didn’t respond to her submission or showed a lack of interest in meeting, she decided a striking new approach was needed.

Enter the UAE Jiu Jitsu Federation, whose leadership was immediately enamoured by her story about a group of martial arts-loving Emirati children on an adventure to discover Abu Dhabi’s heritage sites.

A partnership resulted in her Al Hosn series being published by the organisation. Seven of the books are named after each UAE emirate and now feature in the Ministry of Education's curriculum.

Speaking to The National from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, Al Shammari said she is in talks with international publishers to translate a selection of the series into Portuguese.

The choice of language is no accident, as jiu jitsu is one of the most popular sports in Brazil.

“This for me is really the big dream coming true,” she says.

“I always wanted to write a children's book icon here in the UAE that expresses our values of fraternity and tolerance and have that translated abroad.”

A difficult chapter

The fact Al Shammari couldn’t achieve this through an Arab publisher underlines some of the setbacks facing regional authors in getting their work read globally.

Often under-resourced and operating within narrow commercial parameters, many good ideas such as Al Shammari's are passed on in the region.

Addressing some of these barriers formed the crux of discussions at the Abu Dhabi Translation Conference on Wednesday, held at the book fair and organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi’s Arabic Language Centre.

Alongside Al Shammari, a host of UAE and international authors and publishers gathered to look at ways to elevate Arabic literature on the world stage.

The challenge is sizeable, admits Nicolas Roche, managing director of the International Bureau of French Publishers (BIEF), a partly government-funded association representing more than 280 French publishing companies.

“However, it all comes down to a question of visibility. I receive hundreds of emails from international publishers every week regarding their books and the possibility of translation, but not one is from a company from the Middle East," he says.

“It did make me wonder whether I am not part of the right mailing list.”

Roche eventually realised he wasn’t missing out on an email chain because, as far as he knows, there isn’t one major international publisher such as the BIEF that can offer information on what is happening in the Arab book market.

He adds that he’s not surprised. A frequent delegate to the Mena region for book fairs and festivals, he says the region's lack of bookshops and slow adoption of e-commerce, pushed publishers to focus their efforts solely on making ends meet rather than fostering international partnerships.

“Book fairs are normally the time to make these international connections and showcase works, through meetings and trade conferences,” he says.

“But this is not the case in the fairs I have visited in the region because publishers don’t have time for that. They're purely focused on selling to the local market.

“While it is great to see customers with shopping trolleys full of books they've bought, there is also a big market outside that could also be interested in these books.”

Making connections

Initiatives by the Arabic Language Centre are already under way to bridge the divide. In addition to the conference, held for the second time outside of the UAE, the centre will soon host the two-day International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries conference, which held its inaugural event last year at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

Beginning on May 21, it is one of the largest regional industry gatherings of its kind and features leading figures from the international publishing industry for panel discussions and networking opportunities.

This will be followed by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award ceremony, also administered by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, with dates to be soon announced, featuring lucrative prizes in recognition of international publishing houses and translators for bringing Arabic literature to a new audience.

“Promoting the Arabic language and showcasing how it can resonate deeply internationally is a key aim of the centre,” says Saeed Al Tunaiji, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.

“There are different ways to do this, from publishing and translating important Arabic works from the UAE and the region to organising the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The common thing here is to bring people together.

“That connection really is what the publishing industry is about. It is a relationship that is interdependent on everyone involved in the creative process, from the authors, translators and illustrators to the publishing houses. Everyone needs each other.”

It is a message also echoed by Andrew Rushton, associate publisher of Swiss company NordSud.

While international publishers often rely on a strong network of counterparts to identify prospective regional titles for international translations, he encourages western literary houses to take full advantage of the networking opportunities provided by organisations such as the Arabic Language Centre to tap into the Arabic market.

“It is definitely a two-way street,” he says. "We do need to visit these book fairs and see what everyone else around the world is doing and have those important conversations."

Updated: March 14, 2023, 2:04 PM