Arabic literature in translation

There is a growing movement to translate great Arabic works, old and new, to English.

A man studies the offerings at this year’s Sharjah Book Fair. The availability of Arabic literature is growing, and the popularity of such writing is on the rise among readers.
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At the Sharjah Book Fair, which wrapped up yesterday, deals were being struck to translate the latest Arabic works into English (aided by a new US$300,000 [Dh1.1 million] translation fund), and new prizes, imprints and workshops generated excitement. In the UAE alone, the number of annual book fairs and literary festivals has risen in the past few years to four, and the British magazine Banipal, which has published fiction from the Arab world in English translation since 1998, dedicated its last issue to Emirati authors. Margaret Obank, the magazine's publisher, says that she is currently in talks with Dave Eggers's literary magazine McSweeney's to help with an issue dedicated to female Arab writers. Next month New York University Abu Dhabi will gather scholars, translators, editors, publishers and writers at the InterContinental hotel, from December 13-15, for a world literature and translation conference. Among the speakers are Humphrey T Davies, a two-time winner of the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation (2006, 2010).

As M Lynx Qualey, who runs the well-informed blog Arabic Literature (In English) ( knows, there are benefits to picking a holiday read that's not just the latest Stephen King. "I liken it to eating hamburgers and macaroni every day," she says. "You can have some really fine hamburgers and macaroni, I guess, but wouldn't you like to eat Lebanese food now and again?"

Her tone is light, but Qualey is serious about Arabic literature - and it's a growing field. A report published by the European non-profit Literature Across Frontiers this year showed that the number of Arabic books available in English in the UK and Ireland has grown from low single digits in the early 1990s to 26 in 2009 alone. While the report's authors make it clear that the figures are not a complete record, others who have been keeping track, such as Banipal magazine, say they have seen the same steep upwards trend.

So why this explosion of output? According to Alice Guthrie, who co-authored the LAF report, there was a sharp rise in applications for Arabic degrees in British universities after the US terrorist attacks of 2001. When she started her own bachelor of arts in Arabic at Exeter University in 2000, she says that study of the language in the UK "was still a sleepy backwater". After that, according to her research, interest "ballooned", which meant that 10 years on, there are more Arabic experts in the field. The fact that the past decade's English-language international news has been focused first on Iraq and now on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has ensured that western curiosity about Arab cultures has remained high.

Whether it's this political interest or the world-shrinking effect of the internet and cheaper air travel, Arabic literature keeps getting more worldwide attention. Some of this attention can be traced back to 2004, when the Arab world was made the official focus of interest at the world's biggest book fair in Frankfurt; four years later, Saudi Arabia was made guest of honour at the London Book Fair. Both generated deals and interest for Arabic authors.

Adding to this effect, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (sometimes referred to as the Arabic Booker) was set up in 2007, with $50,000 prize money, and in 2009 Banipal and the Hay Festival set up Beirut39, a competition to find the best 39 Arab authors under 39. The resulting anthology hit shops in 2010, and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Eggers named it as his book of the year, saying "there's a kind of renaissance taking place among young Arab writers" and that "we need their voices more than ever before".

It wasn't just media buzz, either: publishers dedicated to Arabic writing have been springing up in the Middle East and abroad. In 2008, the London-based Haus Publishing launched its imprint Arabia Books, dedicated to publishing contemporary fiction in translation from Arabic. In October 2011, Arabia began Swallow Editions, a not-for-profit organisation that publishes books that have never been available in Arabic, let alone in translation. Meanwhile, in Doha, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing has been publishing in both Arabic and in English translation since 2008, as well as setting up training sessions, mentoring and internships.

Andy Smart, a consultant publisher at Bloomsbury Qatar, says that the Arabic Booker has made a huge difference. "It's an international event," he says. "Everybody notices; the prize money's big. Beforehand, everyone knew about Naguib Mahfouz [the Egyptian author who won a Nobel Prize in 1988] and that was about it. Now, there's much more of a sense of contemporary Arab literature." He says that The Yacoubian Building by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany, which was published in 2002 and later translated into 23 languages and adapted into a film and TV series, has also had a major effect.

It's an exciting time, but the picture isn't all rosy. The report published by LAF says that translators are often underpaid, the quality of Arabic translations can vary and that a small "elite" has a strong influence over what gets published.

"Certain people have had their feathers ruffled, saying it problematises more than it celebrates," says Guthrie, "but the point of the report was to find out where attention needed to be directed and what the needs were." She agrees there is "much to celebrate" but adds "the whole industry needs money, and unless you can point out what's missing, you don't really get funding".

The economy is another worry in many countries. Banipal gets about a fifth of its funding from Britain's Arts Council, which is facing serious cuts, and even commercially funded publishers have been struggling. Harry Hall, the sales director at Arabia Books, says that the past few years have been "a very difficult time for publishing and for bookselling" and that the number of books translated is limited by the costs involved and the degree of support given by bookstores. Arabia Books has succeeded, he says, "by publishing the books we believe in but also by being cautious".

If Arabic literature in translation does continue to flourish, it will be because committed individuals work hard to champion it and because news spreads about the quality of the writing. Let's hope it happens: more works in translation means that more people have access to the world's best literature; it helps foster understanding across cultures, and as Qualey so succinctly put it, most people don't want to eat hamburgers every day of the week.