Can Arabic literature ever be fully understood in English?

Writing ahead of her appearance at London's Shubbak Festival, M Lynx Qualey asks whether translated literature can ever capture the meaning and texture of the original

Pep Montserrat for The National
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Before 1987, modern Arabic literature was an “unknown” on the English-literature landscape. When Naguib Mahfouz was awarded a Nobel Prize that year, it was as much of a shock to most anglophone book-watchers as it was to Mahfouz himself.

The American University in Cairo Press has said that, at the time, there was nary a translator qualified to bring the master’s books into English. They relied on group translations, sometimes of four scholars or translators checking one another’s work.

After 1987, publishers recognised that contemporary Arabic literature existed, and dribbles of Arabic books made their way into English. After September 2001, that dribble turned into a trickle. By now, it’s almost something of a small stream.

At a panel at the Shubbak Festival in London this morning, a group of us will give a talk about this “rise of Arabic literature in English”, and I expect disagreement about how to characterise this rise – whether it’s a positive or negative.

Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon, who is also on the panel, has previously spoken about the western reader’s “forensic interest” in Arabic letters.

Others have criticised which books we read: Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali has said that we translate the “wrong books”; Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh has complained that we “don’t look hard enough” for the best Arabic literature.

Antoon is right: Many readers approach Arabic literature in English as though it were a corpse from which some intelligence might be gleaned. Farghali and Al-Shaykh are also right: some bad novels have been translated and some good ones overlooked.

Yet some of the books that have been translated are mind-bendingly fantastic. What I hope to talk about is how we read this rising tide of Arabic literature and whether we have the right tools to do it.

Some of the best novels have gone unread. Or, when they are read, much of their richness, subversiveness and charm goes unnoticed.

In some ways, reading all this Arabic literature in English has been like listening in on a foreign-language recording when one understands the words’ meanings, but not the allusions, nor the jokes, nor the underlying rhythms.

Some of this woodenness can be blamed on inadequate translations. But some of it falls to our historical blind spots. What makes a literature untranslatable is not the failure to find equivalents of any particular words. The endless listicles of “untranslatable” words – like backpfeifengesicht (German for “a face badly in need of a fist”) and bakku-span (Japanese for “a girl beautiful only from behind”) – may not have single-word equivalents, but they come with easily understandable translations.

Rhythm and rhyme can be more difficult to recreate, but what’s really hard to convey is the fullness of a literary tradition. Why did the original readers judge this work great? Did they look for the same things we value in English, or was it something completely different?

Also, literature builds on literature. You can hardly appreciate Wicked without a passing knowledge of Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and Moby-Dick is a lot thinner without access to a bit of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Novels take a position in a landscape of genres, motifs and other books. Just so, Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey, is hard to understand if the reader lacks any relationship to classical Arabic letters.

Yet the Arabic and anglophone traditions are not as separate as they first appear. They share many moments of intersection. The romantic Arabic poetry of al-Andalus made its way, through Spanish, to English. Translations of Ibn Tufail’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan may have inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and translations of 1,001 Nights certainly had a major, well-documented effect on the development of 19th-century English literature.

In turn, Robinson Crusoe was translated into Arabic in the mid-19th century, followed by Arsène Lupin and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was influenced by the Nights, he in turn influenced key Arab writers.

But there are also many unshared moments. John Updike, when he reviewed Abdelrahman Munif’s great Cities of Salt in The New Yorker in October 1988, was almost boorishly dismissive. Munif, he wrote, was “insufficiently westernised to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer ...”

Without understanding the Arabic tradition – or even seeming to understand that there was an Arabic tradition – Updike couldn’t engage with Munif’s work.

If it’s read with a certain eye, one of the greatest 19th-century Arabic works, Leg over Leg (1855), could also be dismissed as “insufficiently westernised”. This isn’t because Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq wasn’t aware of life and literature in western metropolises. Al-Shidyaq, translator Humphrey Davies says, “satirises the western novel. He says that a woman, leaving her house at 10 o’clock in the morning, with the rain coming down hard, and returning two hours later with her little dog is a matter of immense interest to you”.

Although Leg over Leg is compared to Tristam Shandy, Al-Shidyaq’s digressions are philological, not topical, echoing Arabic literature’s long fascination with wordplay.

Still, even though Leg over Leg is markedly different from western novels, it has received some small recognition in English. It was shortlisted for the US’s 2014 Best Translated Book Award, thanks in part to Davies’s heroic translating. This connection between literary traditions is important in itself, but it also creates new paths to the appreciation of contemporary Arabic novels.

Leg over Leg was published as part of the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) project, which aims to make accessible, enjoyable translations of premodern Arabic literature.

The LAL project, which brought out its first title in 2012, aims to change our relationship to Arabic literature. Its focus is on work published before Arabic literature’s 20th-century nahda, or “renaissance”.

But these translations, in turn, thicken our understanding of contemporary work. Just as we need Shakespeare and Austen to read contemporary English literature, we need a bit of Mutanabbi if we are going to feel the texture of Elias Khoury’s incredible novel As Though She Were Sleeping.

At a recent LAL workshop, novelist and scholar Marina Warner suggested that as we now say Chaucerian, we might learn to say Shidyaqian.

Just so: a true rise in Arabic literature needs to come not solely from the top, from the poetry and novels of the past few years, but from an engagement with the fullness of the Arabic literary tradition.

M Lynx Qualey is an editor and book critic with a focus on Arabic literature and translation issues. She edits the website