The which and why of translating Arabic literature


“Arabic after all is a controversial language,” a New York publisher told celebrated Palestinian theorist Edward Said when dismissing his recommendation to translate Egyptian author and future Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz into English. Despite the parochialism of his comment, the publisher was very much on point.

The question of which literary works to translate, and why, has long preoccupied the world of translation. But according to Yasmine Ramadan, assistant professor of Arabic at the University of Iowa, this question is both product and producer of political biases.  

Ramadan’s talk, “Arabic Literature and the Politics of Translation,” the last in the Iowa Translation Workshop’s spring colloquium series, was illuminating in this regard. While Arabic is presently the fourth-most translated language in the US (after Spanish, German and French), this is a relatively recent development. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York brought about an unprecedented focus on the Middle East. Suddenly interested in learning more about the region that spawned such hated figures as Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, many Americans turned to literature in translation. For the more discerning readers, this practice actually helped dispel notions of a monolithically evil Arab culture praying for the total annihilation of the free world. Works such as Rajaa al Sanie’s Girls of Riyadh show that some Arab men do admire strong, educated women, and that misogyny is imposed by strict societal standards of masculinity. Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt paints an alternate picture of the political, economic, and societal realities that stemmed from the discovery of oil in the region.

These and other works provide a glimpse of what it feels like to experience invading forces in our lands, on our bodies, on the lives of our children, not just for one day but for years; of the level of physical and emotional devastation this brings; of how kind, reasonable people can be driven to violence. Equally, the majority of suffering caused by war and subjugation does not stem from bombings or disappearances, but from disease, income inequality, and lack of potable water. These are the details we are not seeing, ones that would grant a more nuanced perspective of a culture we think we know, if not for the single lens we view them through: war.

There are precious few examples of this kind of insight. Politicians and the media have perpetuated the image of the Middle East as a region rife with terrorism, in turn influencing which Arabic works are translated into English. This select library is then dominated by plot-driven books covering the plight of women in a male-dominated society, and the rich literary style and expanded cultural sensitivity of pieces that treat more universal topics are suppressed.  

For instance, the majority of translated Arabic literature undergoes an oversimplification of linguistic registers. Like its culture, the Arabic language is varied and encompasses a multitude of dialects, such that an Iraqi may not easily understand a Tunisian. This divide is just as evident in Arabic literature, where the increasingly common use of dialects confound translators, who gloss over them in English.

All the more reason to deepen our focus on the choice of what Arabic literature gets translated. Expanded cultural appreciation, greater political understanding, and textured linguistic registers are just some of the insights we stand to gain. Ultimately at stake is the very thing we all look for when we pick up a book in translation or seek out tales of foreign shores: a bridge to the outside world, a celebration of our capacity for wonder, a way to take stock of our daunting world. Responsibly choosing what to translate—and surmounting the political, social, and moral barriers that attend such choices—is a good place to start.

—Elettra Pauletto