A Potential Renaissance for Arabic Translation

Posted on June 27, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments


A courtyard in the original House of Wisdom, in Baghdad (Image Credit: Al Fanar)

By Ursula Lindsey

CAIRO–In an oft-cited reference, the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Report painted a bleak picture in 2003 of the Arab cultural and academic landscape here. It described translation in Arab countries as “chaotic and static” and noted that  “the aggregate total of translated books [into Arabic] from the al-Ma’moon era to the present day amounts to ten thousand books–equivalent to what Spain translates in a single year.”

Many in the Arab world found the report’s comparison galling, especially considering the region’s history. From the ninth to the thirteenth century, in Baghdad, the famous House of Wisdom—a library, translation, and research center—gathered and built upon knowledge from Greek, Persian, and Indian sources.

“Everyone refers to this golden age,” says Philip Kennedy, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and comparative literature, “because there’s a huge chasm of time between that and the present.”

Yet Kennedy, who has been teaching at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus since it opened in 2008, says that new translation efforts in the region are having a real impact.

Although Arab governments condemned the UN report they also responded to it, particularly in the Gulf. Many members of the United Arab Emirates have started translation programs, including Abu Dhabi, which began Kalima, a project that has translated three hundred general knowledge books into Arabic so far. Qatar established a Translation and Interpreting Institute in the collection of academic institutions known as Education City, in Doha. Along with the efforts to translate important books into Arabic, there is also a groundswell to translate Arabic fiction and poetry into Western languages to make it more widely available.

Kennedy himself is involved in an ambitious translation project. NYU Abu Dhabi’s research institute has awarded him a five-year grant to edit a Library of Arabic Literature that will include texts in a variety of genres from the pre-Islamic period to the beginning of the modern era. Kennedy began developing the idea for the series when working on the curriculum for NYU’s new campus. “It was a no-brainer that issues of cross-cultural contact and translation could be emphasized here,” he says.

The series’ translators are mostly academics, creating bilingual editions, and many of them are working on texts they have studied at length and always wanted to see translated. The project is planned to be long-term and could eventually include hundreds of volumes: it should publish about thirty-five with its first grant. Kennedy dreams of the day readers will find a whole shelf of the library’s volumes in Western commercial bookstores.

Sponsoring translation to and from Arabic fits many of the small, wealthy Gulf states’ desire to acquire a higher regional profile as patrons of culture and education. The government of Abu Dhabi, says Kennedy, wants “to make a mark on the world.”

But some observers are critical of the translation efforts. With some of them, “a lot of money has been invested but the return has been very small,” says Samia Mehrez, the director of the recently created Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, which holds workshops, lectures, and symposia on the practice and politics of translation.

The problem is not unique to the Gulf. Other Arab countries have long had government-supported translation programs, such as the National Center for Translation in Egypt. But distribution networks remain weak–the Egyptian center’s books are only available at a central bookstore in Cairo. Also, coordination between different translation programs is lacking, government agencies avoid translating controversial or potentially offensive works, and little is done to measure the use and impact of the translated works.

Deprived of Other Ways of Seeing the World 

In addition, few translations exist for certain kinds of knowledge. Governments and universities in the region focus on keeping up with the latest scientific research, which is often taught in foreign languages anyways. But, academics say, the social sciences are still taught according to outdated paradigms, with little or no emphasis placed on translating the latest developments.

What this means, says Mehrez, is that “people in the social sciences at national universities whose audience is monolingual are deprived of other ways of seeing the world and thinking and talking about it.”

A recent symposium at the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo addressed this problem.Academics at the private, English-language university have selected seminal recent essays to create a collection (Translating the Arab World: An Anthology) that gives social science students and professors access to some of the latest groundbreaking international work. Sherif Younis, a professor of history at Helwan University, translated the essays into Arabic.

Reem Saad, an anthropologist and associate research professor at the American University of Cairo, explained that the anthology was the product of the professors’ encounters with younger colleagues at national universities.

“Young researchers are thirsty for knowledge, but what they need to know to answer their questions isn’t available in Arabic,” said Saad. “There are so many questions that can’t be answered by the current academic methodologies and terms.”

Similarly, the Women and Memory Forum, a consortium of Egyptian female academics, has been translating contemporary gender theory (something largely lacking from the curriculum in Arab countries) into Arabic, producing a series of anthologies professors can use to make sure women’s voices and concerns are represented across different academic fields.

At the symposium in Cairo, the discussion of the need to access international scholarship also quickly turned into a conversation over the lack of knowledge production in the region.

“There is a gap between knowledge produced on the Arab world and knowledge produced in the Arab world,” Saad noted.

Translation tends to be a one-way street, with foreign languages, especially English, being translated into Arabic. Innovative scholarship in Arabic is rarely recognized or translated, although there are some attempts underway, such as the series Theory in the World, edited by literature professors Hossam Abul Ela, at the University of Houston, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University. The series’ latest title, Neighborhood and Boulevard: Reading Through the Modern Arab City, by Khaled Ziadeh, is a mixture of memoir, history, anthropology and theory that offers an original analysis of Beirut, and its layers of history and culture.

Arabic Literature in Demand

One field of Arabic writing has been an object of strong increased interest and translation in the last decade: literature.

Until recently, the American University in Cairo Press was the only dedicated publisher in the region of a significant catalog of Arabic literature in translation. Very few full-time, professional literary translators from Arabic were able to work full time.

“Now, publishers come to us,” says Humphrey Davies, an award-winning, highly regarded translator. “It has been proven that Arabic literature can be translated and sell, that there is an interest.”

The September 2011 terrorist attacks—and the sudden media focus on the Arab world that followed—were a factor in the growing interest in writing from the Middle East, says Davies.

“When a people are thrust into your face, you start to want to understand,” says Davies. “There is an empty space that you want to fill.”

The other turning point was the worldwide success of Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany’s 2002 The Yacoubian Building, a fast-paced novel that wove together the troubled, overlapping lives of various residents of a Cairo apartment building and was also an indictment of the corruption of the late Mubarak years. Davies translated the “cross-over success” and has gone on to bring English readers the works of the Lebanese author Elias Khoury, and the Egyptian novelist Hamdy El Gazzar.

Nowadays, Bloomsbury-Qatar Foundation Publishing, a joint venture between the British publishing house and the Qatar Foundation, publishes a wide catalogue of translated contemporary Arabic literature, reportage and political commentary. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or the so-called Arabic Booker, established in 2008, has helped create an international audience for Arabic fiction. Beirut 39, a 2010 collaborative project between the British Hay Festival, Beirut UNESCO’s World Book Capital 2009 celebrations, the literary magazine Banipal, and the British Council, celebrated the work of “thirty-nine of the most promising Arab writers under the age of thirty-nine.”

Yet there remains a concern that Arabic novels are of interest largely as an anthropological window onto the Arab world, rather than for their literary merit. Literary critics and other observers have noted that many of the books seem to focus on taboo aspects of Arab culture—from The Yacoubian Building to Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyad.

Marcia Lynx Qualey, creator of the Arab Lit (in English) blog, wrote in response to a query from Al Fanar that “interest in Arabic literature has moved from a generic “‘behind the veil’ sensationalism to one that’s more specifically news-oriented.” Due to the conflict in Syria, for example, “there are some great Syrian books that are getting attention, like Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred and Nihad Sirees’s The Silence & The Roar.” Even if it is tied to the news cycle, argues Qualey, “the surge in interest also means the professionalization of more translators, more publishers who are getting Arabic readers on board, and a general tuning-in to the fact that Arabs write books.”

For the Library of Arabic Literature, Davies is almost done translating the multi-volume Leg Over Leg by the nineteenth century Lebanese writer Ahmad Faris al-Shadyaq, which he describes as a “sumptuous, sui generis book… post-modern before post-modernism.” The work, which is anti-clerical, proto-feminist, sexually explicit and full of bizarre lexical lists, subverts any stereotype a reader might have about what an “Arab” book is.

Some publishing houses with no specialization in Arabic literature are now commissioning translations of Arab writers. Mehrez points to New Direction’s new translation, by Robyn Creswell, of Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim’s seminal early novel That Smell, which got an enthusiastic write up in The New York Review of Books, as an example of an Arab writers breaking out of “the Arabic literature ghetto.”

At one point in time, Arab poets and men of letters couldn’t envisage their literature existing in any language but their own, notes the Moroccan academic Abdelfattah Kilito, who has written often, and elegantly (in both Arabic and French), about the historical, cultural and political issues surrounding translation to and from Arabic.

But in his book Je parle toutes les langues, mais en Arabe (Actes Sud, 2013) (”I speak all languages, but in Arabic”) Kilito argues that for Arab writers today, being translated is a matter “of contributing to a universal literature, of not lagging behind, of offering something to the rest of the world.”

“But that’s not all,” he adds. “To be translated is to be fully recognized.”

Resource list for Translation and Arabic Literature:

Editor’s note: Please send us additional links to translation projects or centers that you feel deserve to be included in this resource list. Send an e-mail to dwheeler@thealexandriatrust.org with the subject line “For the Translation Resource List.”  Selected links will be added.

American University in Cairo Press

Arabic Literature (in English) blog

Arab Organization for Translation


Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing

Center for Translation Studies, American University in Cairo

International Prize for Arabic Fiction


Library of Arabic Literature, NYU – Abu Dhabi

Meedan, news translation site

National Center for Translation (Tunisia)

Translation and Interpreting Institute, at Hamid bin Khalifa University (Qatar)

Women and Memory Forum


This article was published in collaboration with Al Fanar. The original article can be viewed here

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