At my recent talk at the downtown AUC, I made passing reference to a “clash of editorial cultures” — with ironic hat-tip to the work of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis halfway intended.
I caricatured and overgeneralized two basic camps:
An Anglo publishing industry that’s been hyper-professionalized and MFA-ized, where every book goes through many hands before it reaches the reader, being standardized to the point of snoozeville. Here, only works that fit a particular commercial mold (put a suicide bomber in it!) are welcome.
An Arab publishing industry, where nothing is edited, and every book is flabby and full of punctuation errors, typos, sentences that go nowhere, and darling scenes that should’ve been killed.
Oh, sure, the over-generalization is bit…over-general. But it does, I hope, highlight that there are different understandings of what is meant by a “finished work,” and different sorts of professionalization and standardization in the literary universe.
This has bubbled up of late because the world of Arabic-English literary translation is undergoing a shift, spurred in part by politics and in part by savvy, high-profile prizes like the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Anglo publishers no longer look at Arabic literature as an area for specialists, or even as a zone of purely “anthropological” interest. Instead, they’re looking for literary works of global excellence. Well, not all publishers. But a number of them. Really.
But if these IPAF winning-works, for instance, are works of “international merit” (um, if such a globalization of literary criteria is possible), then the publishers want stuff that’s tight! No extra words! No fat sentences! No sentences that drift off into…wha?
Translators, who probably don’t want to be named, have found themselves in the middle of some uncomfortable struggles. Should a translation be faithful to the letter of the original or its spirit? Can it be totally different, an improved or “improved” literary work? Should errors be corrected? What if the author stands by the errors? And who has to go back to the author and explain all this?