Arab Lit in English: A Little or a Lot?

In a forthcoming interview, translator Humphrey Davies disagrees with assertions that Arab literature is under-translated. He says he wishes that someone would make a list, because “there’s a lot more out there than people think.”

Indeed, while I was looking up information about the fuzzy-haired Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, I came across the very credible assertion (it’s Banipal, for goodness sakes) that he has four books in English: Zaat, The Committee, Cairo from Edge to Edge, and (soon) Stealth.

I have all these books. I can go to the bookstore and see them hanging around. I don’t know of any others.

However, at GoodReads, I find that Heinemann apparently published Ibrahim’s Smell of It in 1971. So, well, yes, there is more than I’d thought—although I’m not sure how I’d get hold of a copy.

The other, companion criticism is that the wrong things are translated. The Angry Arab News Service makes this argument.

He argues for more ‘Abbas Mahmud Al-‘Aqqad and Taha Husayn and Tawfiq Al-Hakim and less…Mahfouz? I’m not going to jump on the “less Mahfouz” bandwagon (although some of his novels are better than others), but, yes, there are some brilliant Arab writers virtually untranslated into English.

Muhammad Khudayyir, for one.

Also, yes, there is more behind the veil/under the covers stuff translated than I would care for, and I don’t need any breathless “my escape from Islam” narratives. Thank you very much.

Of course, if I were to wander through Barnes and Noble, I would find yet more I don’t care for—most particularly, when it comes to the Middle East, in the nonfiction section. Yes, there are particular goggles we wear when “discovering” the Middle East and its literature. But there are still good stalwarts–such as AUC Press–translating largely good literature, popular taste be damned. And they publish Taha Husayn and Tawfik al-Hakim.

The problem is not necessarily what’s translated, but the goggles of the marketing departments, bookstores, and ultimately us, the reading public.

I find particular hope in Khudayyir’s beautiful “Yusuf’s Tales,” wherein the narrator asserts that you need only ten well-done, hand-printed copies to last the ages.