(New York) Publisher: ‘Arabic After All Is a Controversial Language’

He wrote in a controversial language.

I have an unhealthy fascination with translational gossip.

So when I was reading Edward Said’s 1989 afterword to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain—an afterword I don’t like, as it fixates on Naguib Mahfouz and then finally admits that Khoury has nothing to do with Mahfouz—this caught my eye:

…a few years ago [before Mahfouz won the Nobel] when I was asked by a major New York publisher to recommend some Third World fiction titles for translation, Mahfouz was at the top of my list. When my recommendation was turned down, the publisher offered by way of only slightly embarrassed explanation the rueful observation that “Arabic after all is a controversial language.”

I don’t think that now, in 2010, a publisher would be able to say this with a straight face—although maybe I’m wrong. Supposedly a publisher recently asked a Muslim author to slant her novel against Islam. Although perhaps it was not done with a straight face.

I also just ran across this good one in Peter Clark’s “Arabic Literature Unveiled: Challenges of Translation,” published in 2000.

Clark has some interesting observations as well as good, vital suggestions at the end of his long essay; these suggestions are still bandied about. I believe the most important is that Arabic needs a “programme of subsidied or bankrolled translations,” because, as Clark said, “translation from Arabic is a highly skilled but poorly rewarded activity.”

Anyhow, on to the gossip! Clark was in Syria in—well, he doesn’t say exactly when. Sometime in the 1990s. He became interested in the work of ‘Abd al-Salam al-Ujaili, then in his seventies, who Clark said wrote excellent short stories. He pitched this translation to an (unnamed) publisher, who said:

‘There are three things wrong with the idea. He’s male. He’s old. And he writes short stories. Can you find a young female novelist?’

You can read a story of al-Ujaili’s here. I don’t believe a collection of his work has ever made it into English.