(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.


  1. Strange. I heard that since 9/11, many Americans became interested to learn about Arabic language & Islam but I don’t know if because to learn more or just to stigmatize more the Arabophone-originated (I avoid using Arab because there communities whose origine are partially Arab like North Africans) & Muslim communities.
    I think American publishers in this case think marketing. As the topic has relation with “Islam” or “Arab” tags, so negative things due mainly to mainstream media appear, and selling books talking negatively about the 2 topics is most of time bonanza.
    Can someone explain me why Americans are less curious &, sorry to say, believe anything said about Arabophone & Muslim countries in western media?

  2. I think that, since fall 2001, Americans have had much more of an appetite for information “about” Arabophone peoples and Muslim countries, but the interest is perhaps not always from the best place in their/our hearts.

    And to what extent this ever translates to humanization, and an interest in Arabic literature, I don’t really know. To some degree, definitely. But to a very large one?

    It’s an odd mixture of curiosity and incuriosity. They (we) want to know, but then again they feel they already do.

Comments are closed.