Who Has the Power? Reading Arab Women in English

The international women’s publication Belletrista is, this issue, running two features up about Arab writers.

One is: “Who Has the Power? Reading Arab Women in English,” which explores the shifting power relationships between Arab writer, translator, and publisher. (Since I wrote it, it’s full of the sort of gossip I enjoy: Who was offered $1 million to slant her first novel against Islam? Which translator was elbowed out of the book-editing process, and why? Which authors have re-shaped their work at the advice of translators?)

It begins, more seriously:

Translation, Maureen Freely said at a recent conference in Qatar, is a feminine, or feminized, act. The translator must remain faithful to the author’s words; the contemporary translator is largely invisible; she (or he) is the helpmeet of the more powerful, more famous author.

Freely is best known for her work translating the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. And it is clear, in reading Pamuk’s dedication to the English version of his most recent novel, that he took pains to direct the translation. The dedication to The Museum of Innocence acknowledges not Freely, but instead others who helped perfect the English text: Sila Olcur, editor George Andreou, fellow author Kiran Desai.

But this power relationship is an unstable one. Sometimes, it is the translator who finds herself in the “masculine” position. Samia Mehrez, director of the American University in Cairo’s Center for Translation Studies, says that, up until recently, it was usually translators who chose Arabic-language texts and pitched them to Western publishers. Translators thus stood between Arab authors and large, potentially well-paying audiences. (Keep reading.)

The second piece about Arab women writers is an in-depth exploration of three of Ahdaf Soueif’s books: Aisha, In the Eye of the Sun, and the Booker-shortlisted The Map of Love. Writer Ceri Evans:

I have chosen to review Aisha, The Map of Love and In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif. I have cherished The Map of Love and In the Eye of the Sun for many years, and want to share them with readers. With some disappointment, I note that Ahdaf Soueif has not written any new fiction for so long, stating herself that the next book is ‘on the backburner, getting badly burnt’!

As some of you may remember, Soueif read from her novel-in-progress when she came to Cairo this spring, and said she would surely spend the summer turning down interview, political-organizing and festival invitations in order to work on the book. I hope she’s been able to keep to it.


  1. Did Pamuk really not acknowledge and/or thank the translator in his introduction? If that’s true, that’s a pretty dirty move in general.

  2. Not in my edition. I don’t know if they vary at all….

  3. As a translator from Chinese to Swedish I must say that I recognize all of the problems you mention in the article (including the taste for young, controversial women novelists). I do think that compared to the US we tend to be a bit more faithful to the original here in Sweden, but since our publishers generally cannot read Chinese books until they’ve been translated into English we often have to struggle when it turns out that the text we’ve translated doesn’t read like the English version (where lots of things may have been changed or deleted). Sometimes, though, I think that the problem is that translator are too few, which means that the selection of books to be translated is based on the taste of a small number of individuals.

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