Fadia Faqir on Arabs Who Are and Aren’t Lost in Translation

I just noticed, courtesy of Susannah Tarbush, Fadia Faqir‘s recent post on how Arab and Arabic literature gets “lost in translation.”

Faqir discusses the difficulty of being a writer or intellectual in the Arab world (perhaps with somewhat over-broad strokes) and then moves to the other side of the divide:

“Without any valid travel documents or a visa[,] the Arab book travels West.”

Some of the anecdotes she uses are a bit out of date, such as Edward Said’s quote about being unable to shepherd Mahfouz into English-language publication because “Arabic is a controversial language.” (That’s from the mid-1980s, although I admit to also having repeated it recently.)

And Dr. Samia Mehrez, a professor of Arabic Literature who Faqir quotes in the piece, has said elsewhere (to me, for one) that she feels optimistic about how Arabic literature has begun traveling across this divide. Dr. Mehrez particularly cited the Arabic Booker as introducing more English-language readers to quality Arabic-language texts.

But Faqir wants to focus not on translation, but on Arabs who write in English. (I was unclear on whether she was arguing that Arabic an intellectually underdeveloped language? She wasn’t, right?) In any case, she decries the lack of scholarly attention paid to Arabs who write in English:

Geoffery Nash’s book The Arab Writer in English: Arab Themes in a Metropolitan Language, 1908-1958 is the first serious study of what he describes as the ‘internationalisation of literature’ and its impact on Arab writers. Let me fill this gap and coin a new term: ‘Arabs writing in English’ (AWE). This covers the body of work by Arab writers who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually Arabic.

My (anecdotal) perception is that a good deal of attention—not scholarly, perhaps—is paid to Arab-American and Arab-British writers. That is, Arabs who write in English.

When pitching a magazine recently on Arabic literature in translation, I was asked—instead—to review the work of an Arab who writes in English. When perusing bookshops in the U.S., I’ve thought it quite difficult to find works translated from Arabic, but not at all hard to find Laila Lalami, Randa Jarrar, or Diane Abu Jaber.

And it’s not just AWE (Ahdaf Soueif, Suad Amiry, Fadia Faqir herself) who are making their mark on world lit, but Arab writers in French (Amin Maalouf, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leila Marouane) and Dutch (Abdelkader Benali and Rachida Lamrabet), Hebrew (Anton Shammas, others), and numerous other European (and non-European) languages.

Still—and I doubt Faqir is really suggesting this—let’s not conflate Arab and Arabic literatures. There is of course a fundamental difference between Arabic literature in translation and the literature of Arabs  who write in English, French, Italian, Hebrew or Dutch. Both sets of literatures can be wonderful (or dreadful, depending). But one in no way can replace the other.


  1. You raise interesting points that I found myself compelled to discuss. The blog you refer to is the transcript of a speech I gave at the London Book Fair in 2006. The Edward Said anecdote although out of date still applies, I am afraid.

    I nowhere argue that Arabic is an underdeveloped language. On the contrary Arabic is so sophisticated that many find it difficult to learn or grapple with. However, some of the translations of Arabic into English are unfitting.

    Arabs writing in English are still on the margins, with a few exception. You only have to read ‘The anger of Exile’ by Colm Tóibín to see how Arab American authors are perceived and reviewed. Alamedine and Hag’s writing were certainly not the centre of the piece. Perhaps the view is different from your side of the divide.

    My blog highlights the difficulty of finding books in Arabic. Distribution and availability of Arabic books are crucial if they are going to be translated. You cannot translate a text you cannot get hold of. (By the way Randa Jarrar is not available here in the UK).

    The literature of Arabs writing in English (AWE) and Arabic literature are separate. Perhaps they meet at the level of sensibility.

    Finally the speech generated so much interest in the Arabic books and the process of translation.

    Thank you for referring to my blog. I enjoy yours enormously.

    1. Re: underdevelopment, I suppose I was (mis)led to that thought by the line: “Language is never dysfunctional, it is a tool that merely reflects the development or underdevelopment of the intellect of its user.”

      And indeed, many of the translations of Arabic into English are…unfitting, as you put it kindly.

      Distribution of grown-up books in Arabic is awful. Distribution of children’s books is even worse, I think.

      And I’m glad the speech generated interest in translation…I think there is an upsurge of interest in translation, although not always the tools to know what to do about that (or necessarily good motives, either).

      Thanks for your comment!

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