What Sort of Beast is the ‘Controversial’ Arab Writer?

The panel “Translating ‘Controversial’ Arabic Literature” at the International Federation of Translators XIX World Congress in San Francisco (August 2011: Bridging Word Cultures) is looking for papers.

Following EURAMAL’s (the European Association for Modern Arabic Literature) exploration of “desire, pleasure, and taboo” in Arabic literature this summer, the translators’ discussion will look specifically at the role of the “controversial” novel in translation.

According to the call for papers (and its hard to disagree):

Arabic literary works often have to give (non-literary) justifications for their existence in Western languages. One very effective pass to translation has been the ‘controversial’ or ‘subversive’ status of a work in Arabic.


Writings viewed as subverting political, social, and religious establishments or defying moral codes (especially when accompanied by public outcries or bans of different kinds) have usually been given priority by translators and publishers in the West. This panel seeks to explore, from various angles, the translation of works considered controversial or subversive in Arabic.

However, certain sorts of controversy seem to play better than others. I recently got an email from Words Without Borders, suggesting that English-language publishers should be interested in Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro because it had been banned in Egypt and because it “portrayed a Cairo teeming with greed and official corruption, and suggested that criminal behavior was not only understandable but justified.”

Controversy surrounding sexually charged writing in the Middle East (Salwa al-Neimi’s The Proof of Honey) also seems to strike a positive chord with American readers.

However, I’m not sure what reception Yousef Ziedan’s Arabic Booker-winning Azazil will receive—heavily criticized by (some) Coptic Christians—when it reaches English-language shores next summer. Is opposition from Christian groups the sort of controversy an Arabic novel wants? Or would Ziedan be a better seller (in the West) if he were opposed by recognizably Muslim figures?

In any case: “The submission deadline is December 1, 2010. Presentations should be in English. Please send proposals (maximum 300 words) to Tarek Shamma, United Arab Emirates University, tarek.shammauaeu.ac.ae.”