Is Arabic Literature (in Translation) Overwhelmingly Male?

Adania Shibli...she's a woman.

A much-discussed VIDA report on how much women’s fiction gets reviewed in U.S. publications (summary: not as much as men’s) has been followed by commentary on how much gets published (summary: not as much as men’s).

Michael Orthofer at The Literary Saloon and Hilary Plum over at Clockroot Books briefly look at how this applies to books in translation, coming up with a figure about 20 percent female authors vs. 80 percent male.

A surprising figure, I think, for 2010.

So: Can the same be said for the smaller world of Arabic fiction in English? I’ve written about some of the issues surrounding women in translation for a past issue of Belletrista, but I’ve never really crunched any numbers. Many authors in the Arabic-writing world assert, non-numerically, that it’s much easier for an Arab woman to get published in translation. Youssef al-Bazzi in Banipal 36:

We can state here that there is not a single Arab woman writer, regardless of the quality of her literary writing, who has not met with European deference, translation, or “presence.” What Arab women write is tantamount to magic in the eyes of Europeans.

In Qantara, Syrian (female) author Abeer Esber wrote that Arab writers were published more often than men “for all the wrong reasons”:

The publishers wanted to sell a product. [They do this] with an allusion to freedom, the breaking of taboos, sex issues and the description of acts of love… [added to] biographical details about the female author.

In Peter Clark’s “Arabic Literature Unveiled: Challenges of Translation,” published in 2000, he said that he became interested in the work of Syrian author ‘Abd al-Salam al-Ujaili, then in his seventies. Clark pitched a translation to an (unnamed) publisher, who apparently 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?

With all this in mind, I checked Chad Post’s translation database for 2010 and tallied up all the authors tagged “Arabic.” I then added a few obviously missing titles—Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth (Aflame), Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press), Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief (Archipelago), Amina Zaydan’s Red Wine (AUC Press), Time Travels of the Man who Sold Pickles and Sweets by Khairy Shalaby (AUC Press), Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married! (University of Texas Press), Darwish’s Absent Presence (Hesperus Press) and Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter (BQFP)—which gave me a few more women.

I wasn’t quite sure how to gender-sort Emerging Voices: Nadwa 1 (Saqi Books), Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World (Bloomsbury), and Plays from the Arab World (Nick Hern Books). So we’ll leave the collections out of it.

I also wasn’t sure if Post intended to leave out books published in the U.K., but I threw them in as they occurred to me, making a mess of things, I’m sure.

Anyhow: I get 17 male-authored and 5 female-authored books published in English translation in 2010. (I’m sure I’m missing some obvious titles. Feel free to correct me.) These were not necessarily by individual male authors: Naguib Mahfouz and Mahmoud Darwish both had multiple titles. But, in any case, my poor math skills tell me that we’re just about at the average, with 22.7 percent female-authored works.

Perhaps it’s easier for Arabic-writing women to publish in French or German or Italian (for this, I have no numbers). Perhaps there just aren’t as many “good female authors,” as Ed Cummings seems to argue.

After all, in the first few years that the (controversial) International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was up and running, few women appeared on the longlist. Only one appeared on each year’s shortlist. The reason for this was easy to find: Few books by women had been submitted by publishers. Does that mean the “no good female authors” argument is correct? After all, we could think of plenty of reasons why: Women, worldwide, surely must have a harder time carving out space and time for their literary work.

But Arabic literary authority Dr. Samia Mehrez has told me: No. Arab women writers have developed a significant presence, she says, and one should expect—as we do see in 2011—to find more than one woman on the IPAF shortlist. Also, more submissions of male authors may be a more widely spread lit-prize phenomenon. @ViragoBooks tweets that they were “told by a former Booker judge that three quarters of #books submitted were by male authors.”

So perhaps the narrative that it’s easier for Arabic-writing women to publish in translation than men is…well, just a narrative.

As to the books I expect are forthcoming in 2011, a similar ratio seems to apply. Of course, depending how set back AUC Press is by Cairo’s popular uprising.

On the European question, Bibi sent along this fascinating report. (Thanks, Bibi!) It looks at Arabic translations into Central and Eastern European languages and concludes…yep, mostly male. Other interesting snippets include “Poland has translated more after 1989, all the rest – less”  and, unsurprisingly, “The bind between politics and culture at play” (lots of trash after 9/11).

And in Italy, Elisabetta notes below that 207 books of contemporary fiction (190 single-author works and 17 anthologies) have been translated from the Arabic. Among the single author works, 39 of 190 were authored by females, again, hitting around that 20 percent number. What is it with 20 percent? Elisabetta writes: “For me, it’s clear that the popular idea about the ‘young female novelist’ is old staff.” (Thanks, Elisabetta!)


  1. Can you point to some specific books or websites? I’d like to read further.

  2. that sounds about right. it’s even worse when translating into a “small language”, because there are very few translators and such a backlog of classic works. (very overwhelmingly male!)

  3. ah, you’re welcome.

  4. Dear Lynx,
    I have been following your blog since the beginning and I can say that I love it and that it helped me more than once. So, I think it’s my turn to help you.
    In italian (translated from priginal arabic) we have 207 books (17 antologies and 190 novels or collection of short stories from a single author.
    About the male-female issue: 39 on 190 written by female and 5 on 17 antologies written by female.
    For me, it’s clear that the popular idea about the “young female novelist” is old staff.
    It goes without saying that if you need more details, I’m here.
    Thanks for your good job (expecialy on tranlation’s matter)
    elisabetta (please don’t put my family name on the web, shukran)

  5. I am MUMTAZ FAT–HE MUMTAZ and as a poet I have
    indeed had so many of my own arabic–written poems
    been published in various daily and weekly as well
    weekly periodoicals in OMAN ()AL–WATAN DAILY) and in lebanon and kuwait. my idea now is to have
    these poems and some un–published poems get
    published in any arabian website free–o–charge to
    let my literatry workls reach the arabs ithroughout
    the arab worlkd. please do acknowleege this messge at your earleist convenience and I will\be mpore tha happy to respond to your respsne as soon as I have had your candid and hopefully
    salvational resposne,for which I am tendering you]in anticipation my infinite gratitude from the
    innermost of my heart.

    very truly yours ;


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