Arab Novels: Not as Good as the Russians, Latin Americans?

I continue to troll, backwards and forwards, through the preview Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) report on Arabic/Hebrew/Turkish translation (1990-2010), written by Alice Guthrie and others and set to be published May 2.

Here, a short quote from translator Anthony Calderbank:

I have heard people say that they don’t like Arab novels, they’re sentimental, immature, poorly crafted, have weak character development. Others tell me ‘that wasn’t bad’ or ‘I quite liked that.’ I have rarely found anyone who has raved and raved about an Arab novel or an Arab novel that has reached the heights of the Russians or the Latin Americans.

He and I must not run in the same circles, as I do know people who’ve been blown away by Elias Khoury, Hanan al-Shaykh, Naguib Mahfouz, Mourid Barghouti, Sonallah Ibrahim, Ghassan Kanafani, Tayeb Salih, Ibrahim al-Koni, Abdul Rahman Munif. Last year’s summer challenge list, in which translators, authors, and publishers note  “five Arabic books to read before you die,” should include at least one that will blow you away.

And Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis will easily blow you away, although Calderbank makes no mention of poetry.

In defense of Calderbank’s friends, censorship and self-censorship have been stumbling blocks in the mass-flowering of Arabic fiction, and some poor translations have also hobbled the “rave and rave” factor.

You? Do you find that people “rave and rave” about an Arabic novel? Or do your friends mostly say “that wasn’t bad”?


  1. Amin Maalouf gets raves from me and my friends who delve into Arab fiction. I love how he mines the riches of history and lays them out like an exquisitely complex yet delicate mezza. LEO AFRICANUS and THE GARDENS OF LIGHT are my personal favorites.

  2. Seriously?
    I have been blown away by many Arabic books–yes, even in translation. Lots of them are on the summer reading list for last year (Season of Migration to the North is my fave). One I didn’t see there is Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain which is gorgeous. I’ve also heard people rave about Miral al-Tahawy.
    I do think there’s a general perception among English-language readers that books originally written in Arabic are less accessible than those coming from European languages. I wonder about reactions to translations from, say, Japanese, and how they compare.

    1. Would I make this up, ya Sofia?

      I think reactions to the Japanese probably changed significantly after the advent (and popularity) of Haruki Murakami, who managed to cross a lot of boundaries.

      Perhaps Chinese fiction is viewed in this “oh gosh, it’s probably too hard” way. Although honestly, what a silly reaction.

  3. Just a few thoughts…

    I think there is an unhealthy tendency by publishers to favour novels that play
    up to popular preconceptions held in the West about the Arab world. How many dust jackets are adorned by the cliched image of a veiled woman staring out at the reader… Call it a form of neo-orientalism if you like; a form of exoticisation or fetishisation of the Arab woman.
    Undeniably, gender inequalities are a huge issue in Arab societies and therefore a perfectly legitimate subject. But I do feel this aspect of things is pushed a little too hard to satisfy a tabloid-like hunger for the sensational. It’s interesting the way Mohaimeed’s novel al-Qarura (the bottle) was translated as “Samira’s bottle”, as though this extra signifier were needed for a Western audience to place the novel firmly within the oppressed-women-of-the-Arab-world canon.
    I think you’re right about translation being an issue. Let’s put aside issues of competency for a moment and consider the infrastructure itself. Translation is underpaid and translators are not given the recognition they deserve. For example, one of the biggest publishers of Arabic fiction in English is the AUCP who (so I’ve heard – could be wrong) pay a paltry and well below average $100 per 1000 words. Does this really encourage the production of quality literary translation or help to foster a healthy culture of translation from Arabic into English? NO. When we compare translations of Arabic novels to translations of Russian novels we find genuinely that the latter are much better presented. Care has been taken to provide footnotes to explain various historical, geographical and historical allusions with which the average reader may be unfamiliar. This is something we rarely find with Arabic literature in translation – Roger Allen’s excellent translations of Bensalim Himmich are a good example. Of course, a text cluttered with footnotes does not make for the most enjoyable of reading experiences, but is it really asking too much for the reader to meet us halfway? The other extreme is the crass normalisation that (at least for me) ruined the English translation of Girls of Riyadh. It seems Sanea thought many of the literary and intertextual allusions that helped make her work stand out as a genuinely interesting piece of literature, would fly over the head of the average reader of Cosmopolitan. The irony here is that the author’s own cynicism is to blame rather than the translator or publisher. On the other hand, this might be a totally unfair appraisal of the situation and Sanea may have had only the best of intentions behind the changes she made to Booth’s translation…
    From the many Arabic novels I’ve read, it’s clear to me that the Arabic novel is more than capable of holding its own in the world literary scene. I know it’s easy to dwell on the negatives and yes many excellent, Arabic novels have already been successfully translated into English, but there is hell of a lot that will never see the light of day because publishers are too afraid to take risks and stray from stale agendas. One example of a novel long overdue its debut in English is” A World without Maps” (‘alam bila Khara’it) co-authored by Abdelrahman Munif and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. Even 5 years after first reading this novel it still haunts me – a mark of world class literature if ever there was one. Ramble over.

    1. Tom,

      Ramble appreciated.

      When I wrote about the Booth/Sanea tussle, I didn’t get a response from Sanea…perhaps her agent has asked her to keep mum, I don’t know…but I’m sure she re-edited her book with the best of intentions. Italian-Eng translator William Weaver had a funny interview with The Paris Review where he talked about how Italo Calvino would pester him over certain words (feedback, in particular) because Calvino overestimated his English.

      One of these days I should assault publishers with a “translate this” list specific to Arabic lit, as Words Without Borders does with all world lit.

  4. It seems to me that there is a small handful of books that gets “raved”… most of the time, the response is: “That wasn’t bad…”

    I recently read Reza Aslan’s collected anthology of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish literature (“Tablet and Pen”), and to be totally honest, I found myself routinely blown away by many of the selections. The best ones, though, were not in Arabic. The Turkish selections, in particular, were amazingly powerful and subtle.

    1. Well, I suppose in any language it’s a relatively small handful of books that get raved. I rave Saramago, but not every Portuguese author I meet…

      Haven’t yet gotten the /Tablet and Pen/. (Reza did a great job of promoting; didn’t need any help from me.) I do certainly need to expand my Turkish literary knowledge beyond Pamuk…

  5. lol M, I guess you would be the last person to make this up!

    I heartily agree with Tom, especially on the reluctance of publishers to take risks and the apparent need in the English-speaking world for books about Arab women having a hard time.

    This does not mean I think there should NOT be books about Arab women having a hard time, just that there seems to be a disproportionate amount of them available in English. Part of the problem, too, is the way we read. I read Miral al-Tahawy’s stunning The Tent in a class last semester and was so disappointed that we didn’t say anything substantial about the structure or imagery of the book. A colleague and I kept trying, but we couldn’t get the class to move away from conjectures about what life must be like for Egyptian women locked up in villages in the middle of nowhere. AND IT WAS A GRADUATE SEMINAR.

    Ok. Breathe.

    Before I stop I just have to mention, as others have, Sonallah Ibrahim. Oh my God how amazing is he? And his work has been beautifully translated. It seems odd to me that he’s not more widely read and acclaimed in the U.S.

    1. I did try to get a larger audience for Ibrahim’s /Stealth/ when it came out, but I was hobbled by the publisher going out of business (so he wouldn’t send in copies to literary prizes, etc.)

      And Robyn Creswell did a good long piece about Ibrahim in /Harper’s/… But Sonallah didn’t stand in Tahrir and do interviews with CNN. As, of course, he woudn’t.

  6. Very interesting. Well in my circle very few rave about Arabic novels in English. In Arabic, yes all the time, but when it comes into English translation, Arabic novels still struggle.
    The way Arabic novels in translation are marketed plays a role in the reception. In my research I look at the recurrent patterns in reviews which often compares Arabic novels to western canon, but there is this comment that implies: “not bad for an Arabic novel” , “one day it will get there.” I think reader’s expectations affect their appreciation of the novel ‘as expected’.
    I hope the report gets published soon; I am very interested in reading it. Do you have a copy that I can get a hold of?

  7. Angie,

    Your research sounds very interesting. If you ever blog or share your findings online, please let us know.


  8. Tom
    I think you meant ‘Munira’s Bottle’ 🙂
    Munira sounds more Saudi (as from Nejd) than Samira 🙂

    1. Thanks, me and names just don’t get on… Your research sounds interesting and very relevant to some aspects of my own. Are you planning on publishing any of it soon?

      1. Tom and Sofia… I hope, when you’re asking Angie to share, you’re also planning to do so yourselves…

      2. Sofia and Tom, I do hope to publish once I finish.
        Be sure to follow this blog, as I intended to write about it here.

      3. Thanks Angie! I’ll look for it.

        And yes, M, I heard you. 🙂 I’ll let you know when I have something fit to be shared.

  9. The world is full of the foolish, the misinformed, and the arrogant. Arab literature stems from one of the world’s great literary traditions, and continues to uphold it and innovate it. I will give some of my favorite examples.
    Arabian Nights by Naguib Mahfouz is a fabulous satire, both entertaining and trenchant.
    Saeed The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby is a complex ambitious satire, and an equal if not an advance to Voltaire’s Candide.
    Wild Thorn’s by Sahar Khalifeh remains one of the most complex portraits of difference approaches to handling oppression with the Palestinian community.
    The Bleeding Stone by Ibrahim Khoni is a remarkable parable on humanity relationship to nature, and more, superbly succinct, mythic.
    And what about Mohammed Berada’s postpostpost modernist novel The Game of Forgetting, as technically accomplished as any Western writer and with more human content?
    As for Kanafani, since he writes mainly(and magnificent) short stories, is he not included? The same could be said of the astonishingly underrated Zakaria Tamer.
    And as for Darwish, if he hadn’t been Palestinian, he would have won the Noble Prize for literature years ago. He and Pablo Neruda are so vividly apparent the two best poets of the twentieth century. Adonis is not f ar behind, and Samih Al Qassim is also brilliant.
    With all due respect to the eminent translator, maybe he hangs out with too many academics who often pontificate or get bogged down in fabricated quandries about which parts of the world offer the best literature, and, under the guise of “objectivity” ( which often reads white European and North American (USA) taste) proposes a limitedly existant universality that manages to be more exclusive than inclusive.

  10. What Ernie said.

    Only don’t forget that some academics are out here working hard for increased and improved international reception of Arabic language literatures! I’m one of the most enthusiastic! 🙂

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