What Will Get Papers, Magazines to Review Arabic Literature (in English)?

A recently published “Global Translation Initiative Study,” conducted by Dalkey Press, surveyed Anglo bookstores, universities, publishers,  media, and translators about attitudes toward translated literature.

Respondents were asked, among other things, why translations are less often reviewed (if indeed they are).

Well, of course they are. And this is an important issue, because while we might complain that not many authors are translated from Arabic to English, what good is it to be translated and find only 50-100 readers? So as much effort as we put into translating Arabic literature (into English, French, Turkish, Swedish, Chinese) we also need to focus on putting the existing translations in readers’ hands.

The most popular answer as to why translations are less-reviewed is the “assumption that the book will not have an appeal to a wide-enough audience.” This answer was rated “important” or “extremely important” by 95.2% of survey respondents. Although, for goodness sakes, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, people.

According to study authors:

71.4% [of survey respondents] think that the shrinkage of review space in newspapers and magazines affects all literary books generally, while 28.6% think that it particularly affects translations. In the comment box, five respondents explained that in the context of generalized shrinkage of review space, translations are seen as the lowest priority and are thus the first to go.

Translations overboard, indeed.

In a sense, I find it surprising. With all the news about the Arab Spring, don’t people want to read books from the region? Don’t they want to know what makes us tick over here? Yes, sure. But “books from the region” may well mean Nonie Darwish. And, in the best case, it’s Hisham Matar and Laila Lalami and Raja Shehadeh and Leila Aboulela, acclaimed Arab authors who write in English. Only rarely do translations get in the mix.

What might change the space allotted to literature in translation?

72.8% rated the need for “greater interest in translations expressed by readers or
listeners” from “Important” to “Extremely important,” while 63.6% rated the fact that “a
book won a major prize in country of origin” from “Important” to “Extremely important.”


In the comment box, one respondent indicated that getting writer interviews is more vital to promote a book than paid advertising in a magazine’s books pages.

Why not try harder? Interviews on blogs? On e-zines? Why not put together materials like this for libraries and book fairs? Of course, translation into foreign languages is not nearly as important as developing the local reading base and reading culture. But it’s not nothing.

The Dalkey-conducted study also addressed which literatures were a harder sell. So, is Arabic literature (in translation) a harder sell, than, say French or Spanish? I would say absolutely, without question. But:

Respondents were equally divided (50%) when asked whether there were foreign countries they were more likely to review than others. Those who responded yes to the question indicated in the comment box that they tend to review books that correspond to their personal interest. Countries that were cited as being of interest included: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Latin America, Asia and China- Taiwan and Hong Kong in particular- and Poland.

Note that there’s no Arabic-writing nation on the list.

Also, this was apparently a common theme:

In the comment box, 58.3% said that publishers under-promote translations because they think they will not sell.

More on how to improve things:

Respondents were asked what are the most effective ways that a publisher can work with them in order to gain review coverage for contemporary works in translation – responses included: send books and as much information as possible about the books, build a strong relationship with book review editors and convince them of the merit and newsworthiness of the books, make authors and translators available for interviews.

Getting books out to freelance reviewers is also not a bad idea. (Cough.)

An example of a book that should’ve done better?

عايزة أتجوز , (I Want to Get Married!) by Ghada Abdel Aal. This book is hilarious, accessible, and should have been a sales success if marketed properly, jacketed properly, labeled as fiction, an afterward instead of a forward, and so on. Ghada’s next book, perhaps.


  1. “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, people” LOL

    1. Oh, I knew it had a tattoo in it. 🙂

  2. I will review this project as my work is deeply in the thick of things. But it seems until the last paragraph about suggestions, that the important thing is not the translation but the cover. ADVERTIZE ADVERTIZE ADVERTIZE…but are we asking translators to sell out to the marketplace. I would prefer that a university press with reliable translations claim me as akin to them. That is what I would want.

    1. I’m not sure the university presses have more reliable translations. Ghada Abdel Aal’s Ayza Atgowaz came through U of Texas Press, and it’s such a mixed-up production: The cover looks like chick lit, but then there’s a long translator’s introduction and lots of footnotes…how will it ever find its proper audience?

      A book deserves to find its best readers. This takes a little doing, beyond just reliably translating. I don’t honestly know what sort of doings help a book find its audience these days, but it certainly takes an honest effort.

      1. M did you think I was picking on you for a/the? That’s my best guess, and what’s funny is that I didn’t even know it was “the” until right now when I looked it up, because I haven’t read it either! I just LOL’ed at your sassiness. 🙂

        Your comments about Ayza Atgawwiz are right on. Who wants their chick lit full of footnotes? Yawn to that. They should have marketed it like Randa Abdel-Fattah’s “Does My Head Look Big in This?” which did so well. Yes, that book was written in English and for young adults, but it’s got a similar vibe. Surely a savvy marketing strategist could have made use of that.

        1. Yes! Ghada’s market would be much the same as Randa’s market. In fact, I was re-reading Ayza Atgawaz in part to see if it could be categorized as YA. (I thought not quite, although it has the right tone.)

          And perhaps this makes me a chick, but, in English or Arabic, Ghada makes me laugh. More people in this world deserve this laughter.

          These sales types need your advice.

  3. American booksellers do not have a good record on promoting international literature unless they win prizes. So in the last ten years, there have been some sales of Jose Saramago’s work and Pamuk’s work. Symborska, somewhat.
    The main international writer who seems to be popular here is Haruki Murakami, and he only appeals to the college crowd( and highschool students who have the handful of English teachers who actually READ international literature.
    America is still, culturally, an exceptionally, jingoistic nation. That’s one of the reasons our government doesnt understand other people and other cultures. The reason European literature sells somewhat is because the literary snobs think that French, Italian, and Spanish literature has some special panache. Oh, and maybe some Marquez- he can represent all of South America. But when it comes to Asian writers, Middle Eastern Writers, African writers, Latin American writers, its not happening.
    The Latin American boom petered out over twenty years ago. The a ttitude towards the other continent still resembles the astonishingly crass and racist remark by Saul Bellow years ago: Where is the African Proust? (If anyone answered China Achebe or Ousmane Sembene or Amost Tutola) or Maguib Mahfouz, they would be sneered at as if they had crashed some literary saloon where most of the people have severe rheumatoid arthritis in their pinkies from holding them up in their so frequently.
    I should also add that there are very genuine literary critics left in the US who can go beyond a book summary, a sad state of affairs, of the moribund where even the mordant might be a start. Most American intellectuals are lining up behind their sinecures and have no wish to change their reading habits beyond their various narrow literary specialties and fiedoms.
    You could contact people at Anchor , part of Doubleday. They seem to be republishing all of Mahfouz’s work. Maybe they’d have some idea or some conduit to reviewers.

    1. Is Anchor republishing Mahfouz? In new translations? I suppose I can ask them.

      Thanks, Ernie.

      I hope high school students aren’t universally reading just TKAM and Animal Farm as their two bits of literature. And as for university students, I used to teach a course called “Third World Literature,” which was a sad sort of catch-all for literatures not taught elsewhere.

  4. Arab culture is very rich and important for global cultural heritage so it is wrong to be mainly motivated by commercial success. If there is more translated Arab books than there will be less misconception and prejudices about Arab population

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