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.