Arabic Novels ‘Better Suited to French Translation Than to English’?

Australian writer and publisher Carmen Callil, one of this year’s Man Booker International judges, has had her share of quotables this year. The most famous one—about Philip Roth sitting on her face—unfortunately has nothing to do with Arabic literature.

The second-most-famous Callil quote was about non-Anglo literature. After resigning from the Man Booker judging panel, Callil said that, despite the MBI’s “international” status, works written in non-English languages were at a disadvantage. From “Man Booker vs. Translated Literature“:

There are many writers who haven’t been translated and who are very important. But we agreed that, to be considered for our list, authors needed to have at least three books in translation.

The third Callil quote is down below. But first, the Australian author and publisher has had a long relationship with at least some Arabic literature: she has Lebanese ancestors, and she “discovered” Hanan al-Shaykh in 1975, after which the two became friends. Callil said in The Independent, “Since we met, I can’t think of a time when we haven’t been in touch.” Al-Shaykh, who writes in Arabic and lives in London, is a big booster of quality Arabic literature.

Callil also participated in PalFest in 2009  and said that there she met, “Many different kinds of writers, old and young, well-known, and students writing their very first volumes of poetry.”

So I was surprised to see Callil make this sweeping generalization, in “Man Booker vs. Translated Literature”:

“Arabic novelists, for instance, have a tremendous disadvantage –they write in an overblown poetic style, too rich, better suited to French translation than to English.”

The author goes on to say that “Only one author writing in Arabic, Naguib Mahfouz, has ever been considered for the MIBP.”

Note that Mahfouz was nominated for the prize in its inaugural year, 2005. Why he would need a Man Booker in his 94th year, nearly two decades after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature—well, I don’t know. (And did Mahfouz write in an overblown poetic style? Did Taha Hussein? Did Tawfiq al-Hakim? Did Yusuf Idris? Does…Hanan al-Shaykh?)

In some cases, of course, Arabic novels do have a richer sentence structure and descriptive bent than English-language novels. I recently read صالح هيصة by Khairy Shalaby, translated as The Hashish Waiter by Adam Talib. Many of the descriptions are over-the-top by English-language standards. Shalaby is probably not what Callil had in mind, but if his descriptions are overblown (or at least “blown”), does that mean they’re more suited to the overblown, cheese-eating Francophonie, or that the English literary canon might be enriched by their inclusion?


  1. Well, so long as no one pays me for them! Thanks, Rupert.

  2. I think those that suggest Arabic is too rich for English have never fully appreciated how rich English is as a language; nor have they understood the passion and depth of understanding of translators.

  3. It’s true; one shouldn’t confuse the current spate of (most) English-language lit with the possibilities of the language.

  4. Of all the writers you listed above, I think Hanan al-Shaykh has the least “over-blown poetic” style. If you want true over-blown poetic style, read al-Mutannabi. Modern style is just detailed description – Irish literature is the same.

  5. Well, al-Mutannabi is something totally different, no, because he’s not contemporary and Callil is complaining (I believe) about contemporary lit. I don’t find any of the writers above “overblown.” Yusuf Idris, for instance, has some large descriptive moments, but I can’t think when I read it and felt “overblown” or “put this in French, buddy.”

  6. I am not learned in translation matters, but I’ve always wondered why some English translations of Arabic work seemed awkward, stuffed with too much description and esoteric vocabulary.

    Contemplating the differences between the structure of the languages, a geometric metaphor popped into my mind: English as a plane, vast and expansive, but needing many combinations of words to portray specific meanings, and Arabic as a cube, having more dimensions than English, therefore able to offer specifics and complexity in fewer words.

    So, the task in tanslating a cube into a plane necessitates that the resulting plane contain vast numbers of words packed over very large surface.

    That’s just my simple two-cents worth analysis, but I never considered that Arabic novels might be better suited to French translation. I don’t know French, but I know Italian. Maybe Arabic translation to a Romance language would, indeed, be easier. Now I am wondering whether an Arabic novel translated to French (or Italian), then translated to English would read more smoothly than an Arabic novel tranlated directly into English.

    (In my next life, I would love to become a translator!)

    1. Marahm, your comment reminded me of an “experiment” I once heard about. I think it was carried out by Umberto Eco and he basically translated a piece from Italian to English, then back again and kept translating the piece back and forth based on the translations until he ended up with some very different from the original.

      I know that’s not what you were talking about above, but something in your comment reminded me of it. Unfortunately I can’t now remember where I heard/read about this, and Google’s no help this time.

      1. Oh, I’ve heard of that one, too! Let me see if my googling is any more fruitful.

  7. I like the analogies from geometry that Marahm suggests.
    For my part, as an Arabic-English translator who reads and writes both in English and in French, I would say that Callil’s statement is a sweeping over-generalization. Yes, sometimes an Arabic passage does translate more easily and “naturally” into French but sometimes it doesn’t. There are so many variables: the writing itself, the specific context of that Arabic (Abdo Khal’s prose certainly wouldn’t do better in French, for example), the historical context and “style” of that time. My goodness, there are original English-language texts that are not very old and feel competely anachronistic and dated. If you read a lot of Irish literature and a lot of Shakespeare, you can get into a groove where the so-called floweriness of Arabic begins to appear perfectly doable in English. There are so many registers of English – WH Auden, AS Byatt, Doris Lessing, Arundhati Roy, TS Elliot, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, to name a few.
    Thanks, Marcia, for providing a forum for such stimulating discussions.

  8. Thanks, Maia, for joining it!

    It seems to me that it might be the sort of thing that sounds really good at a party, but not so much when you see it on paper.

    And Marahm…why wait for your next life! This one seems as good as any. You could just give a short story a go…see what happens.

    1. Actually, when I was learning Italian, and reading my first book, I translated various sections of it for the benefit of my parents, who couldn’t read Italian. I wanted them to “see” not only the kind of life from which my father’s family emerged, but also the tremendous similarities (not coincidental, either) between life in 1930s southern Italy and 1990s Saudi Arabia.

      I had so much fun!

      Later, I read the published English translation, and congratulated myself on how well my own translations turned out. Oh, yes, I missed my calling in this life.

      1. Why missed? When I hear Denys Johnson-Davies say he would’ve rather been a novelist (and DJD is in his 80s), I think: Jeez, DJD, you’ve still time!

        My great-great-great aunt had her first art show at age 99. I was able to attend with my eldest son, who was her…um, great-great-great grand nephew?

        1. Ah, you exhibit the optimism of youth! Yes, there is always “still time”. One is alive until one is dead, no?

          So DJD would rather have written novels rather than translate them? Hmmm…. can he say he missed his calling? Good question, needing more space and contemplation than a blog response.

          I still study Arabic, but only in secret. Thanks for the encouragement!

          1. Hm, must be a youth of the mind. 🙂

  9. agree with maia. certain authors are easier to translate, certain are harder, none are impossible. (ok, maybe jeanette winterson’s “written on the body”, and even that has been done …)
    i’ve heard of this theory that arabic novelists “write in an overblown poetic style, too rich”, and, ok, i’ve read examples of overblown, but then, i’ve read them in other langzages, too. however, i refuse to believe a poetic style can be too rich 😉 and i say this as someone who adores carver and pinter, so there …
    also, what niamh said about the richness of english. true for other languages, too.

  10. I almost do NOT want to reply to such an insipid, inane comment (and I dont care who the hell the person who said it is, or what her “credentials” are, although I would ask, did she ever write an a novel, or short stories?
    Ive educated myself about Middle Eastern writers from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, almost every country in the Middle East.
    There is such a variety of writing styles as there in the US and the UK.
    For anyone speaking English as a first language, and particularly growing up n the US and the UK, it is utterly insane and perhaps culturally RACIST to lable Arab writers as overblown and florid, I mean, try reading Spencer of The Fairy Queen, or Swineburn, or Faulkner at his worst (Sartoris, The Unvanquished) or Thomas Pyncheon, the unreadable legend of the gas storm known as V and/or Gravity’s Rainbow. Florid and overblown? Even the genius James Joyce was known to go a bit overboard (ULysses, Finnegans Wake)
    And there are so many Arab writers who are so briliiantly succincnt- Riffat, Kanafani, Zakaria Tamer, and, I would argue, Emile Habibby, and, once he was out of the reach of Western influences, the great Mahfouz, especially in Arabian Nights, several of his short story collections, etc etc. There’s the aforementioned Hanan Al Shaykh, Yahyah Yaklif’s Lake of the Wind,
    Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad’s Death In Beirut,
    and what can I say?
    There are many literary critics who make their rep and living with grandiose statements that are, at the core, vacuous. If I were uncharitable, I would say such people are like literary vampires sucking the blood from the
    Great Republic of fiction writers, poets, translators and critiquers. But it is part of life like living with mosqitoes.

  11. Bibi… Yes, all these “English is a flat, business-like language” and “Arabic and French are poetic” and “Chinese is sentimental” type comments are suitable for dinner-party conversations but should really be left there.

    Ernie, yes, I think she’s written several books. I hope she goes back to it and takes a break from criticism/literary prize judging for a little while.

    HOWEVER, I was paging through the books available from her press, Virago, and I found it quite devoid of Arab writers in translation or otherwise. That’s a shame.

  12. just to make something clear: you’re not allowed to say it at my dinner parties. we banned this kind of talk back in 1871.

  13. Well, I just hope I’m not one of the mosquitoes to which Ernie refers, even if I make the occasional vacuous, overblown critical remark.

Comments are closed.