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?