Amal al-Jubouri’s ‘Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation’ Makes Best Translated Book Shortlist

On Tuesday, the shortlists for the 2012 Best Translated Book Awards (BTBA) in fiction and poetry were announced in Rochester, New York, USA.

No Arabic fiction had been longlisted, so although I’ll note that Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, trans. Bill Johnston, is a beautiful book, I haven’t much else to say about that.

The poetry shortlist makes more interesting fodder for our conversation, as it elevates Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation, trans. Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi, to the six-strong shortlist. This is ahead of  — for instance — Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, trans. Sinan Antoon and published by Archipelago just before the BTBA cut-off, which was November 30, 2011.

I was recently discussing with a publisher how, for various reasons, literature can resonate far differently in translation than in its original context. I don’t know how many copies of Mornings in Jenin Susan Abulhawa has sold in the U.S. (where it was originally written and published), but this publisher told me that it was a long-running bestseller in translation in…Norway.

Antoon spoke about this issue at the Queens College translation symposium Arablit participants Katrina Weber Ashour and Jennifer Sears attended. Antoon said, according to Sears, that “there is a noticeable gap between the Arabic literature favored among readers of Arabic language and Arabic literature favored among readers who rely on translation.  Work celebrated abroad differs from work celebrated in the Arabic-speaking world.”

Sometimes, these lesser-known works are celebrated in translation for ugly reasons: They feed the ever-hungry belly for easy stories and ugly stereotypes. No real reason to name names, but Antoon apparently referred to “the unbalanced number of narratives about Muslim women ‘liberating’ themselves from repression, a narrative dangerously favored and promoted by contemporary American media.”

But sometimes, these works-in-translation are celebrated because they represent a new story, or because they resonate differently with the target-language audience than they did at home, or — for that audience — it’s something they were waiting to hear.

Each act of literature is a joint project enacted by writer(s), translator(s), and audience(s). Each new audience changes the work.

Editor’s note: This does not mean I’d choose al-Jubouiri’s book over Darwish’s. I wouldn’t.

Q&A with Rebecca Gayle Howell:

Translating from a Language You Don’t Know