The Clash of (Editorial) Cultures

At my recent talk at the downtown AUC, I made passing reference to a “clash of editorial cultures” — with ironic hat-tip to the work of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis halfway intended.

I caricatured and overgeneralized two basic camps:

An Anglo publishing industry that’s been hyper-professionalized and MFA-ized, where every book goes through many hands before it reaches the reader, being standardized to the point of snoozeville. Here, only works that fit a particular commercial mold (put a suicide bomber in it!) are welcome.

An Arab publishing industry, where nothing is edited, and every book is flabby and full of punctuation errors, typos, sentences that go nowhere, and darling scenes that should’ve been killed.

Oh, sure, the over-generalization is bit…over-general. But it does, I hope, highlight that there are different understandings of what is meant by a “finished work,” and different sorts of professionalization and standardization in the literary universe.

This has bubbled up of late because the world of Arabic-English literary translation is undergoing a shift, spurred in part by politics and in part by savvy, high-profile prizes like the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Anglo publishers no longer look at Arabic literature as an area for specialists, or even as a zone of purely “anthropological” interest. Instead, they’re looking for literary works of global excellence. Well, not all publishers. But a number of them. Really.

But if these IPAF winning-works, for instance, are works of “international merit” (um, if such a globalization of literary criteria is possible), then the publishers want stuff that’s tight! No extra words! No fat sentences! No sentences that drift off into…wha?

Translators, who probably don’t want to be named, have found themselves in the middle of some uncomfortable struggles. Should a translation be faithful to the letter of the original or its spirit? Can it be totally different, an improved or “improved” literary work? Should errors be corrected? What if the author stands by the errors? And who has to go back to the author and explain all this?


  1. Excellent questions! Well done! I think a degree of “poetic” license is necessary when translating literature- otherwise, might as well use an automated translation service.
    If a work is worth translating, it is worth translating well. That said, there are a lot of things out there that are not “translatable” and therefore should not have been…

  2. If I could answer the questions you posted at the end of this article, I would have reached the conclusion of my PhD thesis! (and I’m nowhere near) 🙂 Much as I’m in favour of “domesticated” translations that provide the reader with a smooth enjoyable reading experience rather than distracting him/her (;-) ) with alien structures, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that this is akin to saying that the plot is all that matters in a work of fiction, and that it doesn’t really matter who tells this plot in what way. I’m trying to keep an open mind until I’m done with my “empirical analysis” phase!

    1. Nesrin, I’m thinking more along the lines of what Shakir’s talking, though. For instance, a book I recently read was very good up until page 160 or so. Then it drifted…and drifted..(until the love interest finally died tragically of cancer, aiee).. I wanted to go in and re-structure it around the first 160 pages.

      1. LOL! This goes beyond the limits of editing translation- this belongs in the realm of literary remix! […+and that’s a thought!]

        1. Hmm… literary remix.. with the author’s permission, of course…

  3. Translators of Arabic literature will do their writers and readers a service when they work with writers to “edit” the text. I have done this in my anthology “Contemporary Iraqi Fiction,” and writers who have been living in Europe and who are more familiar with the role of editing have been more receptive to editing their works.
    Like all writers, Arabs can be a little too narcisstic to accept editorial suggestions from translators but translators convinced about their choices should stick to them. I told a writer I’ll have to drop a story from the anthology that has an ending demeaning to women unless that ending is edited out. The story finally appeared and it a better read now as it should have been in Arabic.

    1. Thank you for your insight! Although now I will have to re-read the anthology to guess which story it might’ve been. 🙂

  4. Excellent post and a fascinating and important discussion… hope to see more contributions. From the perspective of an apostrophe freak, I’d also like to lament the poor proof-reading in a lot of work translated into English but coming from Arabic publishers. Tiny example, but flicking through Andrew Humphries’ gorgeous and glossy AUC-published Grand Hotels of Egypt, I spotted a photo caption (in a prominent place on one of the pages) which describes a hotel as having a ‘vernada’… it may look like a corner worth cutting (re time/production costs) but sloppy proofing is offputting and depressing. Or maybe I just have authoritarian tendencies 🙂

Comments are closed.