The State of Arabic Science Fiction (in Translation)

Ray Bradbury, maestro of English-language sci fi, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

How much does contemporary English-language science fiction, like Bradbury’s, owe to the fantastical proto-science fiction of A Thousand and One Nights? Well, who knows. But certainly English-language spec fic has little to do with its contemporary Arabic-language colleague.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia was translated in 2010, by Chip Rossetti, and published by a forward-thinking BQFP. This year, the book is a finalist for the English-language Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. But outside of Utopia, there’s been little spec fic that’s crossed the line from Arabic into English.

But there’s certainly interest. In November 2010, Apex magazine did a special “Arab / Muslim themed” issue, calling widely for translations. And every time there’s a story about Arab & Arabic science fiction, it seems to get batted around quite widely (perhaps to prove that Arabs don’t do sci fi, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt).

Yazan al-Saadi, writing in Al Akhbar, wrote this week that Arabic SF is in the middle of a resurrection. Authors like our Sharjah-based correspondent-novelist Noura Noman, for one, are moving into science fiction because of a life-long love of the speculative and fantastic.

But reader-blogger-novelist-scholar Sofia Samatar worries that science fiction might not be interesting to traditional English-language publishers because works in translation often favor the realist-ethnographic.

Certainly, though, there are other avenues for interested translators and authors: A number of science fiction magazines pay real money for stories and there are many sci-fi readers who would be interested in new works with fresh visions.

On the Arabic-language side, Naguib Mahfouz — for one — wanted to see more Arabic science fiction. Why? Maybe because, as commentator Ed Finn says in the Huff Post this week, it has its revolutionary side: “As it turns out, science fiction is a great educational tool for getting people to think seriously about the future.”