The Failure of Arabic Literature (in Translation): The Failure of Reviewers

Early yesterday morning — around 1 a.m. — I joined a talk with Prof. Robyn Creswell (The Paris Review) and Prof. Elias Muhanna (@qifanabki) at Brown University:

Courtesy Royal Irish Academy

Well, I wasn’t at Brown University, and it wasn’t 1 a.m. for them. The name of the panel was “New Media and Arabic Literature,” and one of the topics that came up, tossed at us by moderator Jake Karr, was about what gets translated, why, and who chooses? What are the issues at stake, in terms of politics, style, and theme?

I droned out a dullard sort of answer: Books are largely chosen by the translators. Only a few publishers (Bloomsbury Qatar, AUC Press) are informed enough to make their own lists. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is changing this somewhat, by making a “list,” and I imagine there will be a race to get Saud al-Sanoussi’s IPAF-winning Bamboo Stalk.

I dithered on: Translators offer many great works. But there’s too much interest in the author’s biography and how the book gives us a glimpse of that world. The fresh interest in Arabic literature — since autumn 2001 — has been motored in large part by 1) the news or by 2) scary-titillating tropes that hardly need mentioning.

We talked about how sometimes books brought out by academic houses get locked up in too-narrow boxes for too-narrow audiences. We talked about failures in translation. I mentioned some new books that trash narrow expectations: Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell (re-trans. Robyn Creswell) and Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report (trans. Kareem James Abu-Zaid). I could’ve mentioned two new books by Youssef Rakha. Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My Enemy (trans. Sinan Antoon and Peter Money). Many, many more. 

So Prof. Creswell — I think rightly — tish-toshed my ramble. Plenty of publishers are doing great things. Plenty of publishers are interested in fresh translation projects from the “Middle East.” Forget blaming publishers.

The real culprits, he said, are the reviewers: There are too few reviewers who really engage with Arabic literature in translation. Too few can even hold the book the right-way up. The reviewers talking Arabic lit are often academics who discuss the “least interesting” aspects of a translation, Creswell said.

I’ll take a few more liberties, but I imagine Prof. Creswell continuing: There are too few reviewers who get deep in, dig around, and address the literary and human issues at stake. There are too few who really enter a dialogue about Arabic literature and build on the growing literary conversation. Too few engage with Arabic books seriously (but enjoyably!), caring about the books’ lives and families and histories.

Recently, an ArabLit reader asked me to name a few Egyptian novels that had been translated for their literary (not anthropological) interest, which had been well-received by critics and the public. I didn’t have much trouble fulfilling the first part of the equation, but I struggled with the second. I wanted to name Stealth. But if a beautiful story in terse, understated translation (thank you, Hosam Aboul-Ela) was reviewed by two or three people, does that count as well received by critics? If a book falls in the forest, and….

So, should we stop blaming publishers and start blaming reviewers?

I’d like to. After all, blaming myself feels much more productive. I could do something. I could say: More serious reviews! More late nights! More innovation and production! So there’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Possessed, people, let’s do Reading Saeed the Pessoptimist in Ohio! 


Then I was speaking to a serious reviewer who’s here at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. We discussed what a pittance living it is to write about books. Even if a talented and well-connected reviewer (like him) places pieces in high-profile, well-paying newspapers and magazines, the living works out to be about…$2.40 an hour. For the lesser-known sorts who hurl their time at literature-in-translation blogs, the rate drops yet lower.

It’s well-established that book reviews — at least the paying sort — are on the get-down and get-out. There are lots of reviews, but fewer of them support livings for a reviewer.

Blame the

Newspapers or magazines? Perhaps, but what’s the point?

I do think, however, we could blame arts-funding institutions: There is support for publishing translations. There is support for magazines. There is support (pittance, I know) for writers, for translators. But I don’t think there is any support for independent critics.


  1. Very interesting ya Marcia. It’s a topic that keeps coming across my desk – this year we are supporting critical writing activities for visual arts and film (not literature yet). I know this doesn’t help anyone to earn a living, but hopefully one day……Do reviews have a direct link to increased sales in the way prizes do?

    1. Well, directly, I doubt it (unless it’s a review by Oprah). But do they lead to a more vibrant & interesting literary community? Do they lead to better, deeper readings of literature (in translation or otherwise)? Do literary reviews…matter? It’s probably something we should think through?

  2. Another side to the equation is, as an author, getting a review in the first place. There are more and more voices out there chasing reviews, both from established major media reviewers and from book blogs. The book bloggers are a very mixed bag indeed, ranging from highly insightful and professional (the vast minority) to sloppy and ill-considered (the vast majority). As for the major media reviewers, these seem to me to be few and far between when it comes to the Middle East or any book set in/from the region – whether in translation or not. And there are very few ‘champions’ of books from the region, IMHO…

    But then maybe it’s just me…

  3. To answer Cathy, it’s been my experience that reviews have an indirect link to sales, but I have never seen a hard correlation between a review in, say, a national daily newspaper and online sales of my books. Mind you, it’s more difficult in the Middle East to identify this precisely because online booksales have been retarded by the lack of interest shown in the region by Amazon et al.

    If I ever get a review in the New York Times I’ll let you know what that does for sales…

  4. Well. here is Arablit, a wonderful and respectable blog to do the reviews. Chapeau Marcia

  5. Great thoughts, Marcia, I wish I could have seen the talk! This brings up more questions, and I wonder what you and Robyn and your readers think. Which newspapers and magazines have done a good job of featuring Arabic literature in translation, and building conversations around Arabic literature as literature? The UK (especially papers like the Guardian & Independent) seem to do a better job than US ones. Which newspapers & magazines haven’t – but should? Does it make sense to review Arabic literature in Arabic for the English press, to encourage translations of perhaps overlooked works?

    1. Well, then you’d be able to see how very loosely I’m quoting both myself and Dr. Creswell. 🙂 Guardian & Independent have definitely done a better job, yes, and they do still employ reviewers for actual money — and even though I don’t have a British passport, certainly I (and other English-language authors) can write for them. But in order to make a real “career” out of being a reviewer, there need to be more venues or some other form of support.

  6. I’m risking turning this into a pass-the-buck exercise – translators to publishers to reviewers to… everyone’s favourite scapegoat, publicists.
    BUT, as someone who reviews – both paid and unpaid, depending on the book and the publication for which I’m reviewing, I’m getting increasingly frustrated with how difficult it is to actually get review copies out of some – not all – publishing houses which publish significant amounts of Arabic fiction in translation. I appreciate that there are probably zillions of book bloggers out there trying to blag free copies, and that this may make PRs understandably wary of, especially, internet-based publications.
    But, as an example, I find it surprising when a publicist for a company which specialises in ME-related books, confronted with a reviewer (ie me) for a publication like Electronic Intifada which, whilst marginal in general terms, is pretty high-profile in relation to things Palestine-related, repeatedly fails to send review copies, answer emails in a timely fashion/at all. It’s not even that they’re not trying to get reviews in such a publication, they’re barely even responding to the opportunity presented by a keen reviewer offering themselves up to cover the publisher’s titles.
    I’m guessing that said PR is more concerned with chasing reviews in the kind of publications which have been mentioned in other comments – the Guardian, the Indy etc – but with another hat on, that of the typical early-career writer with a couple of books out who obsessively watches their Amazon ratings – I would say that a good, in-depth review in a specialised publication which targets an already-interested market will do a lot more for sales than a short review in a generalist newspaper or magazine which might have a much higher readership but where the vast majority of readers will skim the first line, think, ‘oh, Arab stuff, I’m not interested in that’, and move on.

    1. Sarah, yes, I see the difference between publishers who are SO DIFFICULT with me and those who are easy (and the difference is not funding). Those who are easy (like New Directions) get better results. I don’t know, but this seems like an easy thing to fix.

  7. Well, I buy books in translation based on what I read here. I am studying Arabic at evening classes, but it will be a while before I can read the originals, though that is my aim. I might buy directly via this blog if there were links to the publishers. Blackwells in Oxford has a table for Arabic in translation books.

  8. yes, very interesting and well pointed out (in the middle of the night no less – I don’t know how you do it…). This came up a lot in our report on Arabic to English translation, and the idea of a robust critical review journal of Arabic translation (most loudly championed by Prof Marilyn Booth) is still in the ether – just awaiting its funder, like so many worthy projects…

  9. Reviews may not necessarily boost sales but it does get Arabic books into university syllabi in the West, and this sneaks these works into a sort of canon that is supported by interviews, interest in reprinting, and raising the profile of Arab writers in a slow but sure way.

    An idea would be to encourage readers and critics to post reviews of Arabic books in translation on Amazon.

  10. I should have chimed in earlier but let me just say that I agree with the suggestion, made by several posters, that blaming reviewers is slightly unfair (and I certainly wasn’t blaming Marcia: may her likes be multiplied!). It would have been more fair to point fingers at the large reviews *and* the reviewers–but, as Marcia says, what’s the use of chastising the NYTBR? They have bigger problems than their coverage of Arabic literature.

    My reason for putting some of the blame on the reviewers is that I find even smart and well informed critics are too often defensive or moralizing. Their tone is either, “See, Arabic culture isn’t all about salafism and sectarianism,” or, “You should read Mahmoud Darwish because it’s politically virtuous.” I understand where those arguments are coming from, but I don’t think they serve the books we love especially well.

    My own feeling is that reviewers should concentrate more on the pleasures–the particular pleasures–of reading poems and novels written in Arabic. Because these pleasures are, speaking generally, somewhat different that the ones you get from reading American fiction. There is, for example, the pleasure of seeing how politics and history are turned into art–a skill that Arab writers are simply better at (because more practiced in) than many of their peers. I think that *is* a pleasurable experience–it is, for me, one of the chief joys of reading Darwish–but it needs some explication for a lot of American readers. This is only one example, I’m sure other posters could add more.

  11. very interesting !

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