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.