‘If There Were Literary Editors, We Would See a Rennaisance in the Arab Novel’

Last week, al-Sharq al-Awsat ran a three-part interview by Raba’i Madhoun — one part with England-based Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, one with France-based Moroccan critic and short-story writer Mohammed El-Mezdioui and one with American novelist and translator Elliott Colla:

elliottOver the last few days, the English edition of al-Sharq al-Awsat ran the piece in three parts: al-Shaykh, El-Mezdioui, Colla.

Colla’s section first gives a survey of the general landscape: No, Americans don’t currently read translations; a fraction of that small percentage of translated literature is from the Arabic. He surmises what most are looking for when they look at translations: Either an image of the American/Westerner or an ethnographic text. Nobody, he says, is looking for style and form. “Never.”

(We will just skid over that bit, because of course some people must pick up Elias Khoury’s Yalo and As Though She Were Sleeping and Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief and In the Presence of Absence and Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My Enemy and Bensalem Himmich’s The Polymath and Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth and Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report and Ibrahim al-Koni’s Bleeding of the Stone [and and] because they’re interested in style and form. Or Ghada Abdel-Aal’s I Want to Get Married! because they want a good cry or Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo because they like a fast-paced story.)

Colla suggests that there’s little hope that American audiences will change (well, they’ll change, but one what timeframe, who knows?). He points at one possible shift in the interaction, and that is greater editorial support. He writes that, in the US, ” A novel usually goes through a number of rounds of editing and revision, cutting, rephrasing and improvement. This takes months, at the very least, sometimes years.”

Whereas, for the most part, Arabic novels are “self-published” — which doesn’t mean they don’t go through a commercial publisher, but that the author is on her own in perfecting the text, and, if anything, the publisher just introduces a few typos.

Colla says:

“And in this sense, the Arab novelist is operating at a disadvantage from his counterparts in the American and British world. I have often given a great Arabic novel to students or colleagues only to be told, “It was good, but if someone had edited it, it would have been great.” It is hard to argue with them—it picks up on a major difference between how novels are made in English, and how they are made in Arabic. And no translator—no matter how skilled—could bridge this difference. I suspect if there were literary editors in the Arab world, we would see a renaissance in the Arab novel. And we might also see a deep change in how American audiences approach the Arab novel.”


  1. So true. And what is more ironic, is that Arabic writers wrong the writer who works with an editor, they see it as defect in the writer’s skills, and might accuse him of froid and deception.

  2. I could not agree more, I plodded through Aswany’s “Automobile Club” and all I could think was that what could have saved it was some ruthless editing, but I agree with Hala, I do not feel Arab authors take kindly to editing yet, but it would be tragic if the forthcoming translations of that book were done from the existing version…

  3. I often find myself editing in my head when reading a novel in Arabic.

  4. I SO disagree with this, Marcia!!!! Over the last seven years, I developed a course for senior high school students- Literature of the MIddle East. They could work in teams with choices from over twenty works of fiction (novels and short story collections) and poetry. The poetry include Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden, Adonis prose poems Between Rose and Ash, Rumi, Hafiz, and Al Qasim Sadder Than Water. They LOVED the poems.
    More importantly to Colla’s observations, they also LOVEd the novels they read. These included Al Koni’s The Bleeding Stone, Al Shayk’s Woman of Sand and Myrrh, El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero, Khasru’s Let It Be Morning, Yahklif’s Lake Beyond The Wind, Kema’ls Mehmed My Hawk, and short story collections by Kanafani ( Palestine’s Children), Tamer The Hedgehog and Other Stories, Behrangi’s The Little Black Fish, and others, including Mahfouz’s novel Arabian NIghts. The response of my students was immense and intense. And these were a variety of students ( not Advanced Placement/Honors although some of them were just as smart but didnt have the class privileges).
    In my opinion, American students in high schools and colleges, but particularly in high schools are TOTALLY OPEN to global literature. But they need SOMEONE TO BRING IT, someone who has read it, and enjoys,admires, respects, and ADVOCATES for it.
    And as far as editing goes, in the last several years I have read some astonishing very short novels that , to me, surpass most current American and European novels for succinctness, uniqueness, quirkiness. I would include here Zeina Ghandour’s The Honey (reprinted by Interlink from the 1999 Quartet copy), Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel (which I have read three times in the last year because I cant believe how outstanding it is!!!).
    Let me add that the real literary revelation and revolution is in the short story form. The most exciting writers I’ve read in decades are the Syrian Zakaria Tamer ( the most popular writer among my students because he is so droll and razorsharp absurd and BRIEF), and Hassan Blassim, author of The Madman Of Freedom Square and The Iraqui Christ,two astonishing collections, and may Comma Press be blessed for publishing them and may American publishsers be damned for not picking them out and giving them widespread distribution and prizes. Is it racism, or just plain goddam ignorace and a jingoism that says well we make money publishing the drivel of Updike and Roth and others so why bother to go beyond our borders??? I have been fighting this all my literary life ( since around 1965) but it still makes me sick to my stomach only because I have seen so many students light up and love the books and writers!!!

  5. I’m so glad to read the “disagreement” above! If I had managed to put my thoughts into words I would have said something similar. As a young reader I used to scan the libraries for Arab authors in translation. The titles mentioned above made me even eager to study Arabic so I would be able to read also what was not translated (well, I have to admit that’s still on the wish list).

    Of course there are novels I would have liked to see better edited, but I would have liked that in some Swedish or American or British novels as well. I agree with the above reply that what is needed is “SOMEONE TO BRING IT, someone who has read it, and enjoys,admires, respects, and ADVOCATES for it”.

    So, maybe it’s up to us reader to “bring it out”? You’re definitely doing your part of the work Marcia!

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