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:
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.
“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.”