Why Do You Read Arabic Literature (in Translation)?

Translator-novelist Elliott Colla has suggested that there are a few core reasons why readers pick up Arabic literature (in translation):

images (1)What about you? Are you — as Colla suggests — looking for the image of yourself reflected in the literature of the Other? For an ethnographic report from a different world? Because it’s easier for you than reading in Arabic? Just to see what’s out there?

I’ll start: Habit.

Well, there was a time before habit. In my late teens, I began picking up novels by Hanan al-Shaykh, Yusuf al-Qa’id, Naguib Mahfouz, and Zayd Mutee Dammaj just as I picked up novels from Bengali or French, Icelandic or Russian. I went on to specialize in Russian literature, I suppose because I found the Russian novels first and they hit me in a tender spot.

Why didn’t I just read American novels? I did read a lot of American novels, although they’ve become a progressively smaller part of my diet.


I became a big fan of the Interlink World Fiction series, which bills itself as “The best way to learn about people and places far away,” and I suppose that’s one reason I picked the IWF novels up; I wanted to read outside my immediate frame. So sure, the ethnographic attitude played a part. I probably picked up more Arabic literature because Hanan and Naguib in particular beguiled me. Perhaps, at first, Cairo beguiled me so completely in part because I’d been primed by The Trilogy.



  1. Reading translated novels gave me a wider perespective for life

  2. For me it’s been a slow process. I started reading European literature in translation. Then, after visiting several Arab speaking countries I began to read Arab fiction in translation. Somewhere along the line I came across this blog which has been helpful in widening my reading. I do tend to choose books from reviews, although I sometimes pick books up in the bookshop (No Arabic literature in my local shop – I have to go to London for that).I suppose now about 10 per cent of my reading is Arabic literature and I read it for a variety of reasons – interest, escapism, love of a good story, love of language, curiousity and perhaps a deluded belief that I will deepen my knowledge of another culture!

  3. The first translated Arabic book I read in translation was Elias Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun” – in my first or second year at university, I think – which had a big impact on me, for various reasons. My Arabic wasn’t really good enough to read novels back then, but I was still interested in the contemporary (literary) culture of the Arab world. I think it’s more or less obligatory for anyone who claims to attempt to “speak” a language to also be familiar with its literary production. But more importantly, now I continue to read Arabic novels (translated, because the Arabic still takes me way too long) mostly because I find the alternatives – ie., most of what passes for “literary fiction” in English these days – increasingly drab and parochial. (I do read a lot of genre novels though.)

    So basically – because they’re so much more interesting than virtually anything else – although that’s definitely tied strongly to my academic/professional interests…

  4. I read the literature of a region or cultures to learn about them. For many years it was Spanish lit in translation as I travelled in Latin America. Now I’m living in an Arab country and want to know about the cultures of the region from the perspective of those whose hearts and minds are here so I read the literature that is available to me (translated).

  5. I’ve always been a reader of translated fiction but since becoming Muslim and then marrying an arabic speaker I have felt a more personal interest in arab literature, in particular in the tensions between culture and religion. My husband is from Algeria and I especially try to read anything I can get my hands on with an Algerian connection ,fiction or otherwise (my french is passable,thankfully ,as much of it has not been translated into english)

  6. I read Arabic in translation because I do not believe a language barrier should prevent me from missing out on great literary traditions, many of which could revitalise the English Tradition and import classicist ideals lost to the west. My rudimentary knowledge of French does not stop me from enjoying Marcel Proust, Jules Verne or Victor Hugo, so why should I be complacent to not explore the Arabic tradition?

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