Crowdsourcing Discussions of Books to Translate: Get Involved in NYC, Cairo, Online

The London-based publisher And Other Stories (AOS) will be running Arabic-English reading groups this fall: In Cairo, in NYC, and online. Participating readers will peruse three novels — the full novels in Arabic or excerpts in English — and talk through their opinions. Should one (or all?) of them be published in translation? 

logo_ampLissie Jaquette, who will be facilitating the NYC group, said that, “And Other Stories is like a CSA of publishing houses — you can sign up for their book list, and get their latest delivered to your door when it’s published. They’re also community supported in the sense that they seek out their readers’ feedback, and have an active community involved in helping suggest new books for them to publish.”

Readers’ feedback is particularly important in finding new literature to translate. “There just aren’t enough of us with enough time or languages under our belts,” said AOS Editor-at-large Sophie Lewis. “So our reading groups are open proving grounds for books we think we might be interested in. We follow the discussions in them until we are keen enough to get more involved and follow up on a particular book or author.”

For a reading group this fall, AOS has chosen books from Finnegan’s List, a list of under-recognized works suggested by prominent writers and compiled by the European Society of Authors. In 2012, Syrian author Samar Yazbek suggested three Syrian novels for the list: The Epidemic by Hani al-Rahib, The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa, and Ascension to Death by Mamdouh Azzam.

Mamdouh Azzam's معراج الموت, or "Ascension to Death."
Mamdouh Azzam’s معراج الموت, or “Ascension to Death.”

The group is open to those who read in Arabic and those who don’t: Excerpts from the three novels will be translated and posted on the AOS website. The excerpts are freely available online because “we don’t think exclusivity necessarily helps indie publishers along,” Lewis said. “If we don’t go for a book, we hope another publisher might. Hence all the discussions are open to all and the samples in English freely available from our site.”

Lewis said that AOS has picked up books from past reading groups, and they believe other publishers have, too: “although it’s harder to be sure.”

A successful reading group, Lewis said, “could look like our picking up a book discovered or discussed in a group, commissioning the translator who championed it and publishing it.” Or another publisher could pick up one or more. Or there could just be “a group of satisfied people who have discovered new books, exchanged views on them, made new contacts and learned more about the cause and methods of And Other Stories.”

Why these three books on the Finnegan’s Wake list rather than dozens of other Arabic books that could be proposed for translation?

Running the groups takes time and energy, Lewis said, and AOS is “hoping to run more funded groups along the lines of our Gulbenkian-funded Portuguese reading groups[.] … In funded groups, we can pay the translators and coordinators and make the whole thing better worth everyone’s while. So the Finnegan’s List with its interesting selection of Arabic titles was one obvious avenue towards getting into looking at literature in Arabic via a funded source. And we’ll certainly do it again if we can find financial support to a basic level.”

Update: The Arabic reading group is now listed on the AOS websitein the “Reading Groups” section.  Locations and dates of the NYC reading groups are yet to be announced, but will generally take place at the end of September, October, and November. For those in Cairo, Will Barnes will lead the Cairo Book Club in parallel discussions.

More on the three books under consideration: 

Finnegan’s List: Undertranslated Syrian Writers