Translating for Bigots

Adam Talib recently gave a talk at the American University in Cairo on “Translating for Bigots.” Talib, who is working on his fourth translated novel, posed the question — how should one translate for a prejudiced audience? — rather than answering it:

From a slide in the presentation "Translating for Bigots."
From a slide in the presentation “Translating for Bigots.”

Talib began by saying that he didn’t want “to stereotype the bigot. I don’t want to say his address is in Cleveland.” After all, Talib said, one doesn’t translate Arabic literature into English for a North American or British audience, but for an audience of English-language readers worldwide.

Publishers, Talib said, can sometimes package books for bigots (see right). This packaging might be one reason why readers leap to particular conclusions about an author’s narrative. On the other hand, Talib added, he doesn’t necessarily “blame” the publishers, as he also wants to get translated Arabic literature out to a wide audience, and this might be one way to do it.

So who is this wide audience? Talib briefly touched on studies that measure Islam- and Arabophobia, remarking on a time when a British-Egyptian filmmaker he knew was asked by a UK audience member: “Can women in Egypt use the Internet?”

This question, although a particular head-scratcher, is “evidence of a cultural gap between the specialist translator and the potential audience,” Talib said. “Should a translator keep this in mind? I personally have a hard time not keeping these things in mind.“

These prejudices are an issue with any Arabic literature in translation, but they were most at hand, Talib said, when dealing with Arab women writers and Arab women characters.

“Translating Arab women characters is…extremely fraught. Why? Because if you’re a reader of modern Arabic literature, you know that what happens in modern Arabic literature. People date in modern Arabic literature; people have sex in modern Arabic literature; people drink and take drugs. And a lot of times, you will just translate what you find on the page, and you’ll find that reviewers find this peculiar.”

If a reviewer — who Talib sees as a proxy for the reader — finds an Arab woman not wrapped in ten layers of fabric, forced to marry her cross-eyed cousin, and pushed to the back seat of a car, then, “the reviewer says, ‘What an unrealistic depiction of Arab women.’”

“There is a hostility in the reader’s mind” to characters who don’t fit particular stereotypes, Talib said.

Moreover, he said, normally strong readers can lose their bearings when looking at Arabic literature. He pointed to Mekkawi Said’s novel Cairo Swan Song, which has a distinctly unlikeable protagonist. English-language readers are more likely to conflate this protagonist with the author, Talib said, and “you’ll find less tolerance for this sort of psychological depiction in Arabic literature than you’ll find in English literature.”

“For some reason, there is some obstacle to sophisticated reading when you’re dealing with translated literature.”

Talib also wondered if there was a way to compensate for readers’ stereotypes in the language. Certainly, translators can help by bringing out the power of the author’s language, which — in a best-case — should help to re-create the author’s authority.

The talk ended on a discussion of a section of Khairy Shalaby’s The Hashish Waiter. The novel, Talib said, had a section abridged in the French edition because a few of the characters were discussing the use of Holocaust narratives as propaganda. In so doing, the characters brush aside the great sufferings of Jews and others during the Holocaust. This section could be read, at a stretch, as Holocaust denial, and thus it was truncated in the French.

Because Shalaby is an Arab writer, Talib guessed that people are predisposed to read the characters’ views as his and to see him as an anti-Semite. “I don’t want Khairy Shalaby to be read as an anti-Semite.” But how to change the reader’s expectations? The question remained open.


ArabLit: Q&A with Adam Talib, Translator of Khairy Shalaby’s ‘The Hashish Waiter’

ArabLit: Cairo’s First Ever Translation Slam: Judge for Yourself

Adam Talib’s blog


  1. What a wonderful and inspiring post. May I have permission to reblog it?

    1. Certainly. 🙂

      1. Thank you – I just posted today, so I’ll probably do it on Thursday.

  2. When translaters play to their beliefs about people’s prejudices rather than simply trying to present the most faithful version of the work, they hurt both the art and the audience. If a character’s using the internet in Egypt, a reader who knows little about Egypt will think, “Oh, they have the internet” and keep reading. Information is the easiest way to answer ignorance.

    1. But you have to get it past the publishers first before you reach ‘real’ readers, although I agree with you about being true in art.

      1. There’s an old saying for writers which applies to translators, too: Trust your reader. If a publisher complains, decide what to do then.

  3. I think the only option, with regards to all the dating, sex, drug-taking, etc., is just to go ahead with it, without comment, as Will says. Set the bar high. If readers/critics are astounded by what they do not know, then maybe they’ll just add it to their data set of impressions, and know better next time. I’m writing about the Middle East now, and that’s the approach I’m taking. If you go the other way, you risk condescending to the people who do know better.

    The Khairy Shalaby case, though…I just don’t know. The Arabs-hate-Jews assumption is almost too large a prejudice to sidestep–and I guess the French trimming of the text reflects that.

    BTW, when I was Dubai, in the Kinokuniya bookstore, some store clerk had assembled all the books with veiled-woman covers on one big shelf–it was pretty hilarious. (I’m *assuming* it was an intentional joke. If it wasn’t, it’s just too depressing to contemplate.)

    You could probably assemble a whole post of untutored questions asked at readings by Arab authors. And, ooh, I’ve heard some doozies at film screenings, where people are very inclined to see a feature film as a documentary.

    1. I fear the display in Kinokuniya was not a joke. I’ve seen such shelves in Dubai myself, often entitled ‘Local Interest’ (despite a novel being based in Afghanistan). I think some tourists take them home as souvenirs!

      1. Yes, I’ve heard of this as well — never visited the big bookstores in the Emirates (since I’ve only been in town for bookstores) but have heard the same about the “local interest” section. Fortunately I have never seen anything liket that in Cairo…touch wood.

  4. Reblogged this on Top of the Tent and commented:
    When I put my work in progress called ‘The Truck Road’ on a peer review site, one of my readers complained that he couldn’t relate to a character named Rosario. She’s Irish, she should have an Irish name, Ed said. My response to him on the discussion forum prompted an interesting exchange about stereotyping, a bugbear of mine in fiction as well as in ‘real life’. Ciaran, who later became an important beta reader for me, pointed out that readers had certain expectations and I hadn’t delivered on that score for Ed – all three of us are Irish by the way.

    I recently touched on the frustrations of stereotyping with regard to Arab and Muslim-majority countries in my post ‘It’s Not Saudi, You Know’:

    I was still thinking about it when this great post from arablit’s wordpress blog caught my eye, just as the supermarket book covers of veiled Arab women always do. Mlynxqualey’s blog is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in Arab literature in the original language or in translation – please check it out.

    And Western readers be warned – Adam Talib doesn’t pull his punches.

  5. Great post, M.

    Talib’s comment about the “hostility in the reader’s mind” towards non-stereotypical characters reminded me of a rejection I received many years ago on a story of mine. One of the comments from the editor was that the female protagonist in my story was wearing jeans not a sari and thus didn’t seem authentic enough. Ha.

    The South Asian version of the veiled woman is, I guess, the sari-clad woman, or the female arm with bangles.

    1. Haha. I hope they’re bangles that make noise when she moves.

  6. I came to this via Safia’s blog and found it very thought-provoking. Not knowing an awful lot about translation, I’d assumed the task was simply to translate the writer’s words but I guess there’s also an element of translating culture – but then how far do you go without deviating from the text and at what point does the reader’s lack of knowledge tip over into racism? In Western popular culture (without trying to stereotype too much here) we seem to have moved quickly from blissful ignorance of Islam to rather hardened attitudes, which must impact on concepts of Arab women. Still in the process of untangling my own thoughts but thanks for the opportunity to ponder.

    1. Would love to hear more of your thoughts as you continue to ponder! I am as well.

  7. I have often wondered about this when I’m reading translated works – do you translate context and culture as well or just the words and leave it to the reader to navigate a different world? I read a lot of Japanese work in English and now I’m going to be thinking about this topic a lot more.

    1. Yes, and if you do try to translate context/culture, how do you choose to do it? when might it backfire?

  8. Very interesting article. It reminded me of all the fuss that was caused by ‘Girls of Riyadh’ when it first came out and all the disbelief that Saudi girls could really behave in such ways. It’s interesting to note of course that Marilyn Booth was upset with the English translation because she thought that the author, Rajaa Alsanea and the US publisher suppressed the gender politics of the Arabic original to make the story more appealing to the English-speaking audience. (Arab Lit posted Booth’s essay on the subject here:

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