Arabic Literature, French Readers

This Tuesday, AL starts a new series, “Arabic Literature in X,” where X = any non-English and non-Arabic language. It begins with observations from acclaimed French translator, critic, and thinker Richard Jacquemond, who has translated more than a dozen books from Arabic into French, including Zaat and Amreekanli:

DSC_0002ArabLit: How does the relationship between post-nahda Arabic literature/s & French literature/s open? Was there an earlier interest than there was in English? I don’t think Jurji Zaydan, for instance, was translated into French? Or was he?

Richard Jacquemond: There were probably very few French translations of modern Arab authors in the first half of the 20th century. I have not studied the subject thoroughly but it seems that a significant part of these translations were published in Cairo or Beirut, which would mean that the main audience for such translations was the local European communities, or, to put it in broader terms, the various local audiences who were not “Arabic-literate.” However, one novel by Jurji Zaydan at least was translated in French and published in Paris as early as 1912 (Al Abbassa, soeur du calife) with a foreword by Claude Farrère, a then-famous French writer.

AL: What have the landmarks been in interest in Arabic literature among French readers? 1967? Did Mahfouz’s Nobel prize mark a change? What about 9/11?

The second important change occurred with Sadat’s visit to Israel and the Camp David treaty that followed. Suddenly, Egypt became a respectable country and it had an almost immediate effect on the translation of several Egyptian writers into French.

RJ: I think that 1967 per se did not make any change. Rather, it coincided with the leftist, pro-Third-World wave of the late 60s and early 70s. Interest in Arabic literature among French audiences started in this context. I remember that my first-ever contact with a modern Egyptian (or Arabic for that matter) author was through an LP of poems by Ahmed Fouad Negm sung by Cheikh Imam, released in 1976 by Le Chant du Monde, a French label that presented at that time the best of what was not yet “world music.” This record was probably more popular then than the first translations of Mahfouz, published a few years earlier.

The second important change occurred with Sadat’s visit to Israel and the Camp David treaty that followed. Suddenly, Egypt became a respectable country and it had an almost immediate effect on the translation of several Egyptian writers into French.

Mahfouz’s Nobel prize in 1988 did not mark a change per se either. I had published my first translation two years earlier (in “Lettres arabes,” a 12-book series published by Lattès in the 1980s, with an important subsidy from the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris) and we hoped, quite naively, that Mahfouz’s Nobel would help create a larger place for Arabic literature in French translation. Actually, Mahfouz’s Nobel did benefit to Naguib Mahfouz himself, but not to other authors, Egyptian or Arab.

As regards 9/11, I don’t think that it had a significant impact on the Arabic literary translation market in France. The number of translations had been growing steadily from the 70s to the 80s to the 90s, and it kept growing, although maybe more slowly, in the 2000s.

AL: What sorts of Arabic books have found the most avid audience in French? Novels vs. poetry, which authors, what genres/subgenres/topics? Have there been best sellers? Do you know about how many titles get published each year in French translation? In English I think it’s perhaps up to 40/year.

Except for Mahmoud Darwish – who used to sell more books in France in the 2000s than any living French poet! – it is very difficult to sell anything but novels.

downloadRJ: In French, as well as in English, you would have to make a distinction between translations published in France and French translations published in this or that Arab capital. The latter may have had a symbolic importance but they do not exist in the French market. Then when you talk about the French market, you have to distinguish between small, private publishers (the majority of contemporary Arab poetry in French translation falls into this category, but also some of the prose writing) whose books are hardly visible in the ordinary bookshops, and medium-size (such as Actes Sud) to big publishers (Gallimard, Seuil, etc.), who generally stick to the novel.

Except for Mahmoud Darwish – who used to sell more books in France in the 2000s than any living French poet! – it is very difficult to sell anything but novels. And the more a novel conforms to what the French audience expects from an “Arabic novel,” the better it will sell. The bestsellers are, of course, Al-Aswany’s L’immeuble Yacoubian and (far behind in numbers) Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi. A handful of Mahfouz’s novels are “long-sellers,” that is, classics that are being sold by, say, a few thousand copies a year. Mohamed Choukri’s Le pain nu would fall into this category, too. Then, I would say that a small number of consecrated Arab authors have a regular audience in France – Elias Khoury, Hanan El Cheikh, Gamal Ghitany, Sonallah Ibrahim, maybe a few others – meaning that their publisher knows that he takes a minimal risk when publishing a new book by these authors. But we’re talking about small sales anyway, somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 copies at best for each book.

AL: English-language publishers often eschew books translated from the Arabic, gravitating toward Arab authors who write in English. Is there a similar feeling among French publishers, that Amin Maalouf can stand in for Arabic literature, for instance?

RJ: Of course, and I would say that this phenomenon is even clearer in the French market, because of the long tradition of francophone writing in the Maghreb and in Lebanon, a tradition that has not stopped after the independences, precisely because writing in French allows to those who can afford it a quicker and easier access to the French market. Arab francophone writers, especially if they live in Paris, have a better access to the press and the media, and this also helps their marketing. Thousands of French readers who have read an Arab francophone writer (Djebbar, Maalouf, Benjelloun, etc.) have never read an Arab writer translated into French.

AL: Are there particular geographic pathways that are more well-worn than others? For instance, Egyptian authors are the most likely to be translated to English, whereas Syrian writers have had a much harder time finding their way into English, not to mention Arabic-writing authors from the Maghreb.

But the political factor is also important: As I mentioned before, Egypt became respectable when it made peace with Israel, whereas Syria remained (as Iraq) a “hostile” place and therefore very few Syrian authors were translated either in French or English. There have been as many translations from Syrian authors into French since the beginning of the 2011 uprising there as during the five of six decades before.

RJ: Egyptian authors made it better than others both in French and English mainly because of the Western audience’s bias toward the novel and because Egyptian authors were (and are still to some extent) the masters of the Arabic novel. But the political factor is also important: As I mentioned before, Egypt became respectable when it made peace with Israel, whereas Syria remained (as Iraq) a “hostile” place and therefore very few Syrian authors were translated either in French or English. There have been as many translations from Syrian authors into French since the beginning of the 2011 uprising there as during the five of six decades before. In this respect, there is no major difference between French and English translation from Arabic.

Maybe there have been more translations from Lebanese writers into French because of the special relationship between France and Lebanon. And as regards the Maghreb, the Arab-speaking Maghrebi authors are the poor relation of the French market just as they are in the English market. They are victims of a double domination: they are dominated by their French-speaking fellow-citizens and by the Arab-speaking Eastern (mashriqi) writers.

AL: Do you have any idea how many working Arabic-French translators there are? Many more than a generation ago? Do any make a living as a literary translator alone (or more or less alone), as Humphrey Davies does?

RJ: It is difficult to tell because some are (like myself) academics who also work as “part-time translators” of sorts, while others are closer to what you would call full-time translators but do rely on other sources of income because it is hard to live on the revenue of an average of one translation a year. Unless you’re a bachelor with no children and you live in an Arab country where the cost of living is cheap.

AL: What do you think are the major distinctions between Arabic literature moving into French v. Arabic literature moving into English? In its production, its reception, the way the authors are understood and greeted?

RJ: I think that the English-speaking market is more scattered, between the US, the UK and (marginally) Canada, Australia, etc., whereas the French market is more centered in France. Furthermore, there is a stronger tradition of translating and receiving foreign authors in France, including a much greater emphasis on public funding (the Centre National du Livre spends yearly hundreds of thousands of euros in funding translation into French from all over the world).

Also, the public policy of supporting the book market (especially the fixed price for the book within the French market since the 1980s) has allowed for a better preservation of the network of bookshops, compared to what has happened in the US and UK, where a small number of companies control the retail market and display the same books in all their outlets. All this allows for a more diverse offering, to the benefit of the lesser known cultures and authors, among which are Arab writers. Herein lies the main difference between the French market and its Anglo-Saxon counterpart. I don’t think that there is a significant difference between the way Arab authors are received in France and in the English-speaking world: we face the same problems (misrepresentations, ignorance, bias, overpoliticization, etc.) here and there.

Also:

Jacquemond’s Four Rules for Translating

YouTube: Jacquemond Speaks on Translating at the AUC

Past editions:

Arabic Literature, Italian Readers

Arabic Literature, Polish Readers

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5 comments

  1. No mention of Adonis or even Ahlam Mosteghanemi and Kateb Yacine? I’m still a newbie when it comes to Arab lit but I thought they were/are garnered a fair amount of exposure in France when they were at their peak?
    Also- will you be looking into Arabic translated into Japanese, Hindi and African languages etc. rather than only European languages? It would be great to get a truly international perspective on how widely Arabic lit is translated, though I realise that European languages will be the most popular. Thanks.

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    • J,

      Absolutely, that is the core of what I’ll be looking at. I have a Malayalam interview in process & someone helping me find folks who translate into other Indian languages. I’m also looking for particularly the largest 20 languages, which includes Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, etc.

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