Does ‘Mehlis Report’ Translation Represent a Shift in English-language Attentions?

Arabic literature has certainly had its share of bumps, bruises,insults, and injuries in English translation, but just as certainly it’s growing and diversifying. In a year where only three new works were translated from Chinese and distributed in the US, more than 30 were translated from Arabic, from al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg to Abdul Aziz al-Mahmoud’s The Corsair:

download (1)Moreover, translator Max Weiss argues in a review of Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report that recently appeared in Public Booksthe reception of Arabic literature is undergoing a sea change.

Weiss writes:

Be that as it may, the publication of an important Lebanese author like Rabee Jaber by a high-profile literary press such as New Directions might not only represent the incorporation of Arabic literature into the contested space of “world literature” but, more importantly, an opportunity for a much larger corpus of Arabic writing to be taken seriously by mainstream English-language publishers.

Weiss also notes the context in which we receive these books — “the exuberance and catastrophism of the media’s bipolar coverage of the Arab uprisings,” and how difficult it is to receive Arabic literature as anything other than a “social text,” something that will tell us more about Syria or Egypt, Iraq or Palestine.

And yet there are books like Mehlis as well, and now from an important house like New Directions. Humphrey Davies’ translation of al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg has been gaining attention and appreciation in “world literature” circles. And, in 2014, important writers like Hassan Blasim and Youssef Rakha will be reaching US (and UK) audiences for the first time.

It’s doubtful the bipolar (or schizophrenic) media coverage will abate, and yet the snowball is growing larger.