Chad Post has been updating the year’s translation database at Three Percent. It’s not just 2014 that sees Arabic high the list of languages from which literature is translated:
Not all of these will come out entirely in the US: Bloomsbury Qatar gets their titles on the list, he writes, even though they don’t have widespread distribution in the States.
In any case, it looks like there will be a marked uptick in Three Percent’s list of literary translations this year, either because of changes in their data-gathering or because more literary translations are being published. In 2012, Post turned up 453 total translations (available in the US). In 2013, there were 524.
French is thus far in the lead — by a wide margin — with 93 books appearing or set to appear in translation. German follows with 50, Spanish with 46, and Arabic with 30. After that there’s Italian (23), Russian (22), Chinese (19), Swedish (18), Japanese (17), and Portuguese (17).
Arabic’s “ranking” is up from the last few years: Last year, Post counted only 16 Arabic titles published in the US, putting Arabic at 9th. In 2012, he counted 24 titles, putting Arabic at 8th; in 2011, Arabic was also in 8th place, with 15 titles; in 2010, 7th with 14 titles.
But back in 2009, Arabic was also in the 4th slot, just behind Spanish, French, and German.
So while it’s possible to complain that not much of the whole Arabic corpus is translated into English, it’s not because there’s a lack of interest in Arabic. As “Three Percent’s” name indicates, there is an overall shortage of translations into English, where only 2-5 percent of total literary output is made up of works in translation. But if there are any languages being cheated, it’s not Arabic. It’s Hindi, Bengali, and other Indian languages.
Whether these are the “right” books to translate from Arabic is another story entirely. But not only are there many titles being translated into English, there are a number of publishing houses with a particular interest in Arabic books: not just AUC Press and BQFP, but also Interlink, Syracuse University Press, Haus, and a number of others.
Although French, Spanish, German, and Italian have long-standing literary relationships with English, Arabic is a newcomer with all sorts of newcomer issues.
As has been remarked a number of times, this is a very recent phenomenon. Although French, Spanish, German, and Italian have long-standing literary relationships with English, Arabic is a newcomer with all sorts of newcomer issues. Back in 1980, Edward Said famously tried to interest a NYC publishing house in Naguib Mahfouz’s work. He was reportedly rejected because Arabic is, after all, a “controversial” language. When Mahfouz’s works were first translated by AUCP, the house used multiple translators for many of them, as no one translator was deemed up to the task.
Things shifted a little in the 1990s. A Literature Across Frontiers report that counted translations available in England 1990-2010 shows small but steady numbers throughout the ’90s. But the giant leap came, as you’d expect, after the fall of 2001.
As acclaimed Arabic-English translator Humphrey Davies said in a 2009 interview, things didn’t change overnight. “There probably was a little time lag — telephones weren’t ringing on the 12th of September.”
This is not just the case for literature, but reflects a sudden and widely felt interest in the Arabic language, as Chris Stone recently discussed in “Teaching Arabic in the US After 9/11.” It would be grossly naive to see this interest as pure cultural curiosity.
This is not just the case for literature, but reflects a sudden and widely felt interest in the Arabic language, as Chris Stone recently discussed in “Teaching Arabic in the US After 9/11.” It would be grossly naive to see this interest as pure cultural curiosity. As Stone wrote, it’s “irresponsible to ignore the fact that the government of the country where we are teaching Arabic and other ‘critical’ languages, funds their study so that they can be used as, among other things, a weapon.”
And how does this impact the translation of Arabic literature? How will it?
Certainly, there is a lot at stake, narratively. That can be seen in the tremendous flow of — and support for — US veterans’ stories and poetry. There is far less support for Arabic literary translations, although there is some, and there are certain tropes — certain kinds of literary narratives — that are more often translated than others.
Many of us, myself included, would like to think of literature as an opposite to war. (After all, if you’re reading a book, you can hardly focus on properly aiming your weapon.) Although literature, too, can often be a warmakers’ tool: laying the groundwork, setting narrative expectations.
As we translate more and more Arabic literature, I would like to see it take its place as a literature, and not as a means to an end. But, as Stone notes about teaching Arabic in universities, this is something we need to open up to broader discussion.