International Women’s Day: Translating, or Mistranslating, Arab Feminisms

Nawal El Saadawi just finished up a popular, well-received appearance at the Emirates LitFest in Dubai:

iwd_squareNow, the eighty-three-year-old novelist and activist is in England for an appearance at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. It’s part of a tour, organized by Sable Litmag, which will take El Saadawi across England and Scotland. (See the schedule of events.)

El Saadawi has long been a poster-child for Arab feminism in the West. Indeed, both El Saadawi’s important work as an Egyptian feminist and the use of her work by Western feminists shed light on the difficulties translating international feminist “solidarity.”

As Amal Amireh writes in “Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World“:

“In this case study of El Saadawi’s reception, I examine both academic and nonacademic writing by and about her, foregrounding the strategies by which the first world reads and understands Arab women’s texts and drawing out their implications for issues of cross-cultural inquiry and feminist solidarity. I show that El Saadawi and her Arab feminist work are consumed by a Western audience in a context saturated by stereotypes of Arab culture and that this context of reception, to a large extent, ends up rewriting both the writer and her texts according to scripted first-world narratives about Arab women’s oppression.

This doesn’t change the important role El Saadawi has played in creating space for feminist fiction and memoir in Arabic — including feminist fiction by men, as novelist Fadi Zaghmout’s comments on her Dubai talk demonstrate. But it points to a fundamental difficulty in translating her work, which is inserted into an entirely different web of meanings.

When some Arab commentators suggest that only women’s work is being translated (it’s not) or that Arab women writers get more attention in English (nope), it points back to the way in which Arab women writers are often positioned, as freedom fighters aligned with the West. So: Is it possible to choose to read women writers, and to be interested in women’s writing, without re-writing those works to fit a particular liberationist narrative? I’d hope so.


Syrian author Rasha Abbas’s “The Gist of It,” trans. Alice Guthrie

Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh’s “God, It’s as Though You’re Sewing a Dress For a Flea,” trans. Randa Jarrar

Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s “Silence,” trans. Randa Jarrar

Tunisian author Rachida al-Charni’s “The Way to Poppy Street,” trans. Piers Amodia


Egyptian poet Iman Mersal’s “Love,” trans. Khaled Mattawa

Emirati poet Nujoom al-Ghanem “She Who Resembles Herself,” trans. Khaled al-Masri

Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika “Love Song for Words,” trans. Rebecca Carol Johnson


Mourid Barghouti’s “Sleeping Woman,” which must refer to Radwa Ashour, translated by Ashour.

An excerpt from Sinan Antoon’s Ave Mariatrans. Maia Tabet.

Also, of course:

Arab Women Writers Recommend Their Favorite Arab Women Writers