Arabic Literature in Translation Faces ‘Racial Profiling and Bias’

A March 24 conversation on contemporary Arabic fiction — between short-story writers Hassan Blasim and Hisham Bustani, editors Jennifer Acker and John Siciliano, scholar Mohamed El Sawi Hassan, and publisher Michel Moushabeck — is now online:

Photos from Amherst College.
Hassan Blasim and Hisham Bustani loom overhead. Photo from Amherst College.

Although Bustani loomed over the other conversants on a screen, he was originally meant to participate in the Amherst College-based talk in person. However, because his US visa went in for “additional scrutiny,”  he instead joined the talk, called “Contemporary Arabic Fiction: A Conversation,” via Skype.

With such a broad group, the conversation ranged widely. It began with Acker’s introductions and an explanation of why Bustani was not there in person. Then Blasim and Bustani each read a passage each from his writing.

But before Blasim read, he added that, “All the time it is so difficult for me to travel to England and to America also. … I’m a writer, and a writer cannot come to America with his book, but a soldier can go without invitation with a gun to Iraq and they kill people.”

“I want you to know about this fact first.”

Biculturality and translation

When it came to the topic of translation, Bustani talked about the importance of biculturality. Bilinguality is important, he said, but the translator must also have bicultural skills, “to be well-qualified in the culture itself.” Indeed, in both cultures: “The culture of the [target] language…as well.”

He said that his translator, Thoraya El-Rayyes, can produce better translations because she’s fully bicultural. “Even regarding the flow of the language, which is difficult to reproduce from Arabic to English.”

Blasim noted that Jonathan Wright, who has translated Blasim’s stories into English, “lived in Arab world more than 30 years.”

‘So few mechanisms for discovery’

Michel Moushabeck, the founder of Interlink, and John Siciliano, an executive editor at Penguin Random House, both talked about publishing Arabic literature in translation. Moushabeck has published translations from Arabic for nearly thirty years. While Siciliano has long experience with translations from many other languages, he seemed to have engaged only with Blasim’s work from the Arabic.

When asked about what he’d be interested in terms of Arabic literature, Siciliano said, “There’s so little that I see… There are so few mechanisms for discovery for literature from the Arab world.”

This disappointing statement lent weight to Moushabeck’s opinion that, in the last few decades, “Things have not changed much for Arabic literature in translation. … It is still misunderstood, under-reviewed, not marketed enough, and [there’s] not enough that is being published.” But, he added, “Having said that, so many things have taken place of late that give us hope that things are beginning to turn around.”

He went on to cite some evidence of this, but then returned to: “Arabic literature in translation faces the same racial profiling and bias at a chain-buyer level that Arabs and Musims face today in American society.” And: “As publishers of Arabic literature in translation, we are not starting from 0. We are starting from -10.”

Interlink has successfully gotten books into readers’ hands, he said, but, “We do it largely through academia.”

Women writers and Arabic literature

Acker, who moderated the talk, asked participants about gender and Arabic literature.

Blasim said that, while Arab women have greater difficulties to overcome generally, he couldn’t see a difference between Arab men’s and women’s writing, although perhaps women were bolder.

Moushabeck said that, “Traditionally, Arab publishing is an old boys’ network. But things have changed a lot recently, and especially because women writers sell books in the Arab world. So it’s an economic issue. So they are given more freedom, they have access, they are getting published, they are winning prizes… In the past, a lot of Arab women writers had to go abroad to get published, to write in different languages, like Hoda Barakat writing in French or others.”

Barakat writes her novels in Arabic, but she does journalistic writing in French.

“Nowadays,” Moushabeck said, “they are really even outselling some male writers, so they can make demands, and they don’t have to be taken advantage of the way they used to in the past.”

This is perhaps true of some Arab women writers. Yet Ahlam Mostaghanemi, who is one of the top-selling Arabic-language novelists of the last two decades, certainly feels she has been taken advantage of. And Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr recently said that critical and societal reception of Arab women’s writing remains a challenge. Also, although there was one female co-winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Raja Alem, women have generally been under-represented on the prize lists.

Disappointingly, even though the talk was on the same day the Man Booker International finalists’ list was annouced, Siciliano added: “It’s so hard to think of a woman writer from the Arab world who has risen to any visibility in this market.”

Soon, perhaps, Hoda Barakat will rise to much greater visibility.

These are just a few moments from the talk. You can listen to the whole thing on the Amherst website.

Also, Hisham Bustani and Jennifer Acker refer to Bustani’s essay on “New” Arabic writing, which you can read on The Common.