I was skeptical when Darf Publishers relaunched “with a focus on Arabic literature in translation” in 2013:
Back in 2013, American University in Cairo Press (AUCP) had been upping their marketing game, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundationg Publishing (BQFP) was about to re-awake from its year and a half of slumber, Dar Safi was soon to launch, and houses like Interlink, Archipelago, Saqi, Syracuse University Press and others continued to bring out strong Arabic literature in translation.
How could their possibly be a place for Darf, the English imprint of the Libyan publishing house Dar Fergiani?
Two years in, there’s nothing flashy to make Darf, run by Managing Director Ghassan Fergiani, stand out. And yet they do stand out, as a house that’s developed a small list of well-chosen, well-translated books, largely from writers who have been excluded from Arabic- and English-literary conversations. These are not writers from centers of Arab publishing like Egypt and Lebanon, but from Eritrea, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.
Gems include Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, trans. Charis Bredon and Alessandro Spina’s The Confines of the Shadow, trans. from the Italian by André Naffis-Sahely. These are not household names, nor can they boast of big-ticket literary prizes. But these are exceptional books.
Still, without flash, how do they stay afloat?
ArabLit: What’s going to help you survive?
Ghassan Fergiani: The obvious answer is sales and lots of sales. We are trying to increase our profile by trying to keep choosing the right books. For now it is very hard because, well, we are a small publisher and not really known and our authors are not known in the market we are targeting so it will be a long process were we will need all the support from our readers and people who believe in benefits of translated fiction.
Our overall strategy, though, stresses the importance of engaging with the audience. Through contact with the community already in place we are looking to support, as well as draw support from, those that are already interested in Arabic literature. We want to engage with a wider, less niche audience of course, but this takes time to grow. It is through the support and passion of all those involved which will make this happen. We are in a position to try new things, but we have to establish ourselves as a house which people can rely on for quality publishing first.
AL: Which book or books have worked the best for you so far? What formats — ebook or physical? Do you know where they’re being bought?
GF: Our greatest successes come from the help of the community. Though it is all relative, the long shelf life of books such as Chewing Gum and African Titanics have given us a platform to penetrate a larger audience. We need to build our reputation up. We are operating as an unknown, and our authors do not have a lot of name recognition in English.
Ali al-Muqri, for example, is an excellent author but has no books in English. As for Chewing Gum, the book was not published in Arabic yet, but for a print of maybe 500 copies which was self-published by the author and distributed secretly by hand in Libya. We have no doubt that this recognition will come, but we have to invest in the long term for this to happen.
Our sales ratio of ebooks and paperbacks is roughly in line with industry expectations, though our ebooks have made it possible to find a larger American audience than we were expecting. Our sales are very much focused, however, in the UK, with some European exposure, which is growing, bolstering this.
AL: You tried crowdfunding with Spina’s series, which didn’t work out. Would you try crowdfunding again? With a different sort of project, and different outreach? Or are you done with it for now?
GF: We are willing to try new things. We experiment with new ways to be able to get our books in front of the most eyes. We perhaps entered the crowdfunding trend a little early; while we were still in our very early nascent stages. It was perhaps a little naïve, but we did learn a lot and will put that knowledge to use when we try again.
AL: Your translators are generally a pretty young bunch. How do you go about choosing them? Are you open to translators pitching projects, or do you already know what you want to publish?
GF: We depend on word of mouth and recommendations when finding translators for projects. We are also a young company and look to employ young exciting talent whenever we can. We don’t select someone just because they are young, of course, but we look also for the passion someone can bring to translating a book. We prefer to work with books translators have pitched. It shows the passion that we are looking for, and we find that that often shines through in the English version. It also makes it easier for us. We have to go through a lot of books in Arabic to find one we want to bring to the UK.
Unfortunately, we find that there are many vanity publishers, either straight or disguised, and the other problem with a lot of the Arabic books is that they lack the skills of an edior. Editing, both in terms of copy editing and proofreading, is often lacking.
AL: Could you tell people a bit about why they should be excited about Ali al-Muqri’s first book coming out in English? And why did you choose this one, vs. Black Taste, Black Smell or The Handsome Jew? (Note: Darf also has a blog post about the book on their site.)
GF: I do believe that this work is very important work to be brought in translation to the western audiences. It is a criticism not only of Islamic extremism, but of the hypocrisy that we deal with in Arab and Muslim countries, not only at the hands of the extremists but by the rules of society in general. We would like to see more of Ali’s work in English, and are looking into the possibility of doing so at Darf.
We chose Hurma because of its story and its relevance to the problems we have today. We hope that our readers will realize that religious and cultural extremism is being addressed by courageous authors such as al-Muqri and we hope it finds resonance with English-language readers.
AL: What are the other exciting things coming down the pike?
GF: We have several novels in the pipeline. We have been offered the chance to publish a second edition of Translating Libya, which will be released in October 2015. In the Spring of 2016 we will be publishing another book translated from the Italian which will be our first Young Adult book.
We are not going to limit ourselves to only Arabic writing, and hope to expand to other areas of the world. We do want to concentrate on places and languages that don’t see much movement into English, such as Africa, several Asian countries and Eastern Europe. We do not have anything to announce at the moment, but we are looking at several very good books.
Also: You can read an excerpt of Suslov’s Daughter in the most recent issue of Banipal, trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.