Farouk Mardam Bey: Literary Translation from Arabic to French is ‘More Important Than Ever’

In an interview last week with Le Point AfriqueFarouk Mardam Bey — publisher, librarian, food writer — spoke about the importance of translating Arabic literature into French:

downloadAccording to Mardam Bey, who is head of French publisher Actes Sud’s Sinbad collection of Arabic literature, very few French publishers interested in Arabic translations. In total, he suggests, there are only about a dozen titles per year, which is less than half of what is published in English translation, at least so far as the last decade goes.

There have been some best-sellers, Mardam Bey told Le Point Afrique, notably The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa al-Aswany, and Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi.

Media saturation on all things Arab and Muslim has, Mardam Bey suggests, worsened the situation for Arabic-French translations. However, he hastens to add that this is not just a problem of Arabic literature: “Indian literature…is much less translated into French than Arabic literature, while the subcontinent is three times larger than the Arab world.”*

Mardam Bey said that, for the last year and a half, sagging sales have marked all of translated literature, while the cost of translation remains high. A 400-page novel, he says, will cost a publisher between 8,000 and 9,000 euro. With aid from the National Book Center not exceeding half of that, “this inevitably limits the risks taken.”

How does France fare among other European nations, in terms of Arabic literary translation? In 2010, as part of an inventory of Mediterranean translations, Mardam Bey said that Emmanuel Varlet found that “only 0.6% of translations of foreign works into French are from the Arabic.” Yet, he added, despite this low figure, it places France as the first among European nations in translating from the Arabic.

Happily, Mardam Bey told Le Point Afrique, there are good emerging translators. “The problem is that these young translators are struggling to find work.”

Read the whole interview with Farouk Mardam Bey (in French).

*Translations are approximate.