Arabic Literature, Greek Readers: Translations Have to Grow, ‘Because People Are Interested’

Eleni Kapetanaki is one of a handful of active literary translators who are currently bringing literature from Arabic into Greek:

Kapetanaki studied economics and had been working in a bank for some years when she pivoted to a study of Arabic. She answers questions about what drew her to Arabic literature, which books are being translated into Greek, by whom, and why:

Certainly there is a long relationship between Arabic and Greek, going back to the Greek classics and their movement into Arabic. But what has the relationship between Greek and Arabic literatures been like in the 20th and 21st centuries? Were there translations going on in the early 20th century? What sort of 20th century interest was there in Arabic literature, in Greek?

Eleni Kapetanaki

Eleni Kapetanaki: Well, as we turn backwards, we find less Arabic literature translated into Greek directly from Arabic. Arabic books were mostly translated from other European languages, English or French. Nevertheless, “One Thousand and one Nights” was translated directly from Arabic between 1902 and 1910. The Quran was published in Greek three times in the 20th century. The editions were from different publishing houses in 1928, 1990 and 1995. These were followed by more recent translations of the Quran, some in the 20th and others in the 21st century.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran was translated seven times by various Greek publishing companies, four of them in the 20th century and the rest in the 21st. Adonis was translated in 1996 by Marcellos Pirar and again in 2003 by Professor Eleni Kondyli, both times directly from Arabic. The book Travels of Ibn Battuta, the great Muslim geographer, was edited in 1990 and we must say that in this same year, there was a prolific translation of Naguib Mahfouz starting from 1990 and up to date. These translations were at first made from English and, after Persa Koumoutsi took over, directly from Arabic. So Greek readers were introduced to the Egyptian Nobel Laureate and started to get accustomed with Arabic literature. After that, more translations followed.

Are there particular lines of transmission? For instance, are writers from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, or Palestine more likely to appear in Greek? Where are Arabic-Greek translators finding books? 

EK: Egyptian writers like Gamal al Ghitany and Naguib Mahfouz  were most likely to be selected in the past. More than one book of theirs has been edited, initially from French or English and then from Arabic. Palestinian writers have also been translated into Greek : Sahar Khalifeh and Ghassan Kanafani (earlier) as well as the national poet of Palestine Mahmoud Darwish, who was published in a bilingual edition. Apart from these, Yahya Hakki and his Qandil Umm Hashim was translated and published a year ago.

Other writers have also been translated like Alaa al Aswany, Ibrahim al Koni (to be published in 2017), Samar Yazbek, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, Hala el Badry, Bahaa Taher, Tayyeb Salih, Hoda Barakat, Youssef Idris, Bensalem Himmich. Kalila wa Dimna has been translated, too. Adonis, the great Syrian poet, will be published by the end of this month in a new, exquisite translation by Angeliki Sigourou. All of these have reached Greek readers and there is more to come.

I am happy to say that Greek publishers are now more open to Arabic literature than before. Of course Arabic-Greek translators have ideas of their own as to selecting books for translation, but I must say that it depends on the publishing company which ones are going to be accepted. Personally speaking, I would prefer to read and choose myself. Well, I do that with a specific publishing company while I tend to discuss ideas for books to be translated with another. Most times I agree with the last one, too, as the editor is very knowledgeable and following the worldwide Arabic literature movement. In any case, one must follow the news about editions in languages like English or French as well as readers’ preferences, prizes and so on. All should be taken into account.

Have any become best-sellers or at least strong sellers? Which Arabic translations seem to have been most interesting to Greek readers? To publishers?

EK: Few up to now have become strong sellers, like Naguib Mahfouz’s books, and that’s due to the Nobel Prize. Generally speaking, Greeks are not yet so much accustomed to Arabic literature and that is strange – we are so close to Arab countries geographically, we share very similar music of the Eastern Mediterranean, similar food and so on. I believe globalization is the reason. As far as Arabic translations are concerned, I would say those of Naguib Mahfouz interested Greek readers who, starting from there, are now getting to know more about Arabic literature. The publishers luckily choose among many, especially nowadays.

Has there been an uptick of interest in Arabic literature in Greek? Was there interest after Mahfouz won the Nobel? After 9/11 or 2011? How do you see the impact of political events on the interest in translated literature?

EK: I must say that nowadays Arabic translations are growing fast. In this way, Greek readers get in touch with Arabic literature. Well, I think that deep down inside Greeks are touched and swayed by the magical atmosphere of the Arabs. Of course, all of the abovementioned played a significant role in it, Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize I mean, as well as 9/11 and 2011. I think that political events have an impact on translated literature.

Now with the ISIS and crimes people watch on television, we have to be careful to the readers’ reactions. However, if you make wise choices, readers will follow you.

Who are the translators? Are you mostly from academia, from literature, journalism, freelance?

EK: I think mostly freelance and people who might occupy themselves with other professions. Personally I worked in a bank before starting translations, I even didn’t have in mind occupying myself with translations. I studied Arabic and someday a notable editor (Anteos Chrysostomidis) put the idea into my head and I started translating passionately.  In Greece, as far as I know, three women translate regularly from Arabic into Greek: Angeliki Sigourou, Persa Koumoutsi, and myself.

Do Arab writers travel to Greece for events? Once the book has been published, how successful have you been in reaching readers? 

Gamal al-Ghitani's Zayni Barakat
Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat

EK: Some Arab writers have come to Greece on special occasions, like book fairs. No, I think once they are invited, they easily come. Gamal al Ghitany has come and Bahaa Taher, Adonis will be in Greece on the 10th of January 2017.

Now when the book is published, Greek publishing companies proceed to its promotion arranging book presentations as usual. Greek readers come to various presentations and it’s then you realize Arabic literature translations have to grow in Greece, because people are interested. They just need to get familiar with it.

What sort of work would you most like to see translated from Arabic into Greek, and why?

EK: I am lucky and happy enough to have seen Saladin by Ibn Shaddad on the bookshelves, a historical book I translated last year. I found out lately I grew fond of historical books, so I definitely would like to see more of them. Arabic literature, for sure.

I would like to see more writers from Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt and other countries. There are so many of them. Even from Emirates, we haven’t read any Emirati writers in Greece up to now. In addition to that, I would like to read Muslim geographers like Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Jubayr. My next project wil be translating Ibn Fadlan. I am glad to say Ibn Battuta has already been published in Greece. I am sure we’ll see all of the above due to Greek editors who have proved their abilities and love for Arabic literature expanding, for example Ibrahim al Koni.

I recently completed the translation of his book “al-Tibr” (Gold Dust in the English) and this is the first time Greek readers will read this special, lyric writer. So will be other modern Arab writers like Rabee Jaber and Sinan Antoon, I am sure. All of these I would like to see on the bookshelves.

Eleni Kapetanaki has been translating from Arabic into Greek since 2006. She lives in Athens and occupies herself with translations of Arabic literature and historical books. Her next project will be the tenth-century text The Travels of Ibn Fadlan, followed by Rabee Jaber’s Druze of Belgrade.