Modern Arabic Literature in Greece

This introduction to Arabic literature in Greek translation, by scholar, translator and novelist Persa Koumoutsi, is part of a longer study in process; it’s followed by a short five-question discussion about Arabic literatures in Greek translations.

Koumoutsi, who pioneered contemporary Arabic translations into Greek, is one of a handful of active Arabic-Greek translators — a group that includes Angeliki Sigourou and Eleni Kapetanaki — and here she talks about the effect of Said’s Orientalism and the absence of Arabic studies in Greek universities.

By Persa Koumoutsi

Arabic literature has long been a major part of the world’s literature and enjoys a huge readership all over the world. It is not, and must not be seen as, a separate body, unless we need to demonstrate or emphasize its special features, its cultural nuances, and its development and impact to readers outside geographical borders.

Modern Arabic literature, with few exceptions, began to grow more widely known in Greece in the mid-seventies. Till then the region was depicted mostly through the eyes of literary works by European writers such as Paul Bowles, Lawrence Durrell, Stratis Tsirkas, and others. Until then, a few samples of Francophone Arab literature had appeared in the Greek market, and the “exotic” themes that were related to the Middle East prevailed among their choices. Exotic or romantic themes were, indeed, the main criteria for reading and selecting these books. Little did the Greek reader know about the core of the Arabic literature. Its intelligentsia, who laid the foundations of modern Arabic literature, was almost a “terra incognita” to them.

The shift of interest, and the view of modern Arabic literature from a different perspective, came about, in my view, thanks in part to Palestinian critic and thinker Edward Said’s Orientalism, which was published in 1978 and immediately translated into many languages, amongst them Greek. The writing of this book caused a wide range of discussions at the international level, and the influence of this work on social and human studies was enormous, and it contributed to the fact that people in Greece turned their gaze with genuine interest to contemporary Arabic literature.

In Greece, this shift of interest peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, mainly with the translations of the Nobel Prize winner writer Naguib Mahfouz. Readers in Greece became mesmerized by Mahfouz’s books and more interested to know about this geographical area and its original cultural representatives. Thus more and more writers started to be translated in Greece, especially those who followed Mahfouz’s example. Another factor that resulted in this increase of interest in modern Arabic literature is that in the last decades major historical events have occurred that transformed its traditional “literary” landscape.

Did Said’s Orientalism spark more interest in translation? Inspire more people to become translators?

Persa Koumoutsi
Persa Koumoutsi

Persa Koumoutsi: It did, to a significant extent. But then, the Nobel in 1988 sparked the greatest interest in all respects. However, until then, there was a serious language barrier, as far as translation is concerned. Even the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels were translated though English. When I started translating the rest of his novels directly from Arabic, translations or translators from Arabic to Greek were almost nonexistent. Even today the problem continues. Due to the fact that there are no departments of Arabic studies in Greek universities, we do not have sufficiently trained translators or those fully qualified with academic backgrounds and language proficiency. Thus, the younger generation of translators struggle privately with the language barrier, resorting, when necessary, to intermediate translations, which, in most cases, if not all, affect the quality of the outcome. Nevertheless, their efforts are commendable and of course they are increasing in number.

And Greek interest then increased even more after Mahfouz won his Nobel? (We do not see the same interest in English – interest in Mahfouz led generally only to more interest in Mahfouz.)

PK: But the same actually happened in Greece, too. Interest in Mahfouz led to more interest in Mahfouz. Whatever else was introduced after his novels gained but little interest, in comparison. However, after the Arab Spring and the wars that led to the displacement of many people in Europe and lately in Greece, the interest was sparked anew, now more than ever. Especially in poetry, as it represents the changes that occurred. Changes, that are, inevitably, reflected in literature.

What do you mean when you say interest peaked in the 1980s and 1990s? After this, it fell?

PK: Mostly in 1990s. And yes, for a while it did. After Mahfouz’s novels were introduced, especially those translated directly from Arabic, there was a huge interest and an extremely positive reaction. Thus a good number of new books by other writers were translated, but none was met with the same enthusiasm as Mahfouz’s novels.

What was the next major landmark, after Mahfouz’s Nobel, in terms of Greek interest in Arabic literature?

PK: Unfortunately there is not one that I can mention with absolute certainty. The Arabic Booker. for example, is a prestigious prize, and actually ignited the publishers’ interest, but the result was somehow disheartening, as far as sales and the interest from the press were concerned. Then poetry surfaced to interest the reader, once Arabic poetry was introduced. Greeks are prone to poetic language, due to nature and tradition.

Have any translated Arabic titles become bestsellers in Greece? What titles have sparked the most interest among readers?

PK: Unfortunately, we rarely have bestselling titles nowadays, let alone of Arabic literature. Mahfouz’s novels became bestsellers in a productive and prosperous period of time for Greece. The current economical crisis led to a substantial decrease in the production of books and also a sheer decrease in sales. The runs of books have become very small, sometimes they do not exceed the 800 or 1000 copies per title. Plus the fact that Greece has always been a small market.

Persa Koumoutsi is a novelist and literary translator who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and moved to Greece following her studies at Cairo University, where she studied English and Arabic literature. Since 1992, she has been working professionally as a literary translator, translating prose and poetry from Arabic and English into Greek and vice versa. She has translated a significant part of the corpus of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz from Arabic into Greek, as well as many other distinguished Arab authors. She has also worked as a publishing editor and attended many national and international literary forums. Among her distinctions and awards: The International Cavafy Prize for Translation, (2001); honorary medals from the Egyptian Ministry of Education (2008 and 2010); a special award from the school of languages at Al Azhar University (2015); First Translation Guilt Award for an anthology of modern Arabic poetry (2017). She also writes articles and critical reviews in newspapers and literary magazines and is a published author with seven novels of her own, three of them translated into Arabic.

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