Women’s Writing in Arabic: The State of Translations to Spanish, French, Greek

Women in Translation Month centers translations into English:

A recent piece at Al-Fanar, “Arab Women Writers Struggle to Get the Readers They Deserve,” looks also at translations from Arabic into other languages, as well as the gender balance when it comes to translations into Arabic.

A few additional notes from those who helped contribute with thoughts and research:

On translations from Arabic to Greek 

Arabic-Greek translator Eleni Kapetanaki:

“Well, from Arabic first: the men translated are far more than the women. However, we are trying to put women in the corpus. I am now translating Ahlam Mostaghanemi, her first of the trilogy. I have translated Jokha Alharthi, too, and Nawal al Saadawi. I would like to translate Dima Wannous.

“As in general [from all languages into Greek], I think goes the same but more women are translated than from Arabic.”

On translations from Arabic to Spanish

Maria Isabel González Martínez, the blogger behind Separata Árabe:

“There is no Arabic literature in translation in Spanish from Qatar, Oman, the UAE, or Yemen, or from Mauritania, either. Of the 110 authors translated from Arabic to Spanish, 76 are men and 34 are women.”

On translations from Arabic to Italian

Blogger Chiara Comito:

Comito points out that there is gender parity in the titles set to be published this year in Italian translation, while adding, “If I look at the library in my house, most of the books of Arabic literature I have are by male authors, by the way. But still, I do not have official data on this.”

On translations into Arabic

Publisher Sherif Bakr, of Dar al-Arabi, whose fiction-in-translation list achieves close to gender parity:

“It’s true that what affects the translation is either being a bestseller and then, yes, more men have bestsellers than women (I don’t know why).

“Or prizes, and in this I see a growth in the number of women who are nominated and winning prizes.

“But I don’t think Arab publishers think of this while choosing. We don’t make a conscious decision of male/female.”

On translations of Algerian literature

Nadia Ghanem, our Morocco and Algeria Editor:

“I think that the translation situation for Algerian women writers is very much the one we noticed in the list of Algerian novels in English translation we made: shockingly few women are translated compared to their male counterparts. And while we noticed this for English, I think it applies widely for other European languages too (though I’d be so happy to be proven wrong). I haven’t kept track of who gets translated to French or to Arabic unfortunately, and it would be a great investigation to undertake. Off the top of my head, I’d say there are more translations to French of Algerian fiction and non-fiction written in Arabic than I’d found for English. I’m certain this is entirely due to the longer exposure France has had to Algerian intellecutal production. It’s probable that there are more translations of Algerian women’s work in French too as a result, poetry by the two (great) poets Rabia Djelti and Zineb Laouedj are available in French for example. There’s a little more Zhor Ouanissi in French too, also because there are (more) anthologies of Algerian women writers in French, which adds to the excerpts of works by those women who write in Arabic.

“But regardless, there are a zillion more men translated in comparison.”

On ‘Women in Translation’ in Algeria

Nadia Ghanem:

“I haven’t encountered the question of “Women in Translation” in Algeria, at least not posed that way. I feel examining gender in literature is a luxury that can be afforded or investigated only when there’s enough socio-political space, and economic stability, for it. It needs breathing and thinking space. Not that translation isn’t being thought about in Algeria and by Algerians, but it takes another form, a dual form as always: we’re talking translation beyond borders, and translation within borders.

“I haven’t kept a record of what gets translated within the country. My own browsing when living there brought me to Samir Kacimi initially in translation, he is translated from the Arabic to French in Algeria by the famous Algerian translator Lotfi Nia. Many of Boudjedra’s early works have been translated to Arabic in Algeria too (by different translators). There is also support between novelists with writers translating each other: Rabia Djelti’s poetry was translated from the Arabic to French by Rachid Boudjedra for example. So there is a fair bit of ‘internal’, national, translation on within Algeria (though not nearly enough) because of the tri-lingual situation. When an Algerian novelist writes in French, it means many Algerians won’t pick up the book because they don’t feel comfortable with French, or simply because they prefer to read in Arabic, so translation is really fundamental. The same applies to the French translation of Arabic works in terms of widening national readership of course.

“Recently there’s been a massive impetus to translate to Tamazight languages, and a lot gets produced in Kabyle. There are translations of Algerian fiction writers to Kabyle (like Mohammed Dib, Waciny Laredj, and Nassira Belloula, a contemporary writer who writes about the situation of women past and present). There’s also the translation of literature from over the world, including comix (my favorite discoveries were Asterix and Obelix in Kabyle). It’s tremendous to flex the muscles of all these languages (Kabyle and Tacawit primarily I think, thought there may be things produced in the south in Tamasheq for example), with all the problems that come such as the wild manufacturing of neologisms. We often don’t talk about it but there is also a large effort to produce bilingual dictionaries (though I’d describe them as word lists) in many different Tamazight languages. Those I’ve read are bilingual Tacawit to Arabic, or Kabyle to French (I have heard of bilingual lists in Kabyle/English for medical vocabulary).

“So, I think that the issue of translation in Algeria is much more immediate and integral to the production of literature, and ultimately of  knowledge, than it is for Westerners. It’s not about meeting “the other” and getting inspiration from new forms, as it is for monolingual countries. In Algeria I’d say translation is what makes us face our selves, it recreates all the musical patterns that already exist everyday, orally, in a space solidified by writing. When a book written in Greek is published in Greece, the whole nation can read the work if they so choose, but that’s not the situation in Algeria, a book really needs the magic of translation, not for the author to survive economically, to acquire fame or traverse borders, but for the work to come into BEING if we believe (and I do) that what brings writing into being is the act of reading.”

On women writing in Algeria

Nadia Ghanem:

“At any rate, both nationally and internationally, the literary production of women is neglected, of that i’ve no doubt, and I can’t explain it to myself given that Algerian women produce so much literature. I don’t believe there are more men publishing than women, at least I’ve not noticed there were more books by men on the shelves of bookshops. Perhaps that was the case in the early days of Algerian fiction just after independence, but it’s not the case today, especially for women who write in Arabic. Is it a problem of connections? Of the right access or the “right” friendships? Is it a problem of visibility? I don’t know. Is it because the world is made for the comfort of men and is utimately formatted to support men first? Yes, I think so.”