‘A Bed for the King’s Daughter’: Finding a Home for Arabic Short Stories in Translation

In January 2021, University of Texas Press published Shahla Ujayli’s A Bed for the King’s Daughter, which won in 2017 the AlMultaqa Prize, given annually for short-story collections:

By Tugrul Mende

Even though the collection was acclaimed in Arabic, Sawad Hussain had a hard time finding a publisher for her translation. In this interview, Sawad Hussain and Shahla Ujayli talk about bringing this collection out in English and what the process means for both the author and translator.

When did you first get in touch with Shahla Ujayli and what kind of relationship did you develop with the author while working on her short-story collection?

SH: I was aware of Shahla Ujayli’s work because she had been one of the few authors, male or female, who had been shortlisted more than once for the IPAF. I was aware of her novels, but I wasn‘t aware of her short story collection until the AlMultaqa Prize announced its shortlist in 2017. When they released the shortlist, I took a look at the short-story collections, and I read around them.

I read some reviews and some excerpts online. I contacted her and asked her about the collection before she won the prize. She was really kind and sent me the PDF.  A month later she won the prize. It was really exciting because as a translator I was already in contact with the author. I thought it would be easy to find a publisher because she had just won this prestigious award. That’s why I wrote this translator’s note, because nobody wanted to publish them. What I keep telling people is that the alMultaqa Prize is the equivalent of the IPAF Booker prize for short stories. The IPAF doesn‘t accept short-story collections. I guess this prize is not as well known in the English-speaking world and doesn’t have as much media attention as the IPAF. 

English-speaking publishers are not aware of how prestigious prize it is. Publishers tend to want a piece from an Arab writer that talks about the place, the culture, or the history. It has to be an anthropological piece of work for the readers, so they learn about the country. 

My relationship with Shahla started while working on the collection, but to be honest, compared with other authors I have worked with, I don‘t have a deeper relationship with her because I didn’t have to ask her many questions about the collection. 

It’s different with other authors I’ve worked with, like Najwa Bin Shatwan, because her work is lot more steeped in Libyan culture, and I needed to ask her a lot more questions and we became sort of friends in the process. With Shahla, it‘s still very professional and she has been very helpful but we never met in person and we’ve never spoken on the phone, all our correspondence was by email. 

Shahla, when did you start working on the A Bed for the King’s Daughter and what were your inspirations? 

Shahla Ujayli: I started to write this collection in 2010, and it took me six years to finish it while I was in different places — particularly Aleppo, Raqqa, and Amman — and each story has its particular inspiration. Some of them happened to me in person, and others came from an incident that I saw or heard about, so I built the story on this, or maybe this incident led my imagination to another image. Most of the thoughts came to my mind while I did something other than writing. I don’t generally receive the surrounding events as they are; I have the obsession to intervene and give them other possibilities, and if I find this event isable to live, I develop it in my mind for several days and form it into a story. When this happens, I sit and write, even if it is in the middle of the night. 

Sawad, in the introduction of the short-story collection, you start by saying that it was very hard for you to find a publisher to go forward with this collection. Are short stories not attractive enough for publishers nowadays, and did the interest in short-story collections change over the years?

SH: Originally, I had always thought it was just an issue with short-story collections in translation. More experienced friends in the publishing industry told me even writers who write in English find it difficult to sell their short-story collections. Everyone wants novels instead, which I found odd, because these days people’s attention spans are so short anyways, you think they would want to read shorter pieces as opposed getting into long novels. 

Publishers told me again and again: If she has a novel, we might be interested, but we don‘t think we can sell a short-story collection because short-story collections don’t sell well. From their point of view, it is a very market-based argument, because according to them short stories don’t sell well unless the author already has an established fanbase in English. Shahla is still mostly an unknown author to the English-speaking world; that’s why I wanted to give the collection a chance. 

Shahla, Are there any narrative, stylistic reasons behind choosing A Bed for the King’s Daughter as the title for the collection?  

SU: Yes, there was an approach in choosing the title for this collection. This title refers to the idea of the classic tale. We have the bed, and we have the king and the princess. It will transport the reader to the world of the ancient narrative, to the Tale,  and maybe to the Thousand and One Nights. My writing style is formed by this sense, and  the reader can add the phrase “once upon a time” to most of these stories, even to the most modern ones. 

On the other hand, those who are familiar with the history of Syria will immediately realize that I also refer to historical monuments destroyed by the war in Busra, which lies southwest of Syria in Dar’a, and this will pique their curiosity! Actually, it is just an illusion, because the story doesn’t refer to it; it was written before the war and is maybe the oldest story in the collection. 

Sawad, I‘m curious about the English title. In the introduction, you write that Shahla Ujayli’s short stories are not anchored in a time period or location. What sparked you to us A Bed for the King’s Daughter? How central is this short story, compared to the other stories?

SH: When I saw the question, I was really glad you asked it. It is a strict translation of the Arabic title, but I should have had a conversation with Shahla to talk about the title. I think for me as a translator what I’ve learned now is you don‘t always have to stick with the title. Even with a novel. 

But I didn’t even ask her, and I did a direct translation.

How do you describe the short-story genre? How do you link together the stories?

SU: I think the short story is the most literary genre, as it’s one where an author has the freedom to present an idea. Its main condition is to capture a specific tiny event or phenomena or point among various points of life. For me, the most important thing that has to unify the stories of the collection is the inspirational power of the writer. 

Do you think an academic publishers are more keen in publishing such short stories? 

SH: I knew from the beginning that the editor at UT Press is always looking for experimental writings that are out of the box and edgier — that’sapproached her. I had already approached ten other publishers with wider distribution. At academic presses, the author or the translator has to do most of the promotion work, because academic presses don’t generally do a lot of promotion. 

The editor really liked the atmosphere of the collection, but I can’t really say if academic presses are more likely to publish short-story collections.  I have to look more deeper into this, but I think they are more willing to take a risk because their existence isn’t solely based on sales. 

It seems that Shahla Ujayli has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years. First in 2018 Michelle Hartman translated A Sky So Close to Us, then her Summer with the Enemy, which is set to appear in April of this year, and also your collection. A Sky so Close to Us will also be published in German in March. Do you think her being on the long and shortlist of the IPAF has a role in attracting this attention outside the Arabic literary scene?

SH: Shahla came onto my radar because she had been nominated for the IPAF and won the alMultaqa prize. There are authors who I like who didn’t win a prize, who you just have to translate. But the English publisher will ask me what kind of prizes the author won, what is their presence and readership in the Arab world. English publishers are interested in the big names. Even then, sometimes they think the writers won’t connect with an English readership. 

I think it definitely has helped that Shahla has been on the IPAF list three times and won the AlMultaqa prize. But having said that, there are authors who have a wider readership like Kuwaiti author Bothayna Al-Essa, who has over 190,000 followers on Twitter, and her books were one of the top three bestselling books, but only one of her books has been translated into English. I think the IPAF seems to have a lot of sway. If you are on the IPAF lists, you have a better chance in getting translated into English. 

Except for the length – what difficulties and differences did you come across while working on this translation in comparison to a long novel (for example Saud Alsanousi’s Mama Hissa’s Mice)?

SH: In terms of translating, there are very different challenges. What I find with short stories in general, because I am working on a collection by Nawja Bin Shatwan which will come out with Dedalus Books, is that there is nowhere to hide, you have to do get it right within these few pages. With novels, there are other challenges, because the narratives generally roll on and on. With short stories, you have to make sure the ending falls precisely. 

With Shahla’s stories, there were some parts where I struggled to get the ending right, and that is where my editor was really helpful, because when you are so attached to the text, you can‘t really find a way out of it. She was really helpful making the sentence structure punch the way it’s meant to. 

In terms of  language, it was very straightforward, and there were not so many cultural references. In that sense, I didn’t have that many questions. There were some that were so surreal I did have to doublecheck with the author. There is a story where the student is writing an exam paper, and instead writing the paper the student writes about a dream he had. It is a really surrealist dream and really weird things were happening and I had to speak to Shahla because I wasn‘t sure what was happening and what wasn’t.

In the case of Saud Alsanousi‘s Mama Hissa‘s Mice,  Kuwaiti history and culture feature heavily. I had to do a lot of research because I haven’t lived in Kuwait before. There was a lot of Kuwaiti dialect and I watched a lot of Kuwaiti soap operas to get inside the language. With the novel, there are usually issues with tense, such as tense shifts. In Arabic you can start a paragraph in the past tense and then suddenly find yourself in the present, it is very fluid. I had a lot of discussions with the editor about tense issues that were coming up. 

The thing with short stories is that people think they are easier because they are shorter, which in some respects is true, but it is actually more difficult, because you have to make sure that every word is as it should be. You do this with novels too, but you are sometimes a bit more forgiving because you try to grasp the overall feeling from the novel and transfer it to the reader. Shahla’s stories are written all in fusha, except for one story. This is very different for example from Najwa Bin Shatwan, who uses a lot of Libyan ‘aamiya. Shahla’s language is pretty straightforward. 

Shahla, how much are you in conversation with the translator of your works and how much influence do you have over the translations? 

SU: I didn’t need to intervene in the translator’s workSawad was very serious about her desire to translate the collection. Usually, I wait for receiving several translation offers and then I choose the best one, as happened with my novel translations, but in this case I didn’t wait for anyone Actually I had an idea about Sawad Hussain, and I trusted her work, although some stories were translated by other translators and were published in international magazines. I have to say that Sawad made the connection with University of Texas Press and showed them the collection.   

She communicated with me about some meanings, but her Arabic language skills are very strong and she is so smart. Regarding  the translation of my novels and working with Prof. Michelle Hartman, we were working together, and I was reviewing the text word by word because the novels have many details and names which needed to be researched. Michelle Hartman is also a very serious, earnest, highly educated and intelligent translator and my style became familiar to her. I don’t know how the translation of my book is with other languages, like German, but for example I have friends who read German and they told me the translations of the novel are very beautiful. 

Sawad, would you be interested in looking into more short stories? 

SH: To be honest, I enjoy short stories but publishers don‘t. When I’m reading for fun, at the same time I’m thinking what will an English-speaking publisher think about this. As a translator, when you pitch something you have to go with the whole package to the publisher. 

The only author’s short-story collection I am working on right now is Najwa Bin Shatwan’s. This is another collection that I have pitched to 16 publishers and all thus far have said no because of all the aforementioned reasons. Unfortunately, translators find themselves focusing on novels, because they more likely to get picked up by publishers.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.