The Challenges (and Possibilities) of Translating Literary Scholarship

Back in 2015, the online academic journal Arabian Humanities published an article by Katherine Hennessey entitled “Staging the Revolution: The Drama of Yemen’s Arab Spring,” which examined four works of contemporary Yemeni theatre and their relationship to the political upheavals of the early 2010s:

Celebrated Yemeni novelist and playwright Wajdi Al-Ahdal, whose satiric play A Crime on Restaurant Street featured in the article, urged Hennessey to have it translated into Arabic, but finding the right translator proved a challenge, and the Arabic version of the article, translated by Abdulkader Abdulkader, was published just a few weeks ago.

Below, Abdulkader, Al-Ahdal, Hennessey, and Arabian Humanities Chief Editor Laurent Bonnefoy reflect on the benefits and challenges of translating literary scholarship and other academic works, and what kinds of cross-cultural conversations such translations might open up.

Katherine, what do you see as some of the issues around transmission / movement of scholarly work about Arabic literature? What could/can translation do or open up? 

Katherine Hennessey: Those are great questions. But I want to preface my response with a sobering acknowledgement: Yemen is in the throes of a massive humanitarian crisis–or more accurately, crises–precipitated not just by the violent and destructive nature of both the Houthi insurgency and the Saudi-led military intervention, but also by the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergencies, tragically high poverty and illiteracy rates, food insecurity and declining water resources, and the recurring threats of terrorism, extremism, and national fragmentation. And I know that there are people out there who wonder, “How can you possibly talk about something like art, literature, or theatre in Yemen in the midst of such terrible circumstances?” I wouldn’t want, in any way, for this discussion to paint a rosy picture of Yemen’s reality; people’s daily lives are fraught with hardships that would be unimaginable to many of us who live outside of Yemen. 

But Yemeni artists persevere in the face of those hardships. They write poems and stage plays and paint murals and seek to create something beautiful amid the ugliness and the destruction. And that too needs to be acknowledged. That kind of courage should be celebrated, in Arabic, in English, and in every language that humans can speak.

Now, to respond to your question about the obstacles to the translation of scholarship from English into Arabic and vice versa: I’d say one of the biggest issues is the practical one that translation is a form of intellectual and artistic labor and should be fairly compensated. But in academia, the production of scholarship is usually not remunerated per se; instead, it’s considered an inherent part of the job. And if a scholarly article itself doesn’t generate revenue or compensation, then it’s difficult to see where resources to translate that article would come from.

A second obstacle relates to scholars’ assumed capacity for accessing academic texts in other languages. For example, there’s a prevailing assumption that English is essentially ubiquitous as an academic language, and that any serious scholar will be able to access and comprehend academic texts in English, so why even go to the effort of translating a text from English into Arabic? 

But I think all of us who are involved in this discussion would agree that assumptions of this type are deeply, problematically Anglo-centric and elitist—and those of us who are interested in Yemen, in particular, know how false those assumptions are in that context. When I was living in Sana’a I regularly met Yemeni scholars who simply hadn’t had the level of exposure to English that would be necessary to comfortably read an academic text in English—though some of them, particularly those from the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, had studied in the USSR and the Soviet bloc, so they could read works of scholarship written in Russian, for example, much more easily than ones in English.

And lastly (not that this is the last obstacle, but at least the last one I’ll touch on for the moment) there’s the fact that academic articles are notoriously dense and difficult to read, so it really takes a dedicated and talented translator, someone with exceptional facility in both languages, to translate an article well. I was very fortunate, in that regard, that Abdulkader agreed to take this task on, and that he worked on it with such care and acumen.

But if we can overcome the practical and linguistic obstacles, then, as with other types of translation, translating scholarship could be useful in encouraging new contacts, new conversations, new models, new insights, for source and target language users alike. On a personal level, it’s been fascinating to me to get a sense of how this article reads in Arabic, and I learned quite a bit from the discussions Abdulkader and I had about how best to translate certain English words and phrases. We also ran into some unforeseen hurdles: for example, I had translated a lot of text and performance excerpts from Arabic into English for the article, which we then had to re-source in the original language, and although under normal circumstances, I’d just pull the performance recordings and my copy of texts like Sa‘id Aulaqi’s Seventy Years of Theatre in Yemen off my office bookshelf, that task was vastly complicated by the fact that I couldn’t access my office, due to COVID restrictions! But if there are scholars of Arabic theatre out there who read the translation and find it of sufficient interest to get in touch and start a conversation, then it will have been worth the effort. 

Abdulkader, why was this a project of interest to you? What do you think are some of the gaps in translation of literary criticism, literary scholarship? What is the effect of these gaps? What can/should be done about them?

Abdulkader Abdulkader: The project was of special interest to me because, being Syrian, I shared many of the gains and pains of the Arab Spring which was sparked in both Yemen and Syria. I felt the article reflected many questions that I have been trying to find answers to since the start of the Arab Spring.

As regards the challenges arising with the translation of literary criticism, I can group them into theoretical and practical. As regards the theoretical ones, first, it is necessary to draw a distinction between genres; second, special attention should be paid to the style in addition to the meaning; and third, the translator finds themselves responsible to the author, the text and the audience. 

As literary translation includes a wide range of texts, from drama and prose to poetry and media, it is necessary to draw a distinction between the different genres. In translating different genres, we are required to use different styles, highlighting different points, for example terminology, grammar, literalness, punctuation, cohesion, among others. In the translation of drama, for instance, there is special focus on easy and natural dialogue. As with prose translation, we expect complete sentences organized in paragraphs. Poetry is heavy in imagery and metaphor, with little consideration for sentence correctness. As a translator, if I have to choose between a literal translation of a phrase and a more poetic or stylised one, different from the literal meaning but more in line with my idea of the author’s style, I will possibly go with the meaning closer to the author’s style.

In translating literary genres, the translator should have three-directional responsibility towards the author, the text and the reader, with different degrees depending on the translated genre. For instance, this three-directional relationship is normally stronger with non-fiction, like newspapers and histories, than the fiction genre, like the novel and short story. So, I feel I have more freedom when I am working with a work of fiction, as opposed to non-fiction.

Concerning the practical problems, they relate to the specific situation. In my case, I had special difficulty in accessing the original documents because of the movement restrictions imposed by the lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This caused some delay in the timeline planned for submitting the translation.

Laurent, what about transmission and translation around other fields beyond literature and literary criticism? What could more translation potentially open up? 

Laurent Bonnefoy: Our journal, Arabian Humanities, is a trilingual peer-reviewed open-access scientific publication which publishes articles and documents focusing on the Arabian Peninsula in the various disciplines, from archaeology to political science. It was established almost a decade ago as the follow-up to the Chroniques yéménites, the journal of the CEFAS which was then located in Sanaa, and has just been rebranded as the French Center for research in the Arabian Peninsula (CEFREPA). The institute is now in Kuwait but covers the whole of the region. I, for example, am based in Muscat. 

From the onset, Arabian Humanities has sought to publish papers in Arabic as well as in English and French. It is true that Arabic has probably not been as well represented as the two other languages but things are now evolving. First of all, the journal systematically translates into Arabic all the abstracts of the articles. The last issues have all included at least one paper in Arabic. The editorial team considers that it is fundamental to allow the societies we researchers work on have access to what we produce. It is an ethical matter and it is also important to encourage research carried out by researchers from the societies of the Peninsula, making them accessible to the wider scientific community. In a parallel, we have also been eager to translate into French or English publications originally in Arabic, including recently a bunch of contemporary Yemeni literature. Navigating through these three languages, each one with its own assets and constraints, is surely a necessary ambition.   

Katherine: So Laurent, if money, time, and expertise weren’t obstacles, are there other articles from AH that you’d particularly like to see appear in Arabic translation? Or Arabic-language articles that you’d particularly like to see translated for an anglophone readership? 

Laurent: There are many articles which would deserve to be translated, not just into Arabic but also into English. I feel that some very interesting pieces have remained under the radars of fellow researchers, in particular ones who primarily, and at times exclusively, use English. It often is a pity to see brilliant contributions largely ignored. I’m in particular thinking of a fascinating piece by my colleagues François Burgat and Muhammad Sbitli published in French fifteen years ago on the Salafi movement in Yemen. It would really have been interesting to see it discussed by Arabic speaking scholars as well as ones who do not have access to French. 

I also feel that book reviews would probably be a useful format to be translated as they can give a sense to the Arabic speaking audience of what is being debated, published and researched among the community of international researchers. Granting wider access, through book reviews in English of contributions published in Arabic would also be a creative way to bypass a number of obstacles that remain.

Wajdi, why did you want to see Katherine’s article translated to Arabic?

Wajdi al-Ahdal: I felt that Katherine’s article is very important for understanding the impact of Yemeni theater on its audiences. I also noticed that I had not read a similar analytical article in Arabic.

The articles written in Arabic on Yemeni theater are very rare, and unfortunately most remain weak. I felt that translating Katherine’s work into Arabic would be useful to Yemeni critics, as a model for how to write analytical articles on Yemeni theater.

For me, as a playwright, I’ve also benefited from her work, and I think that when writing my next theater productions, I’ll keep in mind the conclusions she’s drawn in her article.

Katherine Hennessy: One of the things I’ve always found gratifying about writing about Yemeni theatre is how intellectually generous Yemeni theatre-makers are: they’re always willing to engage in thoughtful conversations about the meaning of their work, their artistic aims, their hopes for the future. Wajdi himself is a model in that regard. And it’s not right for those conversations and insights to be documented only in English, a language that some of those same theatre-makers would find difficult to access, and not in Arabic.


Translator Abdulkader Abdulkader earned a BA from the University of Aleppo (2000), an MA in Applied Linguistics from Durham University (2003), and a PhD in Sociolinguistics at Cardiff Metropolitan University (2009). He currently teaches at the Department of English at Aleppo University. He can be reached at .

Wajdi al-Ahdal is a celebrated Yemeni novelist, playwright, and author of film scripts and short stories, including the recently translated “Saghira’s Laws.” In 2002 his novel Mountain Boats sparked controversy in Yemen, forcing him to seek refuge in Damascus until Nobel Laureate Günter Grass intervened on his behalf. Al-Ahdal’s work has appeared in Italian (A Donkey Amidst the Music, trans. Francesco de Angelis as Un asino tra i suoni), French (Mountain Boats, trans. Sarah Rolfo as Barques de montagnes), and English (A Land Without Jasmine, trans. William M. Hutchins, which won the 2013 Banipal Prize for literary translation).

Laurent Bonnefoy is a permanent researcher at the CNRS in Political Science. He is the editor-in-chief of Arabian Humanities, a peer-reviewed and open-access academic journal published by the CEFREPA (French Research Centre of the Arabian Peninsula). He is the author of various monographs and edited volumes, including Salafism in Yemen (Hurst and Columbia UP, 2011) and Yemen and the World: Beyond Insecurity (Hurst and Oxford UP, 2018).

Katherine Hennessey is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait, author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (2018); director, with Amin Hazaber, of the short film Shakespeare in Yemen; and translator of Yemeni literature, including Wajdi al-Ahdal’s The Colonel’s Wedding (2019). She lived in Sanaa from 2009 to 2014, and has published widely on the performing arts in Yemen and the Gulf. She recently completed a year-long Research Fellowship with the National Endowment for the Humanities.