An Introduction: Arabic Literature in German Translation

A growing number of Arabic-language writers are setting up in Berlin. What about the situation for Arabic literature translated to German?

By Leonie Rau

As we heard during the first panel of our “BILA HUDOOD: Arabic Literature Everywhere” digital festival on July 9, there is a growing Arabic literary scene in Berlin. Building on that discussion, we wanted to take a closer look at the landscape of Arabic literature in German translation. This special series will include a—by no means exhaustive—list of modern Arab and Arabic literature in German translation, as well as overviews and interviews with Arabic-German translators and publishers.

To date, approximately 440 novels, poetry collections, and short-story collections written originally in Arabic, or in other languages by Arab writers, have been translated into German. This makes for a very small piece of the German literary sphere, considering that, in 2016 alone, more than 5700 new literary works in total had their debut in German translation.[1]

One of the striking features of the landscape of modern Arabic literature in German translation seems to be a paradox, where the total number of books published is magnitudes lower than the number for Arabic lit in English. At the same time, however, a few quite important and influential authors have been translated into German where there is no English translation available, such as:

  • Leila Baalbaki’s Ana ahya (I Live), translated in 1994 by Leila Chammaa as Ich Lebe,
  • Salim Barakat (who will be published in English for the first time in September 2021 with Come, Take a Gentle Stab, tr. Huda Fakhreddine & Jayson Iwen) with al-Jundub al-Hadidi, translated by Burgi Roos Khalil as Der eiserne Grashüpfer in 1995,
  • Fawwaz Haddad, whose Junud Allah was translated by Günther Ort as Gottes blutiger Himmel in 2013.

Like most publishers of translated literature, German-language publishers rely heavily on recommendations by translators, who are in turn greatly influenced by their own sources and connections in the literary scenes of various Arab-majority countries. This contributes to marked divergences in the kinds of texts and authors who get translated into various languages. This reliance on—usually established—translators also causes certain regional and personal slants, with Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian authors at the forefront of translated Arabic literature in German.

Some of the most long established and well-connected translators are Hartmut Fähndrich, who has translated more than 70 book-length novels and short-story collections; Doris Kilias, who passed away in 2008 and translated most of Naguib Mahfouz’s oeuvre; and Larissa Bender, who will be featured with an interview in this series.

While the pool of translators is growing more diverse and appears to be slowly opening up to newcomers, several translators I spoke to for this series voiced their frustrations with a tightly knit and fairly inaccessible scene that still very much privileges established translators and authors over newer voices. This is especially true for big publishing houses with special programs for literature from the Arabic, such as Lenos and Unionsverlag. Their efforts to publicize Arabic literature are extremely laudable, and they deserve credit for making this field of literature accessible to a broader German audience. Their selections, however, tend to err on the “safe side” of what will be well-received by readers and have so far avoided much of the interesting, innovative developments and experiments that have emerged in Arabic literature in the past two decades. A politically motivated interest in Arabic literature, especially from countries or areas in crisis, exacerbates this bias and contributes to a voyeuristic quality of the general market.

In our series on the boom of Syrian literature in Berlin, curated by Mari Odoy, several Syrian writers expressed their frustrations with a publishing industry that they saw as “giving into the ‘Orientalist’ desires of the Western reader,” with a primary interest in almost fetishized narratives of victimhood rather than in works of literary quality that tell interesting stories. Likewise, in the “Arabic Literature in Berlin” panel, Berlin-based Egyptian author Haytham El-Wardany spoke of the “representation trap”:

“Many of the cultural workers would be invited to events here in Berlin, and it’s kind of expected that they would represent the pain, represent the failed revolution, represent the war, etcetera. One of the things that we tried to work on—was how to escape from this representation trap. How not to play this game, how not to do what is expected, but to do what needs to be done, what needs to be written.”

Smaller publishers and initiatives such as Hans Schiler/alkutub, Edition Orient, and mikrotext have started to fill this gap by featuring a selection of newer and more diverse voices with regard to both authors and translators. This special section features an interview with Edition Orient editor Stephan Trudewind, translator Sandra Hetzl — who has found a home for five of the works she translated with mikrotext, and who joined our “Arabic Literature in Berlin” panel — as well as with translator Hakan Özkan, who published a translation of Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada with Hans Schiler, as well as with established translator Larissa Bender.

Some of these issues with the German-language publishing scene for Arabic literature are reflected in this preliminary list of eight Arab and Arabic works forthcoming in German translation in 2021. While many are established authors, there are also a few newer writers who have been translated into German for the first time, such as Asmaa al-Atawna and Atef Abu Saif.

  • Alaa al-Aswany, Die Republik der Träumer (Jumhurriyya ka’anna), tr. Marcus Lemke (from the Arabic), Hanser (January 2021)
  • Etel Adnan, Zeit (Time), tr. Klaudia Ruschkowski (from the English), Nautilus (March 2021)
  • Fatima Daas, Die jüngste Tochter (La petite dernière), tr. Sina de Malafosse (from the French), Claassen (May 2021)
  • Hisham Matar, Ein Monat in Siena (A Month in Siena), tr. Werner Löcher-Lawrence (from the English), Luchterhand (May 2021)
  • Najem Wali, Soad und das Militär, tr. Christine Battermann (from the Arabic), Secession Verlag (Juni 2021).
  • Atef Abu Saif, Ein Leben in der Schwebe (Hayat mu’allaqa), tr. Hartmut Fähndrich (from the Arabic), Unionsverlag (July 2021)
  • Asmaa al-Atawna, Keine Luft zum Atmen (Sura mafquda), tr. Joël László (from the Arabic), Lenos (August 2021)
  • Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, Der Messias von Darfur (Masih Darfur), tr. Günther Orth (from the Arabic), Edition Orient (Autumn 2021)

On Arabic Literature in German Translation:

Translator Hakan Özkan: Immigrant Translators in Germany ‘Don’t Get a Chance’

Translator Sandra Hetzl: On the Difficult Balance of Making a Living and Translating What One Loves

Publisher Stephan Trudewind of Edition Orient, on How the Translation-support System Should Be Restructured

Translator Larissa Bender: On the Clichés and Media Interest that Overdetermine Arabic Literature in German Translation

A List of Arabic Literature in German Translation


Leonie Rau is a Master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and hopes to pursue a PhD after her graduation. She is an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.


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