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

Larissa Bender published her first translation into German, Abdelrahman Munif’s Sharq al-mutawassit, in 1995, and has seen a number of changes in the field:

By Leonie Rau

Larissa Bender studied Islamic Studies, Ethnology, Art History, and Sociology in Cologne and Berlin and spent multiple years studying Arabic in Syria. She is a translator of Arabic literature, an Arabic lecturer, and a journalist and has edited two anthologies on politics and culture in Syria. Additionally, she moderates events with authors, creates assessments of Arabic literature, and advises publishing houses as well as organizers of cultural events.

How did you get started with literary translation?

Larissa Bender: I was already very interested in Arabic literature while I was studying Islamic Studies at university. Since there were very few translations from Arabic to German in the 80s, and Arabic literature was almost entirely unknown in Germany. I thought, why not try my hand at translating some myself. I also changed universities during that time because I wanted to focus on modern rather than classical Arabic literature. My first translated novel, Östlich des Mittelmeers (Sharq al-mutawassit) by Abdalrahman Munif was published in 1995 by Lenos.

Translator Larissa Bender
Arabic-German Translator Larissa Bender

Which kind of text do you most enjoy translating?

LB: I prefer novels and essays or reports. I only rarely translate poetry, except sometimes prose poetry such as Ghayath Almadhoun’s, which I translated for the collection Ein Raubtier namens Mittelmeer (A Predator Called Mediterranean). By the way, I’d love to translate political and historical non-fiction books, but sadly, it has to be said that trust in Arabic (popular) science in Germany or maybe even Europe as a whole is virtually nonexistent. When the Arab Uprisings started, many books were written on them by German and sometimes European correspondents, for example. I don’t know of any book on this topic which was translated from the Arabic, except for some formats like revolution diaries or interviews.

What does your typical translation process look like, from discovering a text to its publication?

LB: Only very rarely will a translator find a publisher for a book they would like to translate. Publishing houses and editors work according to their own logic. I managed to find a publisher for novels I really wanted to translate just twice, with Östlich des Mittelmeers and with Das Schneckenhaus (al-Qawqa’a) by Mustafa Khalifa. Both books deal with oppression, imprisonment, and torture in dictatorial regimes. Usually, publishers approach me to see whether I am available and interested in translating a text for which they already possess the rights.

First, I do a draft translation, i.e. a German text which will be mostly grammatically correct but neither beautiful nor coherent. I usually compare this text to the original Arabic once more, since there is always the danger of having misread something due to the characteristics of the Arabic script. Based on this text, I inch towards a German version that reads well. Depending on how compatible the original text is with the German language, this can include six to seven permutations that sometimes differ quite a lot from the original. I always try sticking to the original as closely as possible, but to also depart from the text as much as is necessary to find a German style that reads well. I always read the last version out loud to hear the rhythm and melody of the text.

Afterwards, the text goes to the editor. All edits and suggestions have to be approved by us translators, however, since the text is published under the translator’s name as well and they hold copyright to the translated texts. It is always exciting when a text comes back from the editor, since they are usually the translation’s first external reader. You could say that it’s a first test of whether the translated text works in German or not, and whether editor and translator are on the same page.

How do you see the current German-speaking market for translated literature?

LB: In my opinion, translated literature is extremely important because it is the most accessible entry point to other cultures. In the globalized world we live in today, intercultural exchanges have become part of everyday life for most people.

Regarding Arabic literature in German, much has changed in recent years. Interest in the culture and literature of the Arab world has increased considerably ever since many people fleeing war and persecution arrived in Germany from that region. Remarkably, many of these refugees either already were writers back in their home countries or started writing during or after fleeing. Syrians especially have distinguished themselves in that regard. Many were supported in their literary ambitions with funding by various projects and many books, especially poetry collections, written by relatively recently arrived authors, have appeared in German in the last few years.

What I feel is still missing is a true and deep interest by German publishers and the feuilletons in Arabic literature aside from stories of war and displacement. One can, however, detect a certain windfall, in that individual publishers have started opening up to Arabic literature, sometimes even for books that don’t deal with the so-called Arab Spring.

What kinds of texts, what topics, what countries of origin are en vogue or in demand? Do you see any kind of development in recent years?

LB: As I mentioned, Syrian writers especially have attracted attention in the last few years. This goes back to both the tremendously high number of Syrian refugees and the at times very intensive media coverage of the events in Syria – just think of the times when we got new reports of the Syrian regime using barrel bombs and chemical weapons against their own people almost every day. Sadly, it has always been the case that any short-term interest in Arabic literature coincides with this very limited media attention. The war in Syria, and the mass exodus of Syrians, led to an interest in Syrian literature.

But what do we know of Tunisian or Libyan literature? Tunisia exists in our minds mainly as a holiday destination and a gateway for attempts flee to Europe. Accordingly, Tunisian literature has hardly been translated at all, except for a few books that make refugees and migration their subject. What constitutes Tunisian – or Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan – literature, however, is basically unknown, even though these countries are politically and economically connected to Europe, not to mention the Gulf states. From these countries, the only narratives that are met with any interest are those about persecuted or imprisoned journalists or about women who are oppressed or fleeing oppression. These books then sport fitting covers featuring veiled women, or women who flaunt their charms contrary to expectations. It is, however, entirely unknown here what kind of actual literature is written in these countries and I sadly can’t see any real development on this front.

What problems does the German market for translated literature face, in your view?

LB: In addition to the above-mentioned correlation between interest in a country’s literature and its political or human rights and censorship situation, Arabic literature faces other challenges in Germany. For one, the market focuses more and more on the Anglophone area and is already very hard to access for literature from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

For Arabic literature, prejudices against Islam and the Arab world also play a role and are too deeply ingrained as to be dismantled over the span of a few years. Finally, Arabic literature still hasn’t been freed from the cliché of the “1001 Nights.” This can be observed even among plenty of literary editors who still belabor that cliché in their reviews, even where entirely inappropriate.

What wishes do you as a translator have for the future of the market?

LB: I wish that more attention would return to literature. We are currently very painfully experiencing that many public-service broadcasters in radio and TV reduce or cut their literature programs entirely. In my opinion, the opposite should be happening.

I also wish for literatures from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to attract much more attention, especially in the few remaining literary programs. There are a few funding schemes such as Litprom in Germany or prohelvetia in Switzerland as well as some very active publishers, but generally, literature from these continents is still very much overlooked.

As a translator, I would wish for the translators of those literatures to be spotlighted a lot more, since they are the actual bridge between the different cultures.

Which Arabic book in German translation would you recommend to everyone?

LB: If I may recommend one of my own translations, I’d choose Das Schneckenhaus by Mustafa Khalifa. In this book, a man imprisoned in a Syrian desert prison describes the brutality of the Syrian regime and how it transfers to the guards and prisoners. It is a fantastic novel in my opinion, even if the events portrayed are gruesome. I am deeply convinced that we must not close our eyes in the face of such cruelty. Such dictatorships can only exist because the international community does not intervene and instead profits off of these states and conducts business with them. Maybe reading this novel can contribute a little to raising awareness of the crimes of these inhumane regimes.


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_.

More on Arabic Literature in German Translation:

An Introduction: 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

A List of Arabic Literature in German Translation