By ArabLit Staff
Women in Translation Month, an August celebration founded by the book blogger Meytal Radzinski in 2014, sits at the intersection of two visibility-raising efforts. The first, spearheaded by the Three Percent blog, highlights how few literary works in the United States are translations. The second, started by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, tracks women writers’ representation in English-language magazines, newspapers, and journals.
Surveys suggest that the majority of literary translators are women. However, research by Women in Translation Month organizers demonstrates that the books being translated into English are largely by men. Around 30 percent of new translations to English from across world languages are works written by women, while 70 percent are by men, Radzinski has found. This further affects how women writers in translation are reviewed or covered in the media, recognized by award committees, promoted in bookstores, sent out to reviews, and, Radzinski writes, ultimately reach (or don’t reach) readers.
Translations from Arabic to English have generally followed the 70/30 split. Of the 35 translations we were expecting for 2022, 12 were by women. However, this may also be reflective of general publishing trends in Arabic, where only five of the 16 books longlisted for the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for instance, were written by women.
There is often a belief that more works by women are translated from Arabic to English than are works by men. In a 2010 essay, Abeer Esber wrote that “Unfortunately, women in Arab countries are currently finding it easier, for all the wrong reasons, to find a publisher for their books.” In Peter Clark’s “Arabic Literature Unveiled: Challenges of Translation,” published in 2000, he said that he became interested in the work of Syrian author ‘Abd al-Salam al-Ujaili, then in his seventies. Clark pitched a translation to an unnamed publisher, who apparently said: There are three things wrong with the idea. He’s male. He’s old. And he writes short stories. Can you find a young female novelist?
And in Banipal 36, Youssef al-Bazzi wrote: “We can state here that there is not a single Arab woman writer, regardless of the quality of her literary writing, who has not met with European deference, translation, or ‘presence.’ What Arab women write is tantamount to magic in the eyes of Europeans.”
There are a handful of anthologies—Comma Press’s Book of Cairo, Book of Ramallah, and Book of Khartoum; Akashic Books’ Beirut Noir—that make an effort to translate roughly equal numbers of men and women writers. While these are clearly activist positions, this has not meant vast numbers of Arab women writers have seen their work translated to European languages. Of the women whose works appeared or will appear in English translation in 2022, most are highly acclaimed, multi-award-winning authors: Stella Gaitano, Bushra Khalfan, Maya Abu al-Hayyat.
Yet, certainly, Esber’s warning about the “wrong reasons” for highlighting Arab women’s work is an important one. Bigger than the question of numbers is how works by Arab women writers are selected, translated, edited, and packaged for release in English and other languages.
As Egyptian comix artist Deena Mohamed said in an interview with Egyptian Streets:
It’s kind of a myth that people won’t support ‘diverse’ work. What actually happens is the opposite – people want you to write about ‘the issues’ (for Westerners, Islam and feminism, for Egyptians, feminism) but they want you to write about it in a very specific way. They want really superficial, easily-quoted takes. They love women’s empowerment, if women’s empowerment means sharing [online] a hijabi superhero comic without ever reading the messages behind it. […] At some point you start to feel very patronised.
With that in mind, we will focus not simply on highlighting works by women writers, but on examining how these works are chosen, packaged, and reviewed. However, we will also—as in the past—recommend books we admire.
Women’s Writing in Arabic, Translated to English: Ten Books for 2022
Bitter Orange Tree, by Jokha al-Harthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (Catapult, Simon & Schuster)
You Can Be the Last Leaf, Maya Abu al-Hayyat, tr. Fady Joudah (Milkweed)
Mr N, by Najwa Barakat, tr. Luke Leafgren (And Other Stories)
Out of Time: The Collected Stories of Samira Azzam, by Samira Azzam, tr. Ranya Abdel Rahman (ALQ Books)
What Have You Left Behind? by Bushra Al-Maqtari, tr. Sawad Hussain (Fitzcarraldo)
Eddo’s Souls by Stella Gaitano, tr. Sawad Hussain (Dedalus Books)
The Djinn’s Apple by Djamila Morani, tr. Sawad Hussain (Neem Tree)