For the past three years, a small European team has been working on a project called LEILA, founded with the aim of promoting the translation and dissemination of new Arab literary voices in Europe. Their website — with recommended books, events, interviews and more — recently launched at leila-arabicliterature.com.
On the newly launched website, you’ll find — among other things — a selection of 60 titles, curated by a jury of 16 authors, translators, scholars, editors, agents, and writers. The website includes synopses of the titles as well as samples newly translated into German, French, Italian, or English by top literary translators.
The LEILA judging process started out with a request to each of the 16 judges: that they recommended 6-10 titles, focusing on literature from the past 10 to 15 years. Over the course of long discussions, they listened to each other, refined their criteria, and came up with a shared list.
How the list came to be
Each of the judges brought their own expertise, interests, and personal favorites to the process. During the process, LEILA judge Nisrine Mbarki, a Moroccan-Dutch poet, said that they agreed to focus on books and writers who weren’t readily available on the European landscape.
Indeed, several of the judges said that they came to the project with an interest in promoting lesser-translated genres and books.
Judge Hiyem Cheurfa said that her first-round suggestions were mostly made up of nonfiction by Arab women. “As a specialist in this field, I am aware that Arab autobiographical texts do not receive the attention they deserve in Europe, especially those by women. I tried to include texts in different autobiographical sub-genres, including memoirs, diaries, and testimonies. I suggested works by Haifa Zangana, Radwa Ashour, Iman Mersal, Malika Moustadraf, Nadia Kamel, and others. My selection also included Algerian authors whose works are only known in limited Francophone contexts, such as Fadhila El Farouk, Amara Lakhous, Waciny Laredj, Habib Sayah, and Tahar Watar.”
LEILA judge Rania Said also wanted to see more nonfiction from a wider spectrum of writers. “I wanted to see more texts from North Africa make the final cut, so I let that guide my decisions throughout the process. I also wanted to see more life narratives.”
In the next stage, judges were faced with a shared list of suggestions that included more than 100 titles. Since they didn’t have time or resources to read all the recommended books, judges had to sample the texts, listen to their fellow judges, and rely on the other judges’ literary discernment.
Judge Sampsa Peltonen, a Finnish-Arabic translator, said that his final selections included a number of books that he would like to translate. “Commenting on the choices of others was not difficult, although I had not read most of them: all of the participants are good readers who represent a wide range of different tastes and areas of interest or expertise. I can ‘recommend’ a title even if I haven’t studied it thoroughly, or even if personally I didn’t like it: it is important to cater to a wide audience.”
Peltonen added that, for instance, he’s not an avid reader of crime novels, and yet he’d love to see more such novels in translation. “I would love to see more diversity in the selection of books that are translated from Arabic. That is why I have even suggested (I don’t know how seriously, but nonetheless) that we should also translate some pulp fiction, schmaltzy romance, or something like that!”
Hiyem Cheurfa said that, at this stage, what was particularly useful was that each jury member provided a short summary of their suggested book along with a biography of the author.
A few contemporary favorites made appearances on several people’s lists, Peltonen noted. But he added that the world of Arabic literature “is so vast that, what with the different areas of expertise and interest of each participant, there were all sorts of suggestions many others had never even heard about. Very inspirational!”
Next came long discussions via Zoom.
Rania Said noted that these discussions were not just about the literary quality of the recommended books, but also about genre, themes, literary fame, and the judges’ own aesthetic biases. Cheurfa said that an author’s fame became an important aspect of their decision-making. “If there was a text that had been translated to more than three European languages, it was unlikely to make the final selection.”
They also tried to be geographically inclusive. Initially, Cheurfa observed, the list was dominated by Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian writers. But slowly, it was rounded out to better represent the region.
For his part, Peltonen said that, “Making compromises was sometimes difficult. My biggest challenge was to try and keep in mind the big European context in which this project is placed. In Finland, where I come from, there are serious shortcomings: even some of the most important Arabic classics haven’t been translated into Finnish (imagine: al-Tayyib Salih’s موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال hasn’t been translated; I’ve tried and tried and haven’t found a publisher yet), and we are lucky if we get one translation from Arabic a year. Therefore, from the point of view of my own playground, I would want to list dozens of important novels from last decades, but most of them have already been translated to all major European languages. Therefore it is not very useful to include them in the Leila selection.
“It took me time to get over this,” Peltonen added, “but I’m ok now!”
Rania Said noted that, at a certain point, everyone had to become pragmatic. “I had to concede that, as much as I want to see more Arabic poetry in translation, it seems at this stage it might not be the top priority for publishers in Europe.”
And ultimately, Cheurfa said, the judges had to vote.
What the list represents
Rania Said felt that the LEILA list represents the taste of two small groups of intellectuals, and that it’s neither meant to be exhaustive nor representative. “It is a small step,” she said, “but an important one.”
Peltonen said he feels that the list will be interesting “to anyone who is curious about what sort of books are being published in Arabic all around the world.” He added that, “It serves as a reminder of how much interesting stuff there is out there: we just need translators, publishers, and readers so that they start making their way into our consciousness.”
Mbarki, meanwhile, said she hopes that it represents “Arab written literature in all its diversity and emphasizes richness from northern Africa to the northern Indian Ocean. That area is vast, complex, and beautiful in its differences and languages, and I hope this project will open some doors for our colleagues and unfold the map of our literature to European readers.”
A few favorites
A few of the judges were willing to share some of their favorites from the list. For Rania Said, it was “definitely توجان by Emna Remili (Tunisian desert literature). It’s such a beautiful text! A few years ago, I wanted to translate a few pages from Tujan into English for my blog and found it super challenging. I really hope to see a translation soon. Also, نظارات أمي by Ezzedine Hazgui is another narrative that I feel passionate about. It’s a prison narrative by a former member of the Perspectives movement (a radical Tunisian leftist movement that was very active in the 1970s). It’s written with so much humor and self-deprecation; it’s unlike any other prison narrative that I have read so far.”
Nisrine Mbarki mentioned the poetry of Iman Mersal, noting that she hopes to publish a translation of Mersal’s works in Dutch soon.
Sampsa Peltonen meanwhile, named Stella Gaitano’s novel أرواح إدو: “I fell in love with the book during a stay in Sudan, and I would LOVE to a) translate it to Finnish myself and b) to see it translated to many different languages. It is such a plunge into a world I knew almost nothing about. The style is exuberant yet
somehow delightfully crisp and uncontrived.” Happily, the novel will soon appear as Edo’s Souls in Sawad Hussain’s crisp, uncontrived English translation from Dedalus Books.