Jonathan Wright in response to Ibrahim Farghali's raised question: "Is it really necessary to translate Arabic Literature?"


So what exactly are Ibrahim Farghali's grievances against those who choose, translate, publish and promote Arabic works of literature in foreign, mainly European languages? And what solutions does he propose as alternatives to the present possibly flawed system?

Let's take the grievances one by one:

“These translations have failed to give expression to the true nature of the Arab world’s literary output.” I'm not sure where to begin with this one since subjectivity is deeply embedded in the phrasing. There's a 19th century, German romanticism, feel to the expression 'true nature' here, and I would dispute that Arabic literature has a true nature. Like all other human creations, it is immensely diverse and it's arrogant to claim that any one work is 'truer' to some essence than any other. If he means that the works translated don't reflect the full range of literature in Arabic, then he's probably right. But that would be true for any pair of languages. The sad reality is that there is a very limited market for foreign literature in translation in the Anglophone world and there is plenty of competition. Readers prefer works with strong characters and strong narratives. The elite writers favoured by the Arabic literary establishment don't seem very good at providing that.

“These translations … have proved unable to bring about any sort of audience for this literature.” This claim is manifestly false. Of course sales figures are modest, but publishers don't publish books to have them pile up in warehouses. To argue that low sales is a reason to stop trying is the ultimate in defeatism. We even have reviews in mainstream media from time to time, which would rarely have happened twenty years ago.

“The market for publishing and translation in Europe and the Arab world (is driven by) profiteering, capitalist imperatives.” Well, yes, that's true to some extent. But hasn't that always been the case, except where the state took complete control of the publishing business, as in the Soviet Union for example? Besides, there is NGO and quasi-governmental funding for literary translation and this makes a significant contribution in the case of Arabic-English translation. You might dispute the grant givers' choice of works but that's a different matter.

“The Western reader (is given the impression that Arab societies) are closed, incomprehensible societies, producers of terrorism and violence, whose inhabitants live through numberless manifestations of corruption and persecution, whose women suffer sexual and social victimization.” This is a pernicious accusation and the evidence for it is minimal. Oddly, when pressed to produce evidence that Western publishers deliberately favour such books, the accusers almost always come up with books that were originally written in English, usually by exiles wanting to take advantage of that niche market. I really cannot think of an Arabic-language book that has been translated into English that fits Farghali's description – i.e. a book in which these aspects of society were deliberately exaggerated to sell books. If he has good examples, let's discuss them. Besides, who could possibly deny that violence, corruption, intolerance and patriarchy are prominent features of many Arab countries in this decade? Why should Arab writers not write about such things? Mustafa Zikri's view that politics and society in literature are a pollution of the text is highly idiosyncratic. Of course there's a place for literature of a wholly personal nature but not much of the world's great literature (War and Peace? Anthony and Cleopatra? Naguib Mahfouz?) would survive Zikri's pollution test. It would be much less rich if it had to.

The Gaber Asfour theory of a neo-Orientalist conspiracy to impose hegemony through representations of Arab society. Basically a more neurotic and paranoid version of the earlier grievance. I just don't see the evidence. Tell us which works you object to. I suspect that in the case of Gaber Asfour, whom I have never met and never read, this grievance may have something to do with the fact that his own works have not been translated. Why that is so, I cannot judge.

Farghali's attack on Khaled al-Khamissi's Taxi. This is an old story but Farghali adds a twist to it by mistakenly assuming that Taxi is a piece of ethnographic reportage - “a sociological treatise stripped of its literary value”, as he puts it. Of course, Taxi is pure fiction and a fine piece of Egyptian colloquial literature, with strong characters and rich, lively language. I find the approach to literature apparently espoused by Farghali and Asfour arrogant, elitist. cliquish and misguided. They do a disservice to the promulgation of Arabic literature across the world by doing down writers with whom they should be in solidarity.

“Literary worth must be made the primary, indeed the sole, criterion for selection, because at the moment, the process is based on a political consideration.” This attitude is frankly laughable. Who is going to impose such a condition? Who is going to tell a publisher that they can't publish such and such a book because it's not literary enough? What kind of Platonic dictatorship does Farghali want to impose on us? No, we will not take orders from others. We will publish what we like, for whatever reasons we see fit.

Farghali's account of under-translated and over-translated authors. I don't want to go into detail here as I'm reluctant to discuss in public the relative merits of living authors. But there are some odd misunderstandings in his account – Youssef Rakha, for example, has been translated very quickly and his book won the Banipal prize last year. Nael Eltoukhy has also been translated. I have translated The Sleepwalkers by Saad Makkawi, but al-Shorouq seem reluctant to publish it, probably because they don't think it will sell well. I would dispute its status as a masterpiece, however. It's full of horrible anachronistic stereotypes about Mameluke society and Makkawi uses some highly pretentious language, apparently just to show off. Ironically, if you wanted to name a book that met the criteria for neo-Orientalist propaganda, then The Sleepwalkers would be a good place to start.

So what solutions does Farghali propose? He hints initially that maybe we should abandon the enterprise altogether. That is an absurd suggestion and deeply damaging to the process of cross-cultural dialogue that I assume he endorses. Or perhaps he means it's fine if the authors he favours are translated but not the ones he disapproves of. And who is he to assume these godlike powers? But I think the key to his position really lies in this phrase: “The greatest obstacle facing the translation of Arabic literature is the absence of Arab institutions to fund, publicize and frame a systematic process of translation.” This is old-fashioned Arab elite statism raising its ugly head. What Farghali is really proposing is that the selection process should be put in the hands of Arab cultural bureaucrats, who would almost certainly have conservative views on language and innovation. Thankfully this will never happen.



Author : Jonathan Wright

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