Lost in Translation: The Arab Book in the Language of the Other

The Arab book is a beleaguered creature,undernourished, undervalued and deprived of the very oxygen that makes it grow and prosper: freedom of expression. In the 22 countries of the Arab world with a combined population of 284 million, a ‘best seller’ may have a print run of just 5,000 copies, as a result of censorship, high illiteracy rates  – about 60 million adults in the Arab world today cannot read or write – and other constraints. Arabs constitute 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet they produce only 1 per cent of the world’s books, 17 per cent of which are religious books. In 1996, Arab countries produced no more than 1,945 literary and artistic books. Translation of foreign works into Arabic lag far behind figures in the rest of the world: according to the UN, ‘five times more books are translated into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic’.

Security services ban, burn or confiscate publications if they perceive them to violate political, moral and/or religious sensitivities. They also prevent the sale of certain books and promote the sale of others. There are 22 departments of censorship at the ministries of culture across the Arab world. Further, it is difficult for books to move easily through Arab borders to their natural markets, which ultimately increases the cost of production and hinders publishing and circulation. Creativity, innovation and knowledge are thus curtailed.

As a result of the economic sanctions against Libya, for example, you cannot buy any book that resembles anything scholarly. Colonel Gaddafi’s The Green Book, however, was on sale everywhere, together with the published proceedings of a conference on The Green Book. Libyan writers have no option but to add their manuscript to the long queue at the Al-Dar al-Jamahiriyya li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzi, a government-sponsored publishing house. They normally wait for long periods, sometimes up to 10 years or more, to get published. Most hapless authors do not dare take their manuscripts out of the queue for lack of other options and for fear of being put back at the end of the queue if they later change their minds.

Jordanian authors submit their manuscripts to the erratic and whimsical censor, who sometimes sends them back with red marks all over and with nuggets of advice such as: ‘kill the main character’. Many authors save up to pay publishers the printing costs of their novels. It is the reverse of what normally happens: while publishers pay to buy copyrights here in the UK, authors in Jordan pay to sell their work to the fat-cat publishers.

There is also the matter of self-appointed censors who initiate witch hunts against authors; the recent court case against Nawal el-Sadaawi. Samia Mehrez, professor of Modern Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo, for example, came under attack for assigning to her class the fictional autobiography of the Moroccan writer Muhammad Choukri, al-Khubz al-Hafi, which was perceived by some students and parents to be ‘pornographic’.

Without any valid travel documents or a visa the Arab book travels West.

The picture is equally grim on the other side of the divide. The Arab world translates about 330 books per year. In 1999, the USA, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that produces well over 100,000 books per year, translated 330 fiction and poetry titles. This contributes to the ‘provincialisation’ of Arab and US minds. In the UK, the Arts Council’s budget for translating from all the languages of the world into English is £92,000 (US$156,400); Arabic receives very little of this.

There is also growing suspicion of those who can speak other languages, particularly Arabic. A few years ago, Francis Fukuyama said, ‘The State Department was well rid of its Arabists and Arabic speakers because by learning that language they also learned the ‘delusions’ of the Arabs.’ Primo Levi argued that some people perceive a person who can speak another language as ‘an outsider, a foreigner, strange, and therefore, a potential enemy’.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, some have argued that the Arabic language and the Arabs are afflicted with both a mentality and a language that has no use for reality. In 1988, Edward Said tried to interest a New York publisher in the works of Naguib Mahfouz, ‘but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language’. Even after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, his publishers felt it necessary to flag that he had been influenced by Flaubert, Balzac, Proust to make him palatable.

Using a West European yardstick, Arabic, an ‘indirect, oral language’, is normally compared to its disadvantage with English, a ‘literate, direct language’. According to one commentator, ‘Arabic lacks logic in the Western popular sense . . . it encourages an emotional appeal, emphasises structure and form, depends on association as a persuasive device, and relies on a generally indirect approach.’ Language is never dysfunctional, it is a tool that merely reflects the development or underdevelopment of the intellect of its user.

The Arab Women Writers series, for example, was a project fraught with difficulties.  The poor distribution of Arab books made them almost impossible to find in the bookshops of Western capitals. After spending almost a year chasing up books, consulting colleagues, publishers and booksellers, five novels by Arab women, who normally get little publicity in the West, were commissioned. The novels were deliberately chosen as an antidote to some of the inferior texts that get translated into English and that normally confirm many of the preconceptions some editors and readers have about the oppressive and illogical Arab. x

The long debate with the publishers began to convince them that a text written originally in Arabic rather than in English does not automatically mean it is inferior. What complicates matters is the small number of editors in Western publishing houses who master Arabic; even some of those of Arab origin are unable to read and understand modern standard Arabic. As for those who studied Arabic at university, many have difficulties reading long Arabic texts to select some for translation. Most editors are also ignorant of the Arab-Islamic culture and must be educated to be able to appreciate and contextualise the books.

Although Arabic ranks sixth in the world league table of languages, with an estimated 284 million native speakers, fewer and fewer people have an acceptable knowledge of it. Arabic generally can be divided into Classical Arabic – our Latin – that is read and written by a small minority; Modern Standard Arabic – an adapted and simplified version of Classical Arabic – and a large number of local dialects. ‘Written, literary Arabic with its grammatical complexities is notoriously difficult to learn. Arabic readers need to master an ancient and intricate blueprint of foreign grammar, syntax and vocabulary.’ This might partly explain the uphill struggle to find qualified and properly trained translators to work with on the Arab Women Writers Series (Garnet Publishing). The quality of the translations, with few exceptions, was poor indeed. Translators, with degrees in translation from reputable universities, did not know the difference between daraj and durj, for example. Not only does the quality of their education leave much to be desired, some Arabic departments are now under threat of closure.

Many Arabs living in the West have decided to cut out the middleman and create ‘an Arab book’ in the language of the other. The reasons behind this decision vary, but it is a by-product of the colonial encounter and, as Salah Trabelsi says, of a rising awareness of ‘multiculturalism that provisionally disowns one’s self to listen to and to perceive, beyond differences, a kinship of gestures and of desire.’ The writing of some Arabs in the West treads the divide between two cultures and, as result, suffers and benefits from occupying such a dangerous site, linguistically and otherwise. ‘Displacement urges transcultural writers to revisit their culture of origin by the essential questioning of their relationships with their body, faiths, rites, languages’ (Trabelsi 2003)

I find it puzzling that the large body of writing in English by Arabs or authors of Arab origin has not yet been subjected to serious study and analysis. Geoffery Nash’s book The Arab Writer in English: Arab Themes in a Metropolitan Language, 1908-1958 is the first serious study of what he describes as the ‘internationalisation of literature’ and its impact on Arab writers. Let me fill this gap and coin a new term: ‘Arabs writing in English’ (AWE). This covers the body of work by Arab writers who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually Arabic. It is also associated with the works of members of the Arab diaspora, especially people such as Ahdaf Soueif, who was born in Egypt. As a category, this comes under the broader realm of postcolonial literature, produced in previously colonised countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Jordan.

AWE is transcultural writing that problematises social issues, sense of identity and terms of reference. ‘The production of a new discourse defies the constraints and taboos of the culture of origin (such as the sacredness of the Arabic language or the subaltern status of women) by putting it in dialogue with a different culture. The purpose is neither soft-edged amalgamation nor slavish mimicry; instead, it is to propose creative new identities for the individual and the collective subject.’ (Trabelsi 2003)

As an Arab writer, writing about the Arab culture in English, I find myself preoccupied with themes of exile and representation that reflect the condition of an ‘expatriarch’, a writer who has crossed from one culture into another because of her father. This trans-cultural position is reflected in the intricate process through which my writing is composed and through my endless attempts to carve a small territory within the English language for myself. Behind the all-embracing problems of creative duplicity, from a post-colonial position emerges one writer’s struggle to comprehend an alien world and cope with the profound consequences of living a bicultural identity.

When I interviewed her for the East Anglia University magazine in 1988 Toni Morrison said, ‘literature is about to change and it is going to be changed by earnest minorities, that is where the life is, fait accompli. So, your job, my job and the job of women and people of colour is to make sure that they do justice to what is about to come.’ This argument can be extended to include earnest majorities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Post 9/11 and 7/7 translation and dialogue are no longer optional. By definition civilisations never clash, they borrow, converse and learn from each other. In this transnational space with no safe corners the most exciting and necessary literature is born. The site is dangerous, tiring, and stimulating, but there is no other space I rather be. There is no other space that you, I hope, rather be. Your mind cannot pass sound judgements on momentous events without listening to the voice of the other, which is in these dangerous times is no longer a luxury. Literature will bring us closer, will help us forgive, will even console us. To you on all sides of the divide I say today, ‘translate, publish, read and learn or be damned.’

London Book Fair, 7/3/2006

The Arab Human Development Report 2003 (AHDR 2003), UNDP
Benhaddou, Mohamed, ‘Postcolonial Textualization of Arabic’, Political Discurse – Theories of Colonialism and Postcolonialism, May, 2003.
Devlin, Kieron, Mississippi Review.com, 2002.
URL: http://www.mississippireview.com/2002/leilani-devlin
Dilday, K. A., ‘Lost in Translation: The narrowing of the American Mind’, OpenDemocracy, May, 2003.
Castillo, Daniel Del, ‘The Arabic Publishing Scene is a Desert, Critics Say’, August 10, 2001.
Said, Edward, ‘Dreams and Delusions’, Al-Ahram Weekly, 20-27 August, 2003.
Said, Edward, ‘Naguib Mahfouz and the Cruelty of Memory’, Counterpunch, December, 2001.
Trebelsi, Hechmi, ‘Transcultural Writing: Ahdaf Soueif’s Aisha’, Jouvert, Issue 2, Vol. 7, 2003.

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