Monday, November 24, 2008

surge of interest in Arabic literature in translation

The inclusion of the English translation of Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea’s debut novel “The Girls of Riyadh” on the longlist for the world’s most valuable literary prize is a further breakthrough for Arabic fiction in translation.

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest annual prize for a single work of fiction, worth 100,000 Euros (equivalent to more than 127,000 US dollars). The nominations for the longlist of 146 novels, revealed on November 10, came from 157 libraries in 117 cities in 41 countries: “Girls of Riyadh” was nominated by Warsaw Public Library.

The longlist puts Alsanea [pictured at this year's London Book Fair] alongside such writers as Nobel prizewinners Doris Lessing and JM Coetzee, veteran US novelist Philip Roth, Michael Ondaatje, Alan Bennett and Khaled Hosseini (Afghan author of “The Kite Runner and “A Thousand Splendid Suns”).

A panel of five judges is to select the shortlist, to be announced on April 2, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin will reveal the winner on June 11. This year’s winner of IMPAC was an Arab: the Lebanese Rawi Hage, who lives in Canada, for with his novel “De Niro’s Game”. But unlike Alsanea, Hage writes his fiction in English.

With the success of “Girls of Riyadh”, Alsanea has become one of the biggest names in Arabic fiction globally. Another major name is that of Egyptian Alaa Al-Aswany, author of “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago” (coincidentally he and Alsanea are both Chicago-trained dentists).

Both writers have broken through into the Western literary mainstream, which has been a stimulus for Arab literature. Publishers are increasingly interested in publishing translations of Arabic writing, and are on the lookout for new Arab authors who may have mass readership appeal.

Given this surge of interest in Arab literature, the publication of David Tresilian’s “A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” is very timely. The book is published by Saqi of London, Beirut and San Francisco as part of its new Brief Introductions Series.

Tresilian has taught at both the American University of Cairo and Cairo University, and is a former co-editor of the Cairo Review of Books published by Al-Ahram. Since 1999 he has taught at the American University of Paris.

He cites the scholar Salih Altoma who noted that between 1947 and 1967 only 16 modern literary titles were translated from Arabic into English. The figure increased to 84 in 1967-88, and the trickle has since become a flood, partly due to the awarding in 1988 of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz.

Tresilian focuses on Arab literature available in English translation. Egyptian literature gets the lion’s share of space in the book, something that Tresilian justifies in terms of Egypt’s place in modern Arab literature. As the old saying goes: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”

This may no longer be true, Tresilian points out. The years of turmoil in Iraq have decimated the reading public in that country, while the civil war damaged Lebanon’s publishing industry. Furthermore, Egypt may be losing its traditional position of intellectual leadership of the Arab world.

At the same time some Arab publishers have established themselves outside the Arab world in cities such as London. And the rise in Gulf wealth has led to injections of capital into the Arab literary scene, for example in the form of prizes and of magazines and newspapers that publish and sometimes employ Arab authors.

Tresilian encompasses both fiction and poetry in his book, including a translation by Mursi Saad El-Din of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem “Song of the Rain”, with the Arabic and English on facing pages.

He covers much ground, but wisely he does not rush the reader through an exhaustive tour crammed with names. He takes time to deal with certain works in depth, including Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s novel “Men in the Sun”.

He touches on the controversies around translation and cultural exchange and explores ways in which modern Arabic literature might be thought about for the general reader and for students of comparative literature. He points to the danger that the choice of literary works for translation may create a distorted image of a culture.

Tresilian points to the difficult environment in which Arab writers operate when compared with their Western counterparts. Few if any Arab writers are able to live from their writing. Referring to the British author of the Harry Potter series, Tresilian observes:“There is no Arab JK Rowling”. Almost all Arab writers have full time jobs.

Arab writers do not enjoy anything like the book publishing and promotion industry found in the West. Although literature is admired in the Arab world, this does not guarantee that it will find a large readership. Writers also suffer from problems of censorship.
The book has an entire chapter on Palestinian literature. The influence of Palestinian writers reflects the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in shaping Arab culture. The relationship between politics and literature is also examined in a chapter on the impact on writers of the 1967 defeat. Egyptian writers Sonallah Ibrahim [pictured] and Gamal al-Ghitany had contrasting responses to the war. Ibrahim’s career developed through novels with a political stance, while Ghitani drew on pre-modern literary forms as inspiration, as in his novel “Zayni Barakat” about a market inspector in the Mamluk era. Another Egyptian writer, Edwar al-Kharrat, has been influenced by Proust.

Tresilian identifies three main trends on the contemporary Arab literary scene: a weariness with politics, a growth in the number of women writers, and a related emphasis on individual experience at the expense of larger public themes. A further development has been regional writing, as exemplified by Nubian writers and by the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni whose novels are set among the Tuareg people.

Recently there has been a turning away from European literary models and towards elements from the pre-modern literary heritage and from the oral and popular culture. But ominously there has also been a growing intolerance of literary expression generally, “which has made what was always perhaps a minority activity into one that is now that of a sometimes embattled minority.” One can assume that in such an environment, translation of their work from Arabic is likely to have increasing appeal to writers seeking to escape pressures and constraints.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, November 24 2008

1 comment:

Mytwostotinki said...

Interesting review of one of the best short introductions to Modern Arabic literature. My own thoughts: