Tuesday, March 14, 2006

British Council's Arabic translation seminar

The four-day Arabic/English literature translation seminar organised in London last week by the British Council, in partnership with Arts Council England, was one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging explorations of the subject ever to have been held.

The seminar brought together leading Arab, British and other writers, translators, commissioning editors, literary agents, publishers and academics. The sessions on a variety of topics were supplemented by one-on-one interviews with two major Arab women writers, the Lebanese Hanan Al-Shaykh and the Moroccan Leila Abouzeid.

The seminar provided ample evidence of how rich and diverse the field of translating and publishing Arab writers has become in the past few years. One of the valuable spin-offs was the opportunity afforded for networking and contact building.

The event began on Tuesday at the London Book Fair, where a panel examined the translation of Arabic into English and vice versa, and the strengthening of links between the UK and Arab world in publishing, distribution, translation and cultural exchange.

The panel was chaired by translator, author and former British Council representative Peter Clark. It included Jordanian author Fadia Faqir, Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti, Palestinian poet and novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, and Margaret Obank, the publisher and editor of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature.

On the following two days, the venue of the seminar was Goodenough College. There were several ‘guest hosts’ for specific sessions, among them Banipal, the British Centre for Literary Translation (of the University of East Anglia), the Poetry Translation Centre of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and English PEN.

On Thursday evening there was a reception and dinner for seminar participants at the October Gallery in Bloomsbury, followed by author readings and a party. The final event was a brainstorming roundtable on Friday morning to discuss future plans and opportunities to increase links between UK literature professionals and Arab partners.

The Saudi novelist and short story writer Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, who is cultural editor of Al-Yamama magazine, was a speaker at a session on Thursday entitled: ‘How to create and maintain a dialogue: writers making connections.’ Born in Riyadh in 1964, Al-Mohaimeed is one of the new generation of Saudi fiction writers whose work tackles head-on the social conditions of the country.

Two chapters of Al-Mohaimeed’s novel “Traps of Scent”, translated by Anthony Calderbank, were published in Banipal’s special feature on the Saudi novel in its Summer 2004 issue.

“Traps of Scent” was originally published in Arabic by Riad El-Rayyes in Beirut in 2003; Al-Mohaimeed pointed out that because of censorship, a number of Saudi novelists have had their work published in Beirut. He expressed frustration at the misleading images of Saudi Arabia in the West, first as a country of camels, tents and oil and then, after 9/11, as a country of terrorism.

Al-Mohaimeed spoke of some of the difficulties facing Saudi novelists, and artists in such areas as film, theatre and the visual arts, but noted signs of an increased openness. He would clearly like British publishers to take an interest in Saudi novelists, but rejected pressure on those writers to write in a certain way. “In writing novels we feel that we are part of the world – we know the techniques of the novel and we want to contribute, but we don’t want to be ‘folkloric’.”
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 14 March 2006
Saudi novelist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed (L) and Syrian writer Fawaz Al-Haddad

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