Translation of Arabic Literature into English: A Chapter from a PhD Thesis: Titled Advocacy for the Palestinian Situation via Translation of Palestinians. Authors into English, Tübingen University-Germany
By: Husam Issa Ramadan (2020). Palestine
This paper focuses on the general process of translating Arabic literature into English. It highlights the history of translation from and into Arabic and sheds light on the major reasons and watersheds that draw the Western translators and readers to the Arabic literary masterpieces on the one hand. On the other hand, it discusses the main impediments to increase the Arabic titles in English language translation.
History and interest in translating Arabic Literature
Away from the number of the translated Arabic works into other languages, the process of translation from Arabic into other languages is not newly born, but it goes back more than a millennium. Mathieu (2016) says, “the era of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632) gave Arabic translation a big boost, as the desire to spread Islam and transmit it to communities which did not speak Arabic.” In addition, Allen (2014, p.191) confirms, “the Muslim armies’ rapid conquests [in the seventh and eighth centuries] brought Arabic into contact with those and other cultures in an entirely new and different context.”
Translation from other languages into Arabic however began in earnest between the ninth and tenth centuries; during the Abbasid era. On that topic and period, Allen (2014, p.193) comments, “a number of factors combined to create such a fertile environment for intercultural exchange and thus for a major increase in translation activities.” In the same context, Mathieu (2016) affirms, “another key period for translation into Arabic was the first Abbasid period (750-1250). Caliph Al-Mansour, who built the city of Baghdad, improved translation techniques, while Caliph Al-Ma’mun opened a small translation agency: The House of Wisdom (Bait Al Hikma) was the largest translation institute of the time.”
During the first half of the nineteenth century; during Muhammad Ali Pasha’s regime, translation manifestly grew to include not only literature, but scientific works as well. “Among the most prominent translators during that time was Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, who translated many scientific books for the army’s use” (El-Saba 2014, para.2). In the early twentieth century, new literary works were translated from and into Arabic by the Pen League, which was established between 1915 and 1916 and “the works of these members, like Gibran and al-Rihani, quickly spread across the Middle East. Gibran not only published works in both Arabic and English, but also self-translated some of his works, such as Sand and Foam” (El-Saba 2014, para.3).
The twentieth century saw few translations of Arabic literature into English and thus little knowledge of Arabic-language literature in the English-speaking world. Indeed, This tendency may well skew the selection of literary works for the international audience to some extent, but for the first half of the twentieth century it almost completely prevented their translation at all. Literature was afforded, at best, a marginal status within Oriental and Middle East studies, and — as the translators of the period can testify — it was almost impossible to find a publisher willing to take on an Arabic book in translation (Büchler and Guthrie 2011, p.20).
Due to the lack of money and awareness, a few books were translated into English from the 1940s to 1960s of the last century; “between 1947 and 1967 there were probably only sixteen Arabic books translated into English” (Büchler and Guthrie 2011, p. 20).
Years later, interest in the translation of Arabic literature did not show a clear upward trend
and the main aim of translation was not the result of the interest in the cultures and literary life of the Arabs, but rather, to understand the course of sociopolitical events in the Arab World. According to Büchler and Guthrie (2011, p. 6) “there are still not enough translations published from Arabic, and that, with some exceptions, interest in books coming from the Arab World is determined by socio-political factors rather than by the desire to explore the literary culture of the Middle East and North Africa for its own merits.”
As a result, there was an incremental increase in the number of Arabic works translated into English in the second half of the twentieth century. In detail, Things began to change from the late 1960s: from this point, through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a gradual but crucial expansion in academic interest in Arabic literature. The literary scholarship this new interest produced helped to gain a degree of respect and legitimacy for Arabic literature as an art form, beyond its supposed function as a social
document. A healthier number of translations began to appear in English — according to S.J. Altouma around sixty novels and forty anthologies were published between 1968 and 1988 (Büchler and Guthrie 2011, p.20).
However, other statistical studies show that “situation improved slightly with eighty-four titles
being published in translation between 1967 and 1988” (Three Percent 2008, para.2). In the last ten years of the 20th century, there was a sharp progress in promoting for Arabic authors in translations. That is, the furthering of translations from Arabic hinged upon the concern of some translation competent consortia, and their awareness of the significance of the translations into English in different levels.
By the mid-1990s an extensive corpus of Arabic fiction has become accessible in English translation to an equally expanded audience. […I Arabists have, on the whole, focused more on Egypt than on other Arab countries. [. . .T]he translation and printing of Egyptian works have been promoted through active support by such institutions, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, as the Ministry of Culture’s General Egyptian Book Organisation the American University in Cairo Press, the American Research Centre in Egypt. and York Press (Al-Omary 2010, p.279).
It is logical to consider new and unprecedented events in a certain place as a substantial cause
for the increased interest in translating literary works produced by writers of such a place. In other words, the tenser the situation anywhere, the greater the interest in the literature of that place or culture and its translation is likely to be. For example, due to events in the Arab World, more intellectuals paid attention to Arabic literature and the translation of it into other languages. The translation of Arabic literature, including books, novels, poems, short stories,
biographies, autobiographies and documentaries was furthered in the years following the tragic and tumultuous events in Arab history. For example, the Palestinian situation, which began in the year of 1948, urged Palestinian and non-Palestinian translators to communicate the experience of Palestinians to a larger audience via English-language translations, as the database of my thesis shows. Away from English translations, Hebrew translations of Palestinian literature for example, were also influenced by the Palestinian issue; “the attitude of Israeli Jewish culture to translations from Arabic literatures, including Palestinian literature, into Hebrew has been directly affected by the Jewish-Arab (later, Israeli-Arab) conflict” (Amit-Kochavi 2000, p.57).
To return to the main point of this section, the events of September 2001 also accelerated the translation Arabic literary works into English. Büchler and Guthrie (2011, p.18) confirm, “the events of September 2001 lead to a surge of interest in the Arab World, reflected in everything from Arabic provision and uptake at universities to a growing interest in and consumption of Arabic cultural product. In the UK, the British Council and Arts Council England followed the trend with an increased support for initiatives aimed at bringing Arab literature closer to the UK reading public…”
The first years of the first and second decades of the current century saw an upward increase in Arabic literature, let alone in translations. The reason for that manifest rise was the literary events and contributions some Arab countries did. Some of this attention can be traced back to 2004, when the Arab World was made the official focus of interest at the world’s biggest book fair in Frankfurt; four years later, Saudi Arabia was made guest of honour at the London Book Fair. Both generated deals and interest for Arabic authors. In October 2011, Arabia began Swallow Editions, a not-for-profit organisation that publishes books that have never been available in Arabic, let alone in translation. Meanwhile, in Doha, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing has been publishing in both Arabic and in English translation since 2008, as well as setting up training sessions, mentoring and internships (Holland, 2011, p.5-7).
Back to the socio-political events that took place in the Arab World, in the first years of the 2000s, the “translation of Iraqi literature into English focused on those works that shed light on the American invasion of Iraq in the year of 2003” (Qutait, 2016). Thus, some international translators were interested in Iraqi literary works that depict Iraq during the war. These works, for translators, will be of interest of different readers worldwide.
The year 2008 witnessed an increased number of translations of Arabic titles into English. More accurately, “21 works of adult literature and poetry were translated from Arabic into English in terms of 2008, so the position has most definitely improved. . . .” (Three Percent 2008, para.3). In late 2010, the translation of Arabic literature into English mushroomed due to the events of the Arab Spring. Thus, Western audiences could better understand the incentive behind the revolts. Moreover, “Alice Guthrie (bottom) will discuss her translations of contemporary Arabic slangs and dialects. She will explore the significance of writing in non-traditional ways during times of uprising and revolution” (The Common, 2015).
Furthermore, through a report about translation from Arabic into English in the UK and Ireland, Büchler and Guthrie (2011, p.6) say, “the number of literary translations published over the period covered by the study [1990-2010] (310 in total) doubled in the second decade, and especially in the second half of it. While in the first years of the 1990s the average number of published translations was between two and eight per year, in the 2000s the average rose to between ten and sixteen, with twenty-six translations from Arabic published in 2009.”
In the case of Syria, and due to the political escalations in most of the Syrian cities, works by Syrian writers have lately received special attention after 2011. This is because literature
from Syria in this period focuses more on the lives of millions of refugees, the homeless, the
loss of land, destruction, immorality, to mention but a few. In this regard, Weiss (2017) says,
“the Syrian uprising that broke out in 2011, and the civil war and international conflict(s) that have followed, generated unprecedented interest in Syria, its politics and, to a lesser extent, its culture. This talk considers various aspects of the ethics and politics of translating Syrian literature—of translating Syria—in this time of massive human suffering and complex political crisis.”
Sudanese literature, on the other hand, despite the outbreaks of protests there, has not been
adequately rendered into the English. This could refer to the scarcity of translation establishments, weak supervision of the literary outcome in Arabic. In turn, this affects the process of producing works in English translation. On that topic, Al-Safi (2018, n.p.) comments, The Sudanese literary texts translated and published from Arabic into English are so shallow, and they do not keep along with the pace of translation movement.
Like other Arabic literatures, there is no ultimate percentage to the Sudanese Arabic titles in English translation. Thus, “it is hard to figure out the percentage of the study and following up, especially in the midst of the absence of reliable sources that observe whatever written in Arabic, including the translated ones my translation from Arabic.
In fact, translation of someone’s Arabic works into English depends on where he or she lives.
In other words, if the writer stays resident in a place where he or she remains relatively unknown, his or her literary outcomes may not draw the attention of translators, thus denying
them the opportunity to have their work transmitted to a wider audience. For instance, the
Western audience knows neither Libyan literary works nor the country’s scholars. In this respect, Diana (2013, p. 30) confirms, “less well known to Western audience are the Libyan writers of adab al-manfa’ who write in Arabic.
The only exception within them is of course
Ibrāhīm al-Kawnī, whose books have been translated into almost forty languages and who has been living in Switzerland since 1993.” The Libyan literary works that have been translated
into English tend to describe sociopolitical life in Libya. An example of this is the story of The Wonderful Short Life of The Dog Ramadan by Omar el Kiddi, translated into English by Robin Moger in 2011 for Banipal Magazine, in a volume dedicated to Libyan fiction. It is a satirical description of the smuggling of migrants between the Libyan and Italian coasts.
Regarding the topics prevailing in most of modern Arabic literature, the place of production, and the common interest tendency made Arabic literature be a minor literature.
On that, Laouyene (2012, p.1) says, “according to Deleuze and Guattari, a minor literature is one that exhibits three major characteristics: the deterritorialization of the major language in which it is written, the political nature of its subject matter, and the collectivistic orientation of its enunciative moments (16-17).”
In the same course, translation of Arabic literature into other languages increased to meet the needs of some educational institutions that look forward to understanding the Arab World through literature. In a similar case, West-Pavlov and Elze-Volland (2010, p.iii) comment on
Australian literature in German translation “translation has also advanced to the status of a
key epistemological instrument for understanding other cultural operations.” Thus, Arabic literature in English translation is a perfect method to get a whole picture in case translation carries the exact tenor the source text holds.
On this, Allen (1969, p.9) says, “it is therefore confines itself to those authors who are of sufficient importance to merit mention in a survey course, and, equally as important, whose works are available in good translations, it is to be
hoped that even such a preliminary list as this may be of some use to those members of the association who are engaged in the teaching of modern Arabic literature.”
Pursuant to the interest that Arabic literature receives in English translations, significant efforts have been made to contain the translated works of pivotal Arab writers in print. Thus, the reader of Arabic authors in English translations can utilize them to conduct potential studies and research.
So the most notable titles in this field are Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion (2005) by Salih J. Altoma, Modern Arabic Fiction (2008) by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, An Anthology of Arabic Literature (2016) by Tarif Khalidi, Arabic Poems (2014) by Marlé Hammond, A Reader of Modern Arabic Short Stories (1988) by Sabry Hafez and Catherine Cobham, Emerging Arab Voices (2010) by Claire Peak, The Garden of
Joys (1979) by Henry Cattan, Modern Arabic Short Stories (2008) by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman, The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology (2011) by Suheil Bushrui and James M. Malarkey, Classical Poems by Arab Women: A Bilingual Anthology (1999) by Abdullah al-Udhari, Bedouin Poetry: From Sinai and the Negrev (2002) by Clinton Bailey, Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry (Adonis, Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim (1984) by Abdullah al-Udhari and others.
On the contrary, it would be rational to say that all has already been mentioned above could not be taken for granted. That is, what has happened in the Arab World recently; the Arab Spring, might not attract the attention of the Western audience to read literature of this period.
This however could be due to the fact that some Arab writers whose works are already in English language translation would be of interest of the Western readers. East (2011, para.7) comments, “and while the likes of Bahaa Taher from Egypt and Lebanon’s Elias Khoury continue to grow in popularity via excellent translations, it’s a little too glib to say the Arab Spring will bring a greater interest in contemporary fiction translated from Arabic.”
In summary, Arabic literature received an exponential increase in attention from western audiences and translation houses in recent times because of exoteric political happenings, including amongst others September 11, the Arab Spring, the Palestinian question. Sayaheen
(2015, p.189) shows, “September 11 increased the interest in translating Arabic works in general (46.67%), Arabic works of fiction, (60.00%), and Arabic religious works (33.33%).”
Further initiatives have been taken to compile the English translations of Arabic literature in
definite books and websites. This includes the founding of PROTA in 1980, the establishing of East-West Nexus Centres in 1991 for the translation of Arabic literature in general and the
dissemination of Arabic culture and civilization, the establishment of the Arab Organization for Translation in 2000, the building of websites, like Free Verse, PoemHunter, Adab, etc.
Moreover, “some scholars wrote their narratives and poetry in Arabic and English like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Edward Said, and others write in many languages, as Raja Shehadeh, Nizar Zuabi” (Handal 201, para.7).
Banipal Magazine in the UK also published 39 numbers, starting from its opening in 1998
until 2010. These numbers in fact included 650 English-language translations commissioned in England. However, the process of documenting English-language translations of the Arabic titles is far from complete because of “the shortage of reliable statistical data about Arabic-language works translated into English and published in the U.S. except for the UNESCO’s Index Translationum which is incomplete” Sayaheen (2015, p.191).
Despite this, the English-language translation of Arabic literature is still poor in comparison with produced literary works in Arabic. On that, “the 3rd Arab Human Development Report (2003), and based on antiquated and incomplete data, deems the current Arabic translation movement strikingly weak and calls for an ambitious and integrated Arab strategy in the field of translation” (Jacquemond 2009, P.1).
Why not enough translation?
The field of Arabic-English translation has been stimulated in recent times by, amongst other things, such developments as the introduction of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in English translation, the establishing of new translation ventures, the increased allocation of funding for translators book fairs and literary events. Nevertheless, increase efforts have not sufficed to let Arabic literary fiction and nonfiction in English-language translation present a picture that reflects the orient to the occident. In this area, Alhirthani (2017, p.132) confirms, “the Arab translation movement witnessed a surge in the last three decades, embodied in the establishment of translation promoting organizations as mentioned above, yet so far the output of translating from Arabic into other languages is still meager.” I will relate the most important reasons for the stunted development of the field of Arabic-English translations.
The world economic crisis of 2007, which began in the USA and spreading then to Europe, hindered the translation of Arabic authors into English. On this, Tarbush (2012, para.22) confirms, “the developments in Arabic-to-English literary translation this century have been impressive, but the global economic downturn is leading arts funding bodies to cut their budgets.
Some UK-based publishers of translated Arabic fiction have recently suffered Arts Council cuts.” In this regard, Al-Omary clarifies that problems of translation in the Arab World are also due to the lack of money specified for translation. He adds (2010, p.278), “translated literature cannot enjoy a better interest then. The problem of interest is overcome by the problem of funding and the whole thing turns over to be claimed economic.”
Additionally, according to Al-Omary views on who translates and publishes Arabic literature, he attributes the weakness of translation of Arabic fiction into English to the fact that translation is conducted individually rather than institutionally. In this respect, Al-Omary (2010, p.276) criticizes, “Arabic literature enjoys, unfortunately, more individually-oriented translations than institutionally-oriented ones. This can be the full stop to the above question, but there are still the publishers.” In the same vein, Al-Safi (2018) adds, “the translated literary texts from Arabic into English are mostly just individual efforts” (my translation from Arabic).
In other words, the nonexistence of official consortia in the Arab World formed an enormous
intricacy to the process of translation. On that topic, Al-Omary (2010, p.276) adds, “no official institutions exist to encourage translating Arabic literature.” On the contrary, the translations of American fiction or nonfiction texts are oriented either by institutions or run by individuals in exchange for of stipends. This in turn is one of the major reasons for American literature’s international renown.
Further, the fragile cooperation between the publishing houses and translation consortia,
and the governmental associations negatively affects the trials to promote Arabic-English translations. In his thesis, Al-Omary (2010, p.276) affirms, “the political link seems to be lost between the Arabic literary author and the government which is supposed to encourage him.
Many translators, national or foreign, realize this broken link. They also realize that their translations are not encouraged and supported officially.” In the same context, the authoritative and factional agendas in the Arab World are a stumbling block to Arabic-English translations.
In other words, the absence of the cultural authority that follows up the literary production in Arabic and English-language translation weakens the process of translation.
That is to say, “the moral responsibility of the official authorities is almost absent toward their
literatures. To give an example, Yemeni literature has but little presence in English translation, let alone in other western and eastern languages.” (Al-Omary 2010, p.277). More gravely, the nonexistence of cultural stakeholders in different parts of the Arab World led to the low availability of Arabic texts in English translation. On this matter, Al-Omary (2010, p.278) confirms, “cultural attaches do not tend to do anything serious to promote their own literature in its original language.
Many departments of Arabic libraries complain of the lack of material on Yemeni literature.” Regarding the factional affiliation, some scholars I interviewed in Palestine, in person or by telephone, said that if the writer has no rapport with some influential people in a certain party, his or her works remain in the source language.
With the treatment of translation as a hobby not a job is another hurdle that prevents overcoming the longstanding shortage in Arabic English translation. As a conformation of the foregoing, Al-Omary (2010, p.277) comments, “translation from Arabic is not a profession in which there are any degrees or standards or rewards. The best you can say is that nobody translates Arabic unless they are an ‘amateur’ in the original sense of the word, in the sense of ‘lover’.” In addition, “translation [from Arabic] is not seen as a viable career choice among students and graduates” (Büchler and Guthrie 2011, p.7).
Arab society itself must take the greatest part of the responsibility for the lack of translations. The Arab people’s negative attitudes towards their languages and culture add fuel to the fire. They actually do not understand their culture and literature; the other cannot in return understand them either. Henceforth, we have to know ourselves before we seek to make the Other know us. Knowing ourselves cannot be achieved unless our languages, literatures and cultures are respected by us first. If translation is to play a role in this direction, then we should care a lot about the role it can play. It should not be marginalized” (Al-Omary 2010, p.280).
The most vivid example which I can cite here to show the passiveness of the Arabs towards their own literature, I draw from my experiences during the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the English department of An-Najah National University in Palestine between 2008 and 2016. During these two periods the educational staff never motivated the students to read
Palestinian texts in English translation. This in turn draws the Palestinian student’s attention
away from his or her own culture. This means that students are unlikely to chance upon the idea of translating their culture into other languages, as they have never studied it themselves.
Because of the obstacles I have already mentioned that prohibited any progress on English translations of Arabic authors, the international translation houses and individual translators
took it upon themselves to translate any Arabic text they are interested in. In other words, the
hurdles above ceded control of Arabic literature to the West, this in fact “worsens the situation, and adds more wet to mud, as the Arabs say, that the hegemony of the West over the whole Orient creates its particular crises” (Al-Omary 2010, p.282).
This leads to the translation of the kind of texts that interest the Occident. That is to say, the western institutions and translators are selective in their choice of works for translation. They focus mainly on to show the disadvantages of the Arab’s traditions. In other words, The West translates what may ‘pour’ into its interest. It translates either to recognise or to get recognised. As a matter of fact, the Arabic books translated into English are not popular; they are just taught at certain departments at universities with an aim to study these peoples, know how they think and then launch attacks on their cultures in their own environments.
The West wants to read books of the kind similar to The Thousand Nights and One. They have certain stereotypes on the Orient. They do not want novels on ordinary people thinking of issues related to our age. They draw themselves away from the serious literature that captures the attention of those who are specialised in the Mideast Studies (Al-Omary 2010, p.279).
Additionally, the most preferred Arabic texts for English-language translations are likely those
that depict the West as a superior society. In this regard, Al-Omary (2010, p.279) approves, “Arab writers who promoted the West and its cultural values in their writings are placed in the front. Najib Mahfuz [whose 32 out 35 novels were published in English] and Nawal al-Sa’dawi from the Arab World and Salman Rushdi from India are best examples.
Till this date, the first decade of the third millennium, the Arab Orient is placed literarily and culturally under the same politics of perception and representation.”
By contrast, the stereotypes that the West holds about the Arabs and their cultures lure the
West away attempting to provide accurate representations of Arab. On the other hand, the
West tried to impose the cultural values on the Orients owning to the political power it had. It
means that translation in the early beginnings of the second half of the nineteenth century was
increasingly unilateral, i.e. from the western languages into Arabic.
To sum up, due to a variety of reasons and grounds, there is consensus that the translation of Arabic literature into English is still inadequate. Translation from Arabic into English remains the preserve of specialized publishers. The interest in books produced in the Arab World is somehow determined by socio-political factors. Lack of interest and belief of the Arabs in their own culture and literature, the cultural lag of Arab societies, and their faulty insertion in international economy of knowledge are also an obstacle to increasing the amount of translations made. The costs of translation and publishing in the Arab World are high and unsubsidized. The absence of the monitoring of the process of translation and publishing made the translation from Arabic into English worse.
The European selection process of Arabic texts for translation choice is devoted mostly to the image that depicts the Arabs as reactionary and corrupt. In addition to the nonexistence of collective translation initiatives (Büchler and Guthrie, 2011; Jacquemond, 2009; Nassar, 2011; Shosheh, 2015; Jayyusi, 2007; Elmani, 2011; Clark 2000; Aksoy, 2005).
The reasons above summarize the worsening background against which Arabic-English
translation takes place. I regard this section here as a trajectory to the serious causes that prevent the Arabic texts to emerge favorably in the English-language translation, especially that they mostly include real sociopolitical issues.
On the other hand, I tend to wrap up the discussion of this section to say, the problems of translating Arabic literature into English should not be dealt as an invincible iceberg, nor should the translation students, translators or the amateurs surrender to the challenges and missteps that hinder any advances in the increase of Arabic literary works in English-language translation.
On the contrary, they have to take all of the aforementioned challenges into account in order overcome them to upgrade Arabic literature in English-language translation.
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