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Are the real secrets of Arabic literature lost in translation? Ibrahim Farghali
Sep 29, 2012 Save this article
For some years now I have followed reports of any Arabic literature translated into European languages, particularly English, French and German, as well as the recipients of Arabic literary prizes that receive attention from the translation industry.
I would receive these reports in good faith and with an appreciation for those in the West who involve themselves in translating a literature that enjoys no great global popularity.
Today, however, after much observation, I find myself posing two pressing questions: Is it really important that Arabic literature be translated into foreign languages and do these translations honestly lead to the spread of Arabic literature among readers of other languages? I write this as someone whose own work, The Smiles of the Saints, has been translated into English.
My response to these two questions is, I fear, a definite, unequivocal "No".
Taking together all of the Arabic literature we see translated and celebrated today, it is my view that nothing has changed.
These translations have failed to give expression to the true nature of the Arab world's literary output and they have proved unable to bring about any sort of audience for this literature.
Nor do I anticipate this happening in the future, as long as the existing mechanisms for translation continue to operate as they do. In particular, the greatest obstacle facing the translation of Arabic literature is the absence of Arab institutions to fund, publicise and frame a systematic process of translation.
Perhaps it is necessary at this point to remind myself that we are living in what the French philosopher Guy Debord terms "the society of the spectacle"; that profiteering, capitalist imperatives shape values throughout the world, both West and East; that institutions for propagating all-powerful consumer images strive to create markets for generating profit no matter the product and that, as it seems to me, the market for publishing and translation in both Europe and the Arab world is unfortunately no longer an exception to this rule.
But as an Arab author, my purpose here is to state that the Arabic book - exported outside its borders by means of translation, a representative of the Arab society that sent it - has become a victim twice over.
Once, of the superficial, commercial media, concerned with image at the expense of essence, which operates in its Arab country of origin and then again a victim of the image of the "eastern" book which the European literary class attempts to present to the world.
It is quite clear that there is a focus on the topics and not the techniques of writing on the part of publishers today, usually concentrating around subjects such as corruption, the role of Arab women in their societies and sexual relations (particularly in closed societies).
This appears to be driven by a publishing market which offers the western reader an image that says that, while such countries may not possess any "global" writers (in any case, a concept midwifed by Eurocentrism), they nevertheless possess societies that the reader can enjoy getting to know.
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