“Did you go to the Salon du livre in Paris this year?”
This is a question I posed in passing to a number of Arab writers who live in Paris and write in their mother tongue. The answer given by most is “no!”
The reasons they don’t visit the Salon du livre surely vary. Some will be similar to those of French writers and include problems faced by all authors—things linked to the difficulties of writing, publishing, and remuneration. Perhaps one of the reasons Arab authors living in Paris don’t attend this book fair is that their literary concerns aren’t directed toward the place they live, but elsewhere. They live in France but are focused on Arabic writing in their home countries or other Arab countries. If these authors publish a book in translation, then a visit to the Salon du livre takes on a different dimension. In that case, they visit the book fair and head straight for the pavilion of the publisher who translated and published their book. Of course this does happen, though at the Salon du livre it is rare to see an Arab writer launching a book translated into French. Writing in a language other than that of where you live is a problem connected to the issue of translation itself and finding a place for Arab writers in the literary and cultural scene.
If the very nature of literature is the possibility of understanding the world better, translation then becomes the most important way to realize this understanding. Translation from Arabic into French isn’t new. Indeed it began early on, with important, ancient Arabic writing like the 1001 Nights, which was first translated into French in the eighteenth century. But here I’m talking about modern literature, associated with the post-World War Two period. I must begin with the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, and still is the only Arab writer to have won it. Mahfouz was not translated into French–or any other language–until 1970, when Sindbad, established by the French orientalist Pierre Bernard, translated one of his novels. Translations of a number of Mahfouz’s other novels followed. Translation from Arabic into French flourished at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, when Actes Sud bought Sindbad. Together with Actes Sud, other French publishing houses, like Gallimard and du Seuil, published hundreds of Arabic titles from different Arab countries.
But I can say that modern Arabic literature in translation into the main European languages—including French—still occupies limited space on the world literary scene. It is also possible to assert that it hasn’t had an impact on the Western novelistic scene in the way that Japanese, Latin American, or even Chinese literature has done. The increase or decrease in translation from Arabic is closely tied to the political situations and changes in the countries where the book originated. Many Iraqi or Lebanese novels have found their way into this equation, during periods of violence that these Arab countries lived through. Similarly, in the last three years there have been translations of some Syrian novels, especially realist reflections of what is happening inside Syria. Another example is that some of the novels translated from Arabic into French and nominated for French awards coming up this year, for the first time are from Yemen, a country that is currently being subjected to brutal violence and destruction much as happened in Iraq and Syria. This indicates a reality—how works of Arabic literature are seen as a socio-political documents and not literary texts; they are translated based on the texts’ “content.” In such a case, the novel-as-socio-political-document, and not a piece of literature, is destined only to last a short time, linked to publishers and readers’ interest in what is happening “over there”—that is in the writer’s country of origin.
Reflecting upon the state of translation from Arabic, it seems to me that reading translated Arabic works as “literary texts” and not simply social documents stopped at the 1001 Nights–that book whose stories in the Arabic language were first published now more than six centuries ago. This takes nothing away from translations that were published in the last decades of the twentieth century as a result of particular translators’ love for or attraction to Arabic texts they discovered, or the pioneering desire of publishing houses to present the best literary texts from around the world, some of them from the Arab world.
By Iman Humaydan
Translated by Michelle Hartman