Are the real secrets of Arabic literature lost in translation?
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.
The Arab countries, the publishers seem to say, are closed, incomprehensible societies, producers of terrorism and violence, whose inhabitants live through numberless manifestations of corruption and persecution, whose women suffer sexual and social victimisation - and these books will open the door to this world for you.
In fact, this phenomenon has provoked comment from many Arab writers.
I quote here from an article by the Egyptian critic and academic Gaber Asfour, a professor at the University of Cairo and (briefly) Egypt's minister for culture, published in Al Hayat, in which he examines this phenomenon and states that it is driven by what he calls "a neo-orientalist tendency".
"A globally prevalent neo-orientalist tendency espouses a set of literary and artistic works from the Third World in general, and the Middle East in particular, abounding with denunciations and exposes of a ubiquitous vile backwardness and rampant corruption at every level, with the aim of marketing these works after translating, distributing and promoting them in the media to an unprecedented degree.
"This gave rise to the phenomenon of the modish, scandalising novel of limited creative value that lets no corruption, oppression, perversion or deviance pass unmentioned, playing up portrayals quite dreadful in their backwardness."
Asfour believes that this is no coincidence, pointing out the "the orientalist trend is coupled to a parallel ideology of hegemony associated with the rise of the ideology of globalisation, which aims to achieve two things.
"The first, is to perpetuate in the minds of westerners an image of an East in decline, simultaneously alien, fantastical, backward and oppressed, to justify the need for colonialist dominance of the region.
"The second, is to convince the inhabitants of this wondrous East of their abiding retardation, itself the source of the admiration they receive and their fascination. By keeping the backward East backward, this makes it a source of wealth to be plundered; a display case of human wonders and the prodigal rewards they bring."
The literary critic and Arabist Stefan Weidner is one of those who lauded these limited works - in this case Khalid Al Khameesi's Taxi - when he wrote:
"Some critics in the West might ask, 'But is this book in fact not literary enough?' Yet it is incumbent upon us to cast off a traditional western understanding of literature if we are to comprehend what the author has accomplished here. We must admit that with a single, decisive blow, Al Khameesi has severed the Gordian knot of contemporary Arabic literature, to wit: that the problems these authors should be addressing in their works are too big for literature to solve."
Personally speaking, I do not understand why a literary text must be transformed into a sociological treatise stripped of its literary value, nor why stories of this sort are promoted as literature in the first place.
In place of the purely commercial Taxi, the Lebanese researcher Dalal Al Bazri has written Politics is Stronger than Modernity, an important book more capable of giving us a masterful explanation of the political and social changes through which Egypt has passed.
Or take the exaggerated praise meted out to Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh, a book of limited artistic value to which no conscientious reader of literature would pay a moment's notice.
This, despite the existence of another book by a female Saudi writer by the name of Saba Al Hirz, who published an important and stylistically sublime novel about the minority Shia community in Saudi Arabia and the love affairs of its young women, demonstrating the author's considerable narrative skills.
It was called The Others and no one paid it the slightest attention.
For the sake of fairness, I should stress that many publishing houses, sometimes private or small and generally in Europe, outdo themselves in identifying the most important Arabic novels, ably assisted by noble knights from the ranks of translators. But their task is not an easy one.
The problem is that books translated by major Arab writers such as Gamal Al Ghitani, Mohamed El Bisatie, Abdel Rahman Mounif and so on, are not praised as highly as other, mediocre works.
When I visited the Philippines two years ago, authors there recommended a novel by a young man who had won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. The book was Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco.
I was overawed by the novel's quality, by its language, its construction and its skill. To my mind, this is the true purpose of prizes, to praise books for the manner in which they are written, not for their subject matter alone.
I believe this literary aspect is missing in the process of translating Arabic into foreign languages. Literary worth must be made the primary, indeed the sole, criterion for selection. At the moment, the process is based on a political consideration: an attempt to get to know a culture that exports the problems of its own backwardness to the West.
Implicating literature in this process may benefit it in some ways but in the end it is likely to do it more harm than good.
Ibrahim Farghali is an Egyptian novelist, journalist and literary critic. Further Arabic literary works can be read in English at Qisas Ukhra: qisasukhra.wordpress.com
On Twitter: @IbrahimFarghali
Updated: September 29, 2012 04:00 AM