x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A new chapter for Arabic publishers

The 19th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair has drawn to a close and opinions on how went vary widely.

Mazen Assaf of Lebanon packs up books from the Arab Network for Research and Publishing on the last night of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
Mazen Assaf of Lebanon packs up books from the Arab Network for Research and Publishing on the last night of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The 19th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is over. The many hundreds of publishers, retailers and rare-book dealers who from March 17 made the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre their own have packed up whatever wares remain unsold and are wending their way back to normality. The show kitchen has been folded away; no Yvan Cadiou or Rakesh Puri to show a hovering audience how to debone lamb shoulder and stare out a squid. The din of the Children's Corner has mercifully abated. Where once a reverent hush surrounded the rare book stands, now is only the ambient roar of an empty hangar.

How did it go? Opinions differ as widely as fortunes, of course, and though there was general agreement that this was probably the best-attended outing for the ADIBF, it remains to be seen how sales measure up to those of previous editions. To pick a random testimony, however, Mohammed J Quabaiaa of the Lebanese publisher Dar el Ratab al Jamaiah thought they were "good, but last year it was slightly better". He suggested that general economic factors most likely lay behind any downturn, and added that: "On the side of making contracts, taking translation copyrights from others, this year's is better. We talked seriously with one publishing house in Belgium. We think we'll go with it."

Indeed this was, by design, the year of the rights deal. The Spotlight on Rights initiative was set up to subsidise any translation agreements that might have been struck at the fair, the idea being to discourage the piracy that makes the Arabic publishing trade so inhospitable to authors. And uptake looked healthy; several publishers I spoke to indicated that they had made or received overtures, and by Saturday, Kitab, the fair's organisers, were saying that they had received 200 letters of intent. According to Emma House, the international director of the UK's Publisher's Association, the programme "made a huge difference, especially with Arab publishers". She explained: "I was here last year and the Arab publishers really weren't so interested in it. They normally do their rights business at the London book fair or Frankfurt book fair, but because the spotlight's on here, they're making the effort here to come and meet the publishers." Good news: as long as the deals are being done somewhere, authors can hope to avoid getting bilked over translations of their work.

But isn't a translation always a betrayal of sorts? "Le traducteur est un traître", as Bernard Franco, professor of comparative literature at the Sorbonne, rather flourishingly put it during a round-table discussion, presented by the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, of contemporary approaches to the translation of classic literature. His point appeared to be that the essence of a literary work depends on the precise linguistic and cultural circumstances that produced it, and that therefore any act of translation necessarily involves the construction of a new work with its own character. And does this process really amount to treachery? Franco's verdict went unchallenged during the debate, though in fact it was contradicted earlier in the day by E Ethelbert Miller, an African-American poet whose collection At Night, We Are All Black Poets had just been rendered in Arabic by Wisal al Allaq. As the pair read from Miller's book in alternating English and Arabic versions, Miller was visibly moved by al Allaq's efforts. "It's like my poems have been given a new wardrobe," he said. "They sound fabulous, by the way."

Miller's reading also provided the strangest, and perhaps the most heartening, example of the "play Free Bird" school of heckling that I have ever observed. As the poet read through his selection of spiritual and love lyrics, the audience was most drawn to a poem he initially passed over: Orphan in Beirut, an evocation of senseless loss, crushing in its compactness. The Q&A session immediately gravitated towards the piece and stayed in its vicinity. Twenty minutes later, Miller was asked just to read the thing, which he graciously did, to rapt silence. It's a good poem, worth hearing. And such moments of cross-cultural accord are surely what makes translation worth doing.