Western translation - the subject of a panel session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature - can be a mixed blessing for Arabic writers.
Lost in translation at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
In the Lost in Translation panel session kicking off the final day's literary action, the authors Kamal Abdel Malek and Alia Mamdouh and the Arabic literary expert Abdulla Al Dabbagh will tackle the perceived importance of translation for Arabic literary works to gain mainstream attention. The session, with English translation, will delve into some of the positive effects Arabic translations have in reaching a wider audiences in addition to highlighting the creative risks posed to Arabic writers.
A novelist and scholar, Abdel Malek has taught at Princeton and Brown universities before settling in the Gulf as a literature lecturer at the American University in Dubai. As well as his analytical work - in 2005 he published The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film - Abdel Malek has recently stepped into the world of fiction with his debut English novel Come With Me from Jerusalem, which was published last month. Joining him on the stand is the celebrated Iraqi-Syrian novelist Alia Mamdouh. Her 2004 novel The Loved Ones won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. Abdulla Al-Dabbagh is a professor of English Literature at the United Arab Emirates University. An expert in comparative literature, he has published numerous works including 2011's DH Lawrence: A Study of Literary Fascism.
It will be a spirited affair, promises Abdel Malek, simply because translation is an issue on the minds of most Arab writers. Abdel Malek says his novel, about a star-crossed romance between a Jewish girl and a Palestinian boy, was written in English not only to offer him a wider audience, but also the creative room needed to tackle a controversial topic. "It was freedom from me, that is the blunt and honest truth," he says. "By expressing myself in English I find myself in a wider space. I am also not thinking about the common Arab reader and I do think it's fair and accurate to say I am introducing readers to a new part of the world."
Enter with caution
When it comes to translating works to English, however, Abdel Malek warns it can produce risks for the Arab writer. He warns that an Arabic novel could lose its integrity if the author writes with translation as a sole aim. "We have to be honest," he states. "We have to write without being conscious of these things. There is a difference between a writer and a clown. If we want to be authentic writers, we should not play to the gallery."
Playing to the critics could be worse, Abdel Malek says. He despairs at the view in Arabic literary circles that an Arabic novel is worth reading once translated to a foreign language. "For example, would [the famed Egyptian author] Alaa Al Aswany have made such a big media splash in the Arab world if his book wasn't published in so many languages?" he asks. "We seem to be always waiting for the stamp of approval to come from the West." With such fireworks on offer, Lost in Translation is unmissable.
Lost in Translation is at the Suraya Room, the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City, from 10am to 11am on Saturday. Tickets are Dh60 from www.emirateslitfest.com
'It is a great time to interact with writers from across all genres, to learn and share'
For Nujom Al Ghanem, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is one of the most important events in her calendar.
The local poet has been attending the festival since its inception, beginning as spectator and eventually commanding her own audiences with solo performances.
"This is the only event that I cancel other engagements for," she says. "It is a great time to interact with writers from across all genres, to learn and share."
Writing poetry since the 1980s, Al Ghanem has published six collections and is renowned in local circles for her distinctively rich language. This year, she will share the stage with some of the world's leading poets, including Simon Armitage and Roger McGough, as part of the Desert Stanza event tonight.
Al Ghanem looks forward to injecting some local flavour into the international talent on offer.
"What I try to do with each festival performance is come with something new," she says. "It will also be a great environment to present and I am looking forward to it."
Expect also to see Al Ghanem in the book aisles, too. The festival is an annual opportunity for her to stock up the home library.
"It's important for any writer to stay up to date," she says. "For me, the festival is a chance to look at all the latest English and Arabic works from all different genres."
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