Gained in translation?

The American University in Cairo's newly established Translation Studies Center is hosting a lecture series, "In Translation." The first talk was by 88-year-old pioneering translator Denys Johnson-Davies (you can see it here); the second was by Humphrey Davies (no relation), the talented translator of Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Buidling, Elias Khoury's The Gate of the Sun and Bahaa' Taher's Sunset Oasis. This entertaining, pugnacious and thoughtful talk is also available online now. 

I took the opportunity to write a piece for The National on the increased interest in Arabic literature, and the many initiatives to encourage translation--either directly, or by giving Arabic literature international exposure.

On the cultural politics of translation, I note that:

...Arab writers are acutely aware of the tangible and intangible benefits of translation, especially into English. Regardless of whether their work is a best-seller of Yacoubian proportions, for many authors, says Hewison, translation is “the mark of success”. 

Given that only a dozen or so titles are translated every year, these are scrutinised and sometimes criticised as not representing “the best” of Arabic literature, or for supposedly pandering to western stereotypes and markets.

Translators from under-represented languages such as Arabic wield considerable influence over what books reach a western public. Johnson-Davies says: “Arabic translators have more power and more responsibility [than translators from other languages] because they decide what should be translated.” 

I also note the establishment of two new publishing ventures--the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, which will publish in both English and Arabic (and focus at first on childrens' and young adults' literature) and Arabia Books, a joint venture between AUC and a London publishing house. 

Oh, and the next lectures in the "In Translation" series are: Jonathan Wright (translator of Khaled Al Khamissi's Taxi and Yousef Zeidan's Azazeel) on March 10 and novest Ahdaf Soueif (translator of Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah) on April 28. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.