The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Big books

This week, I've come across two newly published overviews of Arab culture--one dealing with literature and one dealing with contemporary art. This is a long post looking at reviews of both. 

"A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature"  (published by Saqi books) is reviewed in the Al Ahram Weekly by Denys Johnson-Davies. The book is by David Tresilian, a literature professor who has lived in Cairo and written for the Weekly, and has been at the American University in Paris since 1999, in the English and Comparative Literature Department (he does not appear to be a specialist in Arabic literature). Color me cynical, but given that Tresilian has a relationship with the Weekly and that his book highlights many authors that Johnson-Davies himself has translated, I'm not surprised the review is a positive one. 
While several books have been written that seek to give the ordinary reader a background to the Arabic novels that are being made available today in English translation, none does the task better and more entertainingly than David Tresilian's A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature.

I found the review interesting, mostly for the insight it gives into the thoughts of one of the most established and prolific translators of Arabic literature.


Modern Arabic literature is no longer read by just a few students interested in the subject. I remember not so long ago being told off in a review of a book of mine that I was not transliterating the names of writers properly. How was it that I was writing, for instance, Tayeb Salih when the correct rendering should be al-Tayyib Salih (with dots under the t, the s and the h to distinguish them from other letters in Arabic which are not to be found in English)?

The situation has now arrived where one calls a writer by the name he has chosen for himself in English. What reader cares whether the 's' in Salih is in fact the letter 'sad'(so called in Arabic) or whether the 'y' in his first name is doubled or not? We see names like Dostoevski and Tchekov written in different ways and do not feel that any harm has been done to the writers; after all, we are not students of Russian and do not have to spell out their names in that language.

Anyway, the position is now "the simpler the better," and no one any longer has to learn Arabic in order to read modern Arabic literature. Something I had long been advocating has now happened: modern Arabic literature has been taken out of the academic cupboard.

It's a little surprising to hear a translator come out so bluntly in favour of accessibility over a concern with details (a lot of translation theory these days is concerned with NOT providing too "smooth" of a translation, one that makes all cultural and linguistic difference invisible). 

Johnson-Davies also gives the impression that Tresilian's book deals directly with the mechanics of translation, which I think it would be great to learn more about. 

David Tresilian, who lived in Cairo and was in direct touch with those who were writing and with those who were writing about modern writers, deals with the early years when it was the few translators who determined what was and was not translated. After all, if one is not guaranteed to make money from translating a certain book, one's choice is determined by personal criteria. Will it sell well? Will it easily find a publisher? Is it a book that the translator feels strongly should be made available in translation? Is the writer a friend of his and would he therefore be doing him a service? Is the book reasonably easy to translate and not too long?

I remember several years ago reading a well-known novel by Khairi Shalaby and feeling that here was a book that deserved to be translated, but I was put off by its length. It then won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize and was translated into English, and the translator was awarded the UK Banipal Prize for his translation. The situation has now changed: it is the publisher, with advice, who chooses the books he wants translated, and the translator is paid on the basis of the number of words (which, incidentally, is not always a proper way of estimating the work to be done).

It's not clear to me what the point in the last paragraph is. The story seems all together a positive one, one of resources and institutions being guided to a worth-while target for translation. Yet Johnson-Davies seems to regret the lean days of free-wheeling translators who made their own choices...

One thing that was bizzarre about the review is how, despite being published in an Egyptian newspaper, it seemed adressed at a readership that had zero familiarity with Arabic literature. Every author and work was tagged with a platitude. Naguib Mahfouz gave Arabic literature "its first boost" (a funnily casual way of putting it), Sonallah Ibrahim is "controversial," Salwa Bakr and Alifa Rifaat are "outspoken," and the Yacoubian Building is "the first-ever Arabic work of fiction to achieve record sales both in the original Arabic and in translations done into French, English and other languages." (The review implies that the Yacoubian Building also headlines a section on homosexuality in Arabic literature--how many times will this mistake be reiterated? Homosexuality has been written about by many novelists before Al Aswany).  

Based on the authors cited, Tresilian's book hits all the expected notes. The greats are mentioned. There is the usual section dedicated to the women's literature ghetto. ("The author also writes about the way in which a number of talented women writers have dealt with the problems peculiar to women in the Arab world.") I suppose an overview is an overview, and the title ("A Brief Introduction..") makes the book's own limits clear. But it would have been nice to have a few surprises. Who knows, maybe the review doesn't mention them but they're there. I have great faith in Saqi. I'm curious and I'm ordering it. 

Another overview book is also out about Middle Eastern art: "In the Arab World...Now," published by Galerie Enrico Navarra, an art dealer who has been active in the Indian and Chinese art markets and now may be turning his attention to the Arab world. Egyptian artist Hassan Khan reviews the book in the last issue of Bidoun (unfortunately the article isn't available online). Khan himself is featured in the book and my favourite paragraph in the review is his description of a "creative team" from the book descending on his house, proceeding to a whirlwind photo shoot and interview, and soon leaving him "alone to suffer Coffee-Table Book paranoia."

Anyway, Khan lauds the 1001 page (get it?) book for its in-depth interviews and good quality reproductions of works, while noting that it's "a transparent attempt to raise the cultural capital of all involved--from city to dealer, from artist to public art space, and ultimately the value of the specific ethnicity in question.." Then again, as he more or less concludes, that's what art markets these days do.