Essay Peter Ripken

Listen to What the Arab World Has to Say

There are distinct gaps in most European book markets when it comes to know creative writing from other countries – this is particularly true for the literature of the Arab World, writes Peter Ripken

In a world in which translations of literary works are getting more and more important for the understanding of other cultures, there are distinct gaps in most European book markets when it comes to know creative writing from other countries. This is particularly true for the literature of the Arab World, writes Peter Ripken

photo: AP
Arab literature is facing an unhill task in trying to find a readership on the European markets

​​Literary encounters between Europe and the Arab world have known eras which knew mutual respect and curiosity. The Arabs in Spain, the translation centre of Toledo, the names of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Battuta stand for a symbiosis of cultures and peoples with Arabic-Islamic, Jewish and Christian backgrounds, a situation of living together which was not completely free of tensions, but essentially one of harmony and mutual understanding.

All of them were trying to come to terms with the great traditions of Greek and Roman origin.

Even today, an important part of this great heritage of Arab culture in Europe is part and parcel of a civilization which is overemphasizing its occidental character.

Literary relations between the Arab World and Europe have enjoyed a great tradition, especially when in the 19th century very apt go-betweens like Friedrich Georg Rückert oder Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall made an impact or when J.W. Goethe created a special interest in the Orient as it was called when he poetically got close to the great Persian poet Hafiz.

It was through the poetry of other peoples with different cultures that these scholars, influenced by philosophical traditions of idealism, tried to understand foreign cultures. Even before, the translation of those collection of stories which were generally known as "1001 Nights" by the French orientalist Antoine Galland in 1704 had created a genuine wave of "Orientalism" with many translations of his version into many European languages.

However, this great past in the shadow of which one of the most important 20th century orientalists, the German Annemarie Schimmel, made her mark, has been followed by a difficult complex reality which has not been really changed by big speeches and important international scholarly meetings.

Increased interest, but Arabic is still a marginal language

Arabic is being studied increasingly at many universities, but despite an increasing number of people in Europe who speak the language, Arabic is still seen as a marginal language. Although the number of professional translators is on the increase in recent years, there are still fairly few literary translators around.

Looking at figures, the marginal role of literature from the Arabic world on European book markets is quite obvious. Only few authors enjoy worldwide fame and recognition. Of course, Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize for literature 1988, is widely translated and read. Also Amin Maalouf, Assia Djebar and Tahar Ben Jelloun, all living in Paris, have had international success.

Few reach magic mark of 10,000 copies sold

The late Khalil Gibran (from Lebanon) is a particular case because his mystic books (mostly translated from English) have found many readers who apparently were intrigued by his every-day-life philosophies. It is no accident that three of these successful authors are writing in French. Only few authors from the Arab world have reached the magic mark of more than 10,000 copies sold of their translations.

And very few of them are known outside the special circles of scholars and people associated with the region, even if many of these authors are being reviewed fairly favourably.

The tendency that literary works by authors from the Arab world go widely unread in Europe – with a few exceptions of course – stands in marked contrast to the interest taken in the problems and conflicts of the region. For every fiction title from the region, there are at least two non-fiction books on most European markets. Most of these are written by self-styled or real European experts about various aspects of developments in the Arab world.

The eternal problem of the role of Islam, or the role of women in Arabo-Islamic societies are favourite themes of these books. Even before September 11, 2001 this debatable trend was fairly strong, and since then there is a flood of books about terrorism and Islam, quite many of them with dubious content.

Uphill task for Arab authors

The region is being portrayed as one of conflicts, with a serious lack of democracy and development in most Arab states and terrorist attacks, and this is not only published opinion but also public opinion. In the shadow of such a situation, literary works by Arab authors are facing an uphill task.

It is amazing, however, that there is a fairly high number of translated books by Arab authors in most European countries, while on the other hand their role on the highly competitive book markets in Europe continues to be marginal.

The situation in Germany

At present there are more than 500 works of fiction by Arab authors in print in Germany. Less than half of them (about 200) have been translated from Arabic, while many of them are translation from French, mostly by authors from Maghreb countries.

Germany is a special case since there is quite high a number of books written in German by authors of Arab origin. The most successful among them are Rafik Schami, Salim Alafenisch and Ghazi Abdel-Qadir.

Most translated authors are Egyptians (with Naguib Mahfouz in the lead), followed by authors from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine (especially Sahar Khalifa). The numbers for Lebanese authors are of course high because of special case of the late Khalil Gibran, and with regard to Syria it is the prolific Rafik Schami who is most prominent.

With regard to translations from French there are fairly high numbers of translations by Algerian authors (Assia Djebar and Rachid Boudjedra) and Morocco (namely Tahar Ben Jelloun) while there are few authors from Tunisia translated.

In the Netherlands there is a similar phenomenon like in Germany with a few authors from Maghreb countries writing in Dutch who are then translated into other languages (like Abelkader Benali).

Some Arab League member states simply do not exist in literary terms for German readers: There are no translations available from these countries.

Less then 0.3% titles from Arab authors each year
Looking at the issue from a different perspective, again it is relevant to look at figures. At present, German readers have the choice of more than 125,000 fiction titles (of which around 40% are translations). Of these less than 0.3% are by authors from the Arab world, while several hundred books by Arab authors, translated years ago, are out of print.

Is Funding of trnaslations an effective measure?

Can this situation be influenced by corrective measures, especially by funding translations? The programme of translation grants, organized by the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature started with a modest budget in 1984. Since then, 114 translations of books by Arab authors have been supported, with funds coming from the German Foreign Ministry and the Swiss cultural foundation Pro Helvetia.

The majority of these translations were from Arabic. Among the authors in this programme were early translations of Naguib Mahfouz, Gamal al-Ghitani, Hanan al-Scheich, Adonis, Emil Habibi, Edwar al-Kharrat, Ibrahim al-Koni, Elias Khoury, Mahmud Darwish and Abdalrahman Munif.

Since German language publishers published only around 400 translations of books by Arab authors, more than 20% of the translations were funded by this programme (the list of supported titles can be consulted under

Many of these books were first translations into German of these authors. Also a sizeable number of poetry translations was funded, especially in view that poetry often sells less well than novels. The tendency to support poetry publications is also a recognition of the fact that poetry plays a more important role in the Arab world than in Europe.

The situation in other countries

In France Maghrib authors are more or less part and parcel of French literary life since most of them write in French. Authors writing in Arabic get less recognition when translated into French, even if the French government has supported some translations.

In a high number of cases not many copies are printed or sold. The specialized publishing house Actes Sud, which took over the ambitious series Sindbad funded by Pierre Bernard in the late 80ies, rarely publishes more than 3,000 copies also of works by renowned authors like Gamal al-Ghitani, Edwar al-Kharrat, Sonallah Ibrahim or Elias Khoury.

Partly because it was made into a film, the novel La Porte du Soleil (bab ash-shams) by Elias Khoury crossed the 10,000 sales mark.

The sales figures of translations from Arabic in France are especially disappointing because the literary pages e.g. of Le Monde or Libération often carry lengthy reviews or portraits of these authors while authors writing in French continue to dominate the scene. Nevertheless, the series editor of Sindbad at Actes Sud, the Syrian-born Farouk Mardam-Bey, can correctly claim that the Arab world's image is much more complex and truthful in these translations than in the dominant images about political conflicts.

The situation in the English speaking world is slightly more difficult because few Arab authors are writing in English. Those few publishers who have committed themselves to publish English translations of Arab authors (like Garnet and Quartet Books in the UK, and university presses in the USA like Syracuse University Press or Interlink Press) hardly reach high print runs.

But the excellent publication Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature manages to convey a rather broad panorama of the diversity of Arab creative writing. The result of these publishing activities is a simple one: many important literary texts by Arab authors are available in translation for people to buy and read, although mass readerships are not reached (and some publishing ventures like a series of books by Arab women authors, published by Garnet, was abandoned after some time).

The situation of translation of contemporary Arab fiction would be worse if it were not for the ambitious programme of translation of the American University in Cairo Press which has been publishing interesting authors in English translation and is also looking after the work of Naguib Mahfouz worldwide.

No genuine interest in other parts of Europe yet

In countries where every text from the Arab world has to be translated (whether written in Arabic, French or English or other languages), the situation is probably less encouraging (with the exception maybe of Germany). In Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Russia or Hungary Arab authors are mostly known in translations after they had been translated into English or French with satisfying sales (or if they had an important literary award).

It is not that there are no translations, and there is the interesting phenomenon that some Arab authors are translated in one country but not at all in others. But the translations are published mainly by small publishing houses. Most of these translations are the work of committed and competent translators who in most cases have some university connections.

Spain is a slightly different case because of long and close links with the Arab world. But there is the marked difference of what is being translated because it might sell well and what is being translated with a more scholarly (and sometimes political) interest as a moving force which invariably is risking the consequence that the books will not sell.

The "Mahfouz" effect

It does not come as a surprise that in all of Europe there has been a Mahfouz effect. Since then, translators who want to translate books by Arab authors whom they like have a slightly better chance of convincing a publishing cause to take such an author on (although most of these publishing houses are small).

It is another common feature that most translations have been arranged by translators and committed individuals. This in turn has been seen by some Arab critics as something like a European conspiracy. Translations would only happen when these translators like a certain book or author which is excluding the majority of Arab authors.

On the other hand, only those books which would please European tastes would be eligible, the selection of books to be translated would convey an image of the Arab world which had little to do with Arab realities as expressed in Arab creative writing.

The decisions are made in Europe

There is no doubt however that translations which do not reach readers are more or less academic undertakings. In other words: the decision of what should be translated should not be made according to the wishes of e.g. Egyptian, Syrian or Moroccan authors and critics but according to what readers in Europe might want to read to get to know creative writing from the Arab world.

Without the committed work of these translators, Stefan Weidner, one of the more successful translators from Arabic in Germany, has once observed there would be no Arab literature in Western languages.

The secluded cosmos of Arabic literature

It is obvious that most Arab authors are writing for an Arab readership. Most of them do not seem to be really interested in readers in Europe, and those narrative strategies employed by mostly US-American authors who are on bestseller lists in many countries are not in their focus.

It is of course possible that Arab authors are not influenced by these success strategies because they do not read these "global writers" partly because they are not translated into Arabic.

"Veil" sells

There are, however, strong indications that European publishers, and also readers, have fairly strong convictions and pre-conceived ideas of what Arab creative writing should be all about. Titles with the word "veil" are selling better than titles which do not have direct connotations with things thought to be "oriental".

Autobiographies of e.g. women singers, although of a dubious literary quality, find more (women) readers than e.g. the autobiography of Latifa az-Zayyat (published in an interesting series of autobiographies translated into several European languages).

"Women in Islamic societies" is one of the cliché-ridden sales-oriented themes in publishing in Europe which of course also knows fads and fashions. For many years the "veil" has been instrumental in creating a certain interest, also "violence against women" (including novels written by men).

Erotic stories by Arab women

Of late there is a new trend: Arab women writing erotic stories. In some cases the author's identity is being mystified for marketing and other reasons (a recent case is a novel written in French by an unknown North African woman author with the name of "Nedjma", an interesting reference to the title of the famous novel by the late Kateb Yacine) and it is fairly likely that some of these books were not even written by Arab women.

"The orient is a Western invention" wrote Abbas Beydoun, the Lebanese poet and critic, in reference to the fundamental analysis by the late Edward Said in his classic book "Orientalism".

The ploys and strategies of some publishers in Europe to service their readers with books which meet the readers' often prejudiced expectations of the "Orient", of course can only work if they find authors who are writing along the desired lines.

Most translators from Arabic are not involved in such tendencies. There are some other factors which may explain the relative lack of interest in Arab creative writing in Europe.

Lack of knowledge and outreach

There are fairly few serious reviews in the cultural pages of important papers, partly because of lack of knowledge partly because of lack of continuity. There are a few exceptions: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Le Monde, Libération, The Guardian and El Pais, but most reviewing is happening in specialized publications with limited outreach.

There is no real serious public literary discourse any more with regard to aesthetic consideration of Arab creative writing. Most universities hardly influence public opinion because of their ivory tower situation and their interest in the past or in linguistic aspects of the Arab world. Only few universities teach contemporary Arab fiction, and there are no courses for literary translators although there are non-academic translation centres with an interest also in Arabic.

Since publishing Arab fiction in translation hardly is a lucrative business, there is also very little by way of advertising, publicity and marketing investments. Joint ventures of several publishers with Arab titles for joint promotion are not known in Germany and other European countries.

Also the Euro-Arab Book Fair, organized by the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, has hardly reached a new public beyond those already converted to Arab fiction.

Positive and negative trends

There is, however, a laudable increase of poetry festivals which invite Arab poets like they are inviting poets from other parts of the world. And there are more and more Arab poetry festivals in several European countries.

Unfortunately, there are also other tendencies which are less positive. While the important bilingual publication DIWAN Journal for Arab and German Poetry, edited by Amal al-Jubouri, is struggling hard to survive, there is a glossy publication with the title "Orient" available at many newsstands in Germany and devoted almost exclusively to belly-dancing.

Discouraging factors in the Arab world

There are also factors in the Arab world which are not encouraging or satisfying the curiosity of European readers. The disorganised publishing sector in the Arab world and a limited culture of reading lead to many fiction titles by Arab authors not being very successful in the Arab world.

Especially modern fiction does not enjoy high print runs. Only few publishers have international business contacts, very few of them control their authors' translation rights. Hence quite a high number of translations of works by Arab authors find their way to a publisher in Europe in often very complicated ways, with translators often acting as committed go-betweens.

In another wording: Arab fiction will be read and enjoyed in Europe by a growing number of readers if it is being read and enjoyed in the Arab world as well. It is rather unfortunate that fairly often Arab creative writing is catching the attention of Europeans only when it is censored e.g. for religious reasons.

The rights situation – translation piracy

Arab publishing is not yet fully integrated into the international exchange of translation rights. The results are a limited number of translations into Arabic of important works from the North. Most Arab publishers cannot afford to translate whatever might be of interest to the intellectuals in the Arab world because the market is small and hence risks are high.

They need translation grants, and then many publishers have experienced that a book e.g. by an important French thinker which they had published in translation into Arabic was pirated in another Arab country.

There are of course consequences for intellectual discourse if those books which shape intellectual discourse in Europe are not available in Arabic. The same is true the other way around. While there are after all translations of quite a number of important Arab creative writers available in translation in many European countries, there are very few translations available of relevant works by philosophers, sociologists and theologians published in the Arab world.

Listen to what the Arab world has to say

The Arab world is guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2004. This event is taking place against the trend of relations between the Arab world and Europe for many years. Since World War II there are deeply rooted lines of conflict, there are very strong misunderstandings and lack of communication, reason enough for a sober analysis of what went wrong.

But such an event is also an important opportunity for listening much more attentively than in the past to what the Arab world has to say. And here the voices of poets, storytellers and novelists are much more important than the statements by presidents, ministers and diplomats.

Peter Ripken

Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American literature, Frankfurt am Main

© Peter Ripken/ 2004

Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin-American Literature
The Arab World at the Frankfurt Book Fair

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