Essay Samir Grees

Translations as Caricatures of the Arab World?

In view of some intellectuals in the Islamic world the writings selected for translation from the Arabic serve to foster clichés of the distant and mysterious East. Samir Grees on why such mistrust is based on false perceptions.

Some writers in the Islamic world see it as evidence of a Western conspiracy: in their view, the writings selected for translation from the Arabic merely serve to foster "Arabian Nights" clichés of the distant and mysterious East. Samir Grees describes why such mistrust is based on false perceptions.

photo: AP
Despite consuming literature from all corners of the world, the West often has a limited view of the "Orient".

​​Only in rare exceptions will the choice of texts be part of any overall concept. Books are selected for translation in a fairly haphazard fashion; often, quite simply, as a result of the translator's personal taste; and of course the demands of the market also play a role. This is true of translations in either direction – from or into the Arabic.

But since it's usually foreigners who translate Arabic literature into other languages, they are often viewed with suspicion. Frequently, they are accused of wanting to present a negative image of the Arab world; it's said that their selection serves to confirm Western prejudices, some of which could be described as racist.

Oriental occultism and superstition?

One example: Nagi Naguib was justly celebrated for his German translations of Yahya Haqqi's "The Lamp of Umm Hashim" and Najib Mahfuz' "Adrift on the Nile" (many years before Mahfuz was awarded the Nobel Prize); for Naguib had chosen two of the best works of Arabic literature and made them available to German readers.

If a German translator had selected the same books, many would have cast doubt on his judgment. Choosing Yahya Haqqi's novel would have been interpreted as evidence of a desire to show that the Orient was riddled with occultism and superstition, and the translation of "Adrift on the Nile" would have been accused of titillating German readers with tales of Arab hash fiends.

Recently, at long last, the first part of "Cities of Salt", the famous sequence of novels by Abdul Rahman Munif, was finally published in German. Yet many Arabs may well be asking themselves why the book has only been translated now, a full 20 years after it first appeared in Arabic. Perhaps the Western publishers wanted to present a simplified history of Saudi Arabia before the discovery of oil, so that their readers could more easily understand the mentality of those who destroyed the World Trade Center?

Were one to take these arbitrary imputations seriously, one would soon end up having to defend the most important works of modern Arabic literature. An Egyptian writer once seriously informed me that Arabs had been forced to accept the translation of Najib Mahfuz' works after he had won the Nobel Prize…

The Western publishers' "conspiracy"

Mohamed Shukri was translated because he is vulgar and because he shows the Arab world in a poor light; Edwar al-Kharrat, because he is a Coptic Christian, and the West always takes the side of minorities in Arab countries; Ibrahim al-Koni, because he writes about the desert and the Tuareg, thus demonstrating the fact that Arabs are camel drivers; and Miral al-Tahawi, finally, because she writes about oppressed women in a way that suits the West's purposes. These are only a few examples of the things I have heard from writers and intellectuals.

We are told, then, that the selection of works to be translated is questionable; and certainly, there are some translators who bear out the reservations on the Arab side. But this is to forget the many others who render important works of literature into other languages. These translators are people who perform their task with loving care, and who aren't exactly paid a princely sum for their efforts.

And because this kind of conspiracy theorising exists in the spheres of politics and culture, people tend to believe all sorts of things without proof, just so long as it suits them to do so. The Egyptian writer Muhammad Gibril, for example, has recently spoken of a "conspiracy against Arabic culture". (His remarks appeared in a recently-published anthology, which arose out of a conference on problems in translation held in Cairo in the year 2000.)

He backs this up by stating that Najib Mahfuz' German-language publishers are notorious anti-Arabs, and that it's therefore only logical that they should have employed a translator whose sole previous experience was with business correspondence in the import-export branch. At least, says Gibril, that's what he heard from a friend of his, a scholar of German language and literature…

I don't know how such an accusation could come about; but the Union Verlag is a Swiss publishing house with an excellent reputation; and the translator, Doris Kilias, is a scholar of Arabic who has already translated more than 20 novels by important Arab writers.

Orientalists as researchers into the Arab mentality

As if this weren't enough, Gibril goes on to allege that the translations are so bad that German intellectuals are now wondering how Mahfuz managed to win the Nobel Prize.

If that is the case, how can one explain the fact that Najib Mahfuz is the only Arab writer who has sold more than a million copies of his books in German translation?

So the translations cannot be as bad as Gibril would have us believe. But he also quotes Yusuf al-Sharuni, who says: Western Orientalists are not interested in our literature as art, but only for what it can tell them about the mentality of Arab society, its strengths and its weaknesses. Now, there is certainly some truth to this claim; but unfortunately, it's true of translations in general, and not just of translations from the Arabic.

The foreign translator as enemy

Gibril accuses foreign translators of seeking the things they want to find: the Arabia of the Arabian Nights, the Orient of Western fantasy. Once again: this may be true in many cases, but is it really the only criterion on which translators base their selection?

If we take a look at the Arabic writers who have been translated into German, we find famous names such as Taha Husain, Yusuf Idris, Hanna Mina, Zakaria Tamir, Tayyib Salih, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, Sahar Khalifa, Mahmud Darwish, Salah Abd as-Sabbur, Adonis, Elias Khoury, Ibrahim Aslan, Bahaa Tahir and Sonallah Ibrahim. Do they all describe the Orient of Western daydreams? If so, then all of Arabic literature is an exotic fantasy; mere folklore, suitable for export but useless for the purposes of cross-cultural communication.

Be that as it may: let's assume for the sake of argument that the market does impose its conditions on the translators. Let's suppose that the translator's taste and his desire for fame do ensure that only the "exotic" works are chosen. What could one do to change this state of affairs?

A lack of initiative on the Arab side

Mahfuz has been saying for years that the Arab League should commission translations of important works of literature; so why don't they do so? Why don't they employ translators they themselves regard as honest and capable? Why doesn't the Arab side approach foreign publishers and offer them material support in the case of works they think worthy of translation? In short: what role do Arabs themselves play in the translation of their literature into other languages?

These questions should be seen in the context of the forthcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, where the Arab world will be guest of honour. This could be a uniquely valuable opportunity; what is the Arab world doing to prepare for it? The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) will be an official guest in Frankfurt. Have they, and the Arab publishers, taken serious measures to prepare for the event, so that they can present Arabic culture in an adequate fashion? Or will this long-waited chance be squandered? (Sadly, we "owe" this opportunity solely to the events of September 11.)

A lack of any real concept in the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair

A few weeks ago, senior representatives from the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Goethe Institute attended the Beirut Book Fair, where they met Arab publishers. According to Holger Ehling, spokesman for the Frankfurt Book Fair, they gained the impression that the Arab side still hasn't made any specific plans or arranged any definite focal points for their programme at the huge German event.

Elisabeth Pyroth from the Goethe Institute in Cairo confirmed this impression. She fears a disaster in October 2004, for so far there have only been a few hasty and hectic false starts, and there has been no coordination at all between the various Arab states. It's as if the Arab world were oblivious of the fact that it had been invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair more than a year ago.

There are only a few German translators of Arabic literature, and there is now no longer enough time to commission them with the translation of a series of representative works of Arabic literature. Yet it's still not too late to organise a good supporting programme of cultural events. Instead of indulging in conspiracy theories, the Arab side would do better to think again about how they themselves wish to present Arabic literature in other languages.

Samir Grees, © 2003

First published in "Al-Hayat", December 4, 2003

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