The Linguist

The Linguist 52,2

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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LITERARY TRANSLATION Arabic: out of the ghetto Arabic literature has been revolutionised in recent years, with English translations becoming increasingly mainstream. Peter Clark looks at the situation today In 1997, I wrote an article for The Linguist about the reception of contemporary Arabic literature in translation. I quoted the Palestinian-American critic, Edward Saïd, who referred to contemporary Arabic writing as an 'embargoed literature'. Although much of great interest was being written, publishers were reluctant to promote translations. In the 1990s, Arabic literature in translation was usually brought out by niche publishers, such as Quartet Books or the American University in Cairo Press. Only three writers were promoted by mainstream publishers: the London-based Lebanese Hanan al-Shaykh, the Saudi Abdul Rahman Munif and the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Sixteen years later, the situation has been transformed. Mainstream publishers have entered the field, translators have been better rewarded and Arabic literature has become part of world literature. There are several reasons for this, and several outcomes. In most countries of the world there is an established Arab community, and the Arab diaspora has become a major factor in modern Arab culture. Many Arab countries have oppressive regimes. Arabs who have moved to Western Europe and America have been able to speak out and write in a way that was not possible or permissible at home. There is nothing new in emigration from Arab countries; the phenomenon can be traced back to Roman times. Even in the cultural context, a century ago New York and South America hosted Arab writers. For decades there was a symbiotic relationship between France and North African writers who expressed themselves in French and Arabic. But in recent years writers have been expressing an Arab consciousness in the 12 The Linguist APRIL/MAY languages of their host countries and gaining critical acclaim. In Britain, the Egyptian Ahdaf Souef and the Libyan Hisham Matar have both been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Syrian Rafik Schami has won prizes for his work in German. Arab novelists and poets have been writing in most European languages. In the 21st century, a new generation of professional translators has emerged. Until the turn of the century, most literary translators of Arabic were not Arab. This sometimes aroused suspicions within the Arab world – what texts were being selected for translation? The current number of professional translators partly reflects the expansion of university Arabic departments and – in contrast to a generation ago – their involvement in contemporary Arabic culture. Most departments in the UK are headed by scholars from the Arab diaspora. Among the new generation of translators are non-Arabs with a solid academic basis in the Arabic language, and people, perhaps of mixed Arab/non-Arab parentage, who are bicultural. In a cultural world where identity distinctions become blurred, the polarisation of 'the Arab world' and 'the West' becomes increasing meaningless. Another turning point for Arabic literature in translation came with the launch of Banipal in 1998. The magazine of modern Arabic literature not only runs published translations, but also profiles of writers and translators, and news about prizes, festivals and events. Nearly a thousand Arab writers have had their work published in Banipal. In fact, there is no modern Arab writer of any significance whose work has not appeared in it. The magazine has been an accessible window to the contemporary Arab cultural world, and it has had a profound impact on the reception of Arabic literature internationally. The result of this work has been the demystification of the Arab world. Banipal has brought Arabic literature out of the ghetto and into the international marketplace. In the last few years, it has also promoted a prize, with support from the family of Saif Ghobash, for the translation of a work of Arabic fiction. The separate International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was established in 2007, with funding from the Emirates Foundation; this was replaced last year by support from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. The winning novel is selected by an independent panel of judges comprising critics, writers and academics, and celebrated at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi. A cheque for US$10,000 is presented to all six shortlisted novelists, with an additional $50,000 for the winner. The announcement of the shortlist rouses interest and controversy in the cultural pages of all Arab newspapers. Egyptians have dominated Arabic literature, and books by

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