At Abu Dhabi: Scholars Discuss Arabic Novels in the World Marketplace

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With praise for the boosts of awards programs, two scholars agree that translation of Arabic fiction continues to lag in world markets.

At the 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, a discussion on how Arabic fiction is faring on world book markets. Image: ADIBF

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See: Our coverage of the 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Our special Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Magazine / Here’s a video from the ADIBF team with highlights of our 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair show magazine

‘To Foreignize the Reader’
As the 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair drew to a close on Sunday (May 29), international scholars agreed that translations of novels from Arabic aren’t getting the level of visibility and promotion needed in world markets, particularly in the West.

Discussing the progress of Arabic novels overseas, Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature with the University of Pennsylvania, and Muhsin Al Musawi, a professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature at New York City’s Columbia University, affirmed that Arabic novels are being hobbled on the world stage because too few are being translated. 

Al Musawi is the recipient of this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the category of Arabic Culture in Other Languages, and he ​​said on Sunday that literary awards have helped, providing Arabic novels more discoverability, as well as frequent chances to find translation funding.

“Recently,” Al Musawi said, “we’ve witnessed some modern novels being awarded accolades.

“But we have to admit, however,” he said, “that the Arab novel is not as influential globally as Latin American novels. This is also reflected in academic research.”

The discussion touched on what these speakers see as a need for a broader critical literary environment, providing review coverage that introduces translated Arabic to the wider international readership.

“Whether it’s within academic institutions or journalistic reviews to attract attention,” Al Muwasi said, “Latin American literature has [much more of] that medium for its novels to reach far and wide, compared to Arabic novels.”

Allen said that the reception of Arab novels in English-language countries is lagging behind interest rates in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. There are several initiatives in Britain to extend the reach, but there is none in the United States.

“For example my colleague in Oxford pointed out to me in the 1990s the fact there were almost no translations of Maghrabi fiction into English. They were going into French and Spanish but the English translations were concentrated heavily on Egypt.

“There’s a colossal increase in the output of fiction today,” he said, “especially from the Gulf region and attention is being paid to it. Huge changes have taken place in the process of translation of Arabic novels into English, in terms of coverage all across the Arab world.

Above all,” Allen said, “now the absolute necessity is to include in every conversation the theorization of the activity itself.

“I often find myself getting in to arguments over the quote by the famous German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said the translator has to choose whether he’s going ‘to domesticate the text or to foreignize the reader.’

“I very much hope that the goal of translation in general is to foreignize the reader.”

Syria’s Maria Dadouch receives the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in Children’s Literature on May 24 at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson


Our special Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2022 Show Magazine is here for your free download (PDF).

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here. More from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here. More on translation is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the International Publishers Association. Our extended coverage of ADIBF 2022 is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is here.” 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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