By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
‘To Collect This Information Somewhere’Despite genuine interest from some Western publishers in the vast and diverse world of Arabic-language literature, the hurdles required to obtain information are many. While few editors read Arabic and must rely on translators to act as scouts for them, there’s no centralized location for information and statistics.
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, not many literary agents operate in the region, and authors often negotiate their own rights transactions. Few Arab publishers handle rights sales or present rights catalogues at industry-facing book fairs. As has been discussed at various conferences, it can be an opaque world both for Western and Arabic-language publishers.
On Monday (May 15), a monthly newsletter is scheduled to become available on Substack from the pioneering Morocco-based writer and editor Marcia Lynx Qualey, who founded ArabLit in 2009, promoting literature translated from Arabic mostly into English. It has since developed to include a magazine, ArabLit Quarterly; a children’s literature site called ArabKidLitNow; and a literary prize. In December, the site added a community-supported book of translated short stories by the late Palestinian author Samira Azzam.
“I’ve been contacted by a growing number of mid-sized publishing houses interested in selling rights, and in putting together attractive sales packages.”Marcia Lynx Qualey
With the experience gained over more than a decade of interactions with “translators, scholars, publishers, writers, literary agents, scouts, reviewers, and others who are passionate about Arabic literature and translation,” Lynx Qualey writes on her site, “we want to distill and share what we’ve learned—on a monthly basis—for publishing professionals.
“This will primarily be for publishers who are interested in works translated from Arabic, but also into Arabic.”
The impetus for starting the newsletter, Lynx Qualey says, “reflects publishers’ greater interest in the landscape of Arabic literature. In the last year, I’ve gotten an increasing number of requests to do Zoom calls to answer basic questions about the Arabic literary and publishing landscape. It probably took me too long to realize that many of the questions were similar, and that it might be more helpful to collect this information somewhere.
“I was on a Zoom call with the lovely Tricia Viveros at Transit Books when I had my eureka,” she says.
‘There Aren’t Clear Pathways’
The newsletter is to include information on trending topics in the Arabic-language literary world including children’s literature; award-winning novels; literary agents and scouts who work in the Arab world; portraits of translators and Arabic-language publishers; where to go for translation and publication grants; and upcoming literary events.
Lynx Qualey says she’s also long received messages from many Arab authors interested in seeing their work translated. “The problem is that there aren’t clear pathways for Arabic-language authors,” she says, “even multi-award-winning, innovative, and popular authors who are in search of translation or representation. The system for connecting Arabic-language authors with foreign-language publishers is fairly chaotic, relying mostly on personal relationships. We also want to build out a mini site in Arabic, focused on authors and publishers interested in translation, but we probably need funding for that.”
Changes in recent years, Lynx Qualey says—both in Arab publishers’ interest in selling translation rights and among a growing number of Arabic to English-language publishers—suggest an increase in translations.
“In the past,” Lynx Qualey says, “it probably wasn’t good business for big Arab publishing houses to focus on what have been mostly small deals in translation, where the benefit was mostly for the author. It’s still a case where it’s mainly authors advocating for themselves, but I’ve been contacted by a growing number of mid-sized publishing houses interested in selling rights, and in putting together attractive sales packages.”
Moreover, “There’s absolutely a boom in really excellent Arabic-English translators,” she says. “There’s also a lot of work out there, although never enough that pays a decent wage. Still, there are many more paying opportunities for emerging Arabic-English literary translators now in 2023 than there were in 2013. I’m not sure whether it’s sustainable, but that’s where we are now.”
Sustainability has always been a concern for ArabLit which has involved passion and dedication but largely unpaid work. With the monthly newsletter, Lynx Qualey, who is also a translator, has yet another project to manage. “Our two considerations are making things accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and paying our contributors. It’s a difficult balance.”
She’s designing her newsletter on Peter Torres Fremlin’s Disability Debrief, which uses a pay-what-you-can model to make information both accessible and supported. And with her forthcoming newsletter, some of the work of publishing professionals interested in translation rights for literature from the Arab world may get simpler.
More from Publishing Perspectives on international rights and licensing in literature is here, more on Arabic literature is here, more on translation and translators is here, and our Rights Roundup series is here.