By Anna Boots
Three percent: that’s the oft-cited figure of how many books are published in the United States each year in translation from languages other than English. It might be surprising to some people that Arabic is actually the fourth most translated language into English, following French, German and Spanish. This has not always been the case. Arabic ranked ninth or tenth on this list in the 1990s, until the interest in Arabic in the United States began its steady climb following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Even with this increase, American readers (who don’t read or speak Arabic) have very limited access to fiction coming from the Arab world.
Of the full-length novels that are being translated from Arabic into English, an increasing number of them fall into the umbrella category of speculative fiction, which includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, and dystopian fiction. There are many possible explanations for the popularity of this genre. The Iraqi-born author Hassan Blasim has suggested that speculative fiction is well suited to writing under authoritarian rule, and in settings of intense censorship. Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, published in Arabic in 2013 and in English translation by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2016, uses dystopian fiction to tell the Kafkaesque story of citizens living under an oppressive, authoritarian regime, who must wait in an endless line in front of “The Gate” to have their most basic needs met. The setting is an unnamed Middle Eastern country, but strongly resembles contemporary Egypt.
The genre of speculative fiction also appears to be well-suited to telling stories of conflicts, such as the Iraq War. The context of American-led wars and interventions in the Middle East is important for understanding which Arabic stories get translated into English and marketed in the United States, and how they are received and talked about by American readers and critics. As Marcia Lynx Qualey, founder of the popular blog ArabLit, has written, in the case of Iraq War literature, Arabic fiction translated into English can offer a necessary alternative perspective on stories that are usually told from the viewpoint of the American soldier. This is the case for Ahmed Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, published in Arabic in 2014 and in English translation by Jonathan Wright in 2018, which centers on ordinary civilians in Baghdad living with the consequences of the U.S.-led invasion. The story follows a junk dealer named Hadi living in occupied Baghdad, who worries that the dismembered corpses that litter the streets following explosions won’t receive proper burials. He begins to collect scattered body parts and sew them together into one corpse; in the process, accidentally constructing a monster that goes on to wreak further havoc on the war-torn city.
These two novels will be the launching point for a course at The New York Public Library’s Jefferson Market branch this fall that deals with Arabic fiction in English translation. First and foremost, we will deal with the literary aspects of the texts. But we will also use them to explore the art and politics of literary translation from Arabic into English. What kinds of works and authors reach an English language audience, and why? How do the authors and translators think about translating both language and genre, and approach the specific obstacles that arise from translating Arabic into English? We will consider the political stakes of reading stories translated from Arabic, and the role literary translation can play in balancing out the perspectives on the Middle East that the average American reader is accustomed to seeing in the news or in English-language war literature.
Arabic Speculative Fiction is a five session course:
Wednesdays, November 14, 28 and December 5, 12, 19 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.