German Translator Laments Lack of Interest in Arabic Literature


Abu Dhabi, London- German translator Hartmut Fähndrich has lamented the lack of interest of German publishers in literature from the Arab world.

It is a dramatic matter, Fähndrich told the German News Agency.

Fähndrich said big publishers translate small literary works every once in a while, adding Arabic literature does not attract a wide audience in Germany.

However, according to Fähndrich, this literature could significantly contribute to better understand Arab societies and the political shifts in the region.

Fähndrich, 72, is one of the most famous German translators of Arabic literature.

In 2016, the translator received the Swiss Literary Prize for his works translated from Arabic to English. A few years ago, he partook in the jury of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) that was launched in 2008.

The translator noted that more Arabic works were translated into German in the past. He said, meanwhile, bookshops have more books translated from Arabic into French.

According to Fähndrich, many among Arab authors are unknown in Germany, which has reduced the demand on their works and on Arabic literature in general.

IPAF also known as the “Arabic Booker” is the most important prizes in the Arab world; its winner receives $50,000, and its work would be translated into English.

But, the winning writings which have so far been translated to German have been few.

The Nation’s Bitterness, Burdens the Heart

Ghareeb Iskander

London- The Iraqi poet and translator Ghareeb Iskander has made a remarkable step by translating a bouquet of poem for the Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, aiming at enhancing dialogue among different cultures and to offer the Arab reader a new opportunity to acquaint a new rich experience in poetry, for one of the most important modern poets according to The Sunday Times.

In his introduction, Iskander has pointed that the majority of poems he translated for Walcott have been selected from the “White Egrets” collection, which received the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2010.

The Iraqi translator has revealed that the Caribbean poet has used some fictional titles and has chosen time as a dominating theme in his poems.

Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a leading candidate for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. However, he was obliged to withdraw his candidature after he was accused of harassing a student.

Who is Derek Walcott?

He was born in Saint Lucia in 1930 and was known as the best cricket players in that region. However, he realized his love for poetry and composed his first collection that comprised 25 poems while he was 18 years old; two years later, he wrote his first play.

Walcott speaks and reads English, French and Spanish. He believed that poetry is a space of expression which can embrace all the human energies and be guided by people’s longing, especially for motherland.

Ghareeb Iskander masters English and Arabic and has been significantly interested in English-written poetry; he is an academic who has focused his efforts in the fields of poetry and translation studies and has many poetry collections and translated books.

Askar’s Death, Big Saudi Loss

The Saudi cultural entourage has been struck by the death of Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim Al-Askar, member of Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, and former history professor in the University of King Saud.

The late enjoyed a remarkable importance in the Saudi cultural scene and has made many achievements. He worked as a professor in the history department at the University of King Saud where he introduced many valuable researches on Arab and Islamic history.

Askar played a significant role in the Saudi cultural community and excelled in three domains: academic, journalism and translation. He has excelled in translation, but he always complained about the deterioration in the number of readers and in cultural interaction among society’s members.

However, I always encouraged him on maintaining his path. Dr. Askar is considered one of the best experts in the history of the Arabian Peninsula and one of the excellent translators in the Arab world.

Askar insisted on enriching the Arab culture and translated five important books with a simple style that offers people the opportunity to read and comprehend.

The late translator focused on translating many books on relations between Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism as a response to the growing media campaigns discussing this issue and their impact on the Kingdom’s foreign relations.

He introduced many translations in the academic sector and also used to write articles in Al-Riyadh newspaper and in the monthly magazine of the Consultative Council; he addressed many lectures on Saudi history and leaderships.

It is worth mentioning that Askar’s family enjoyed great relations with the Saudi monarchy; his ancestors ruled many regions in the Kingdom, and his father was once appointed as Prince of Asir.

The late intellectual studied at the University of Riyadh (currently University of King Saud) and continued his higher education in the United States of America. Askar has left behind many credible and respected works that have enriched the Arab culture.

A Rainbow That Makes the Heart Leap

Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation
Edited by Sasha Dugdale, David Constantine and Helen Constantine
Published by Bloodaxe Books, London, 2016

In his seminal study of translation, “Mouse or Rat?” the late Italian linguist and novelist Umberto Eco argues for the Latin proverb according to which translating a literary text is always tantamount to a betrayal. He even hints at the possibility that Eve decided to devour the forbidden fruit because of an inadequate translation of the injunction not to do so.

On a more mundane level, translation could cause confusion and even conflict in many walks of life even within the same family of languages. For example, in British English the verb “to table” means “to put forward a text or a resolution” while in American English it means “to withdraw a text.” As Eco notes, a mouse is a cuddly creature while a rat is a revulsive pest. On a different level an “orchard” isn’t a “grove” and an epistle is somehow more than a letter. A “gate” is somehow more than just a “door” and you would take a “damsel” for a “wench” at your peril.

In Nabokov’s black comic novel “Pnin”, a misunderstanding of the trains’ timetable leads the eponymous hero, a Russian exile in America, into boarding a different train and ending up where he didn’t want to go and into a story he hadn’t imagined.

If translating even the simplest text, say a manual for your made-in-China washing machine is difficult, you can imagine how much more difficult translating poetry it. You have to be either heroic or reckless to attempt it.

I did so when I was a reckless teenager, working for “Ashna” (The Acquaintance), a literary magazine in Tehran edited by the poet Ahmad Shamlu. I translated dozens of poems, mostly by modern German and French poets until I hit Edith Sitwell’s celebrated poem “Still Falls The Rain” which took me a week to complete and undermined my health, also ending my ambitions as a translator.

So you can imagine how I felt when faced with this amazing object of bravura that is an anthology of 250 modern and post-modern poems in translation from more than a dozen languages.

The poems are chosen from the many issues of the magazine “Modern Poetry in Translation” (MPT) founded by the late Ted Hughes, England’s most celebrated Poet Laureate, in 1965. The fact that the magazine has enjoyed such longevity is a tribute to England’s status as one of two or three countries where poetry is still regarded with keen interest, and even a certain deference.

The anthology shuns any particular order; a fruit of Catholic, not to say chaotic, tastes of the translators. The translators, many of them poets themselves, wanted to share with others what they liked. Inevitably, perhaps, the bulk of the poems offered here are from European languages, including some like Irish and Franconian German, which thrive in very small communities.

There is also no chronological order, perhaps because poetry, or at least good poetry, is timeless. Instead, the editors have tried to erect a thematic structure. Again, inevitably, the themes chosen are those that reflect the existential reality of the past century or so- an age of revolutions, wars, genocides, oppression, betrayals, but also of struggle, hope and, occasional triumph of good over evil.

Lovers of poetry would appreciate the fact that the anthology has not been limited to well-known poets like the Russian Osip Mandelstam, the German Bertolt Brecht, the Spanish Federico Garcia Lorca, the Italian Cesare Pavese, or the Iranian Forugh Farrokhzad.

The volume offers much opportunity for happy serendipity as the reader discovers poets he hadn’t heard of before. Examples of this include the Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov and his superb poem “My Mother Reads Poetry”, the Armenian Zahrad and his short poem “Sentence”, and the Chinese poet Yu Jian with his long elegy “Event-Digging”. Other surprises include the poems “Entertainment” and “Liberation” by Hochi Minh, the father of Vietnam’s independence, both written in prison.

Several modern Arab poets are also present, including the Iraqi Fawzi Karim and his tongue-in-cheek ”The Usual Story”, the Sudanese Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi with his short ode “Nothing” and the Iraqi Fadel Assultani and his Larkinesque poem “A Tree”. The Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim is present with an excerpt from his long poem “An Inquest” as is Mahmoud Darwish with two of his longer poems.

Some poets of Arab origin who write in European languages, are also included although, notably the Moroccan Tahar ben Jalloun, a renowned novelist in French. Another Arab poet writing in French is Ridha Zili who is included with two excellent short poems.

The anthology includes some of my favourite Iranian poets who are better known abroad than at home, notably Mimi Khalvati and Ziba Karbassi. There is also the translation of a Persian poem “Dear Fahimeh” addressed to a young woman executed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Intriguingly, we are told that the author is “unknown or concealed”, presumably because he or she is in Iran and thus in danger of being executed by the mullahs.

Some of the interesting later Iranian poets like Hashem Shaabani, executed in Ahvaz under President Hassan Rouhani, or Fatemeh Ekhtesari sentenced to be caned in public, are not included presumably because their work appeared in translation in the West after the anthology was put together.

The poems chosen are of varying lengths. Ernst Jandel’s German poem “Time Flies” consists of only one word ”Lustig” (lusty) written several ties to form a visual pyramid. The Serbian poet Vasco Popa’s “Cape of Good Hope” contains only 49 words. In contrast Pascal Petit’s “At the Gate of Secrets”, after the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhasz, runs into more than a thousand words. Juhasz’ own fascinating poem “The Boy Turned Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” is offered in a shortened version.

Some of the most interesting poets of recent times, at least in this opinion, are either not included or presented with just one poem. Among them are the simply divine Polish Wislawa Szymborska with a short poem ”Innocence” and Eugenio Montale who isn’t included along with Jorge Luis Borges who has had great fun with the art of compiling anthologies.

Because the poems are translated by many people, some of them poets in their own right, the anthology reflects a rich variety of styles, tones and sensitivities, providing a real treasure for lovers of poetry everywhere. The publisher Bloodaxe is itself some kind of a miracle and a credit to England, being one of a handful of publishing companies in Europe, still surviving and to some extent even prospering solely by mass-marketing poetry.

This anthology is a veritable literary rainbow of the kind which Ernst Jandl said your heart leaps in the sky when you behold it.

Making Shakespeare an Arab

The compiled volume of Shakespeare's sonnets, translated by .
The compiled volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, translated by Dr. Abul-Wahid Lo’loah.

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A new translation of Shakespearean sonnets into Arabic has been published by the “Kalima” project in Abu Dhabi—no small feat, given the difficulties of translating language as rich as Shakespeare’s.

Dr. Abul-Wahid Lo’lo’ah, the lead translator on the project, stressed to Asharq Al-Awsat that part of the art of translating the sonnets into Arabic was to adapt not only the language, but also the cultural context and meaning.

However, he chose to accompany each Arabic sonnet with extensive explanations and interpretations of the piece, just one of many tactics used to interpret the fourteen-line poems for an Arabic-speaking audience. In writing his explanations, Lo’lo’ah relied on the scholarship of British critics specializing in Shakespearian literature, so as to preserve as much of Shakespeare’s voice and historical context as possible.

In writing the interpretive text, Lo’lo’ah also tried to introduce Shakespeare’s life and personality to the Arab world.

This is not the first time Shakespeare’s sonnets have been translated into Arabic, and Lo’lo’ah clearly admires the translators who came before him, in particular his late teacher Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. Jabra felt that translations of such intricate text required “elaborate explanations and academic analyses that kill the poetry within,” and while Lo’lo’ah clearly felt the need to include explanations of the sonnets, it is also clear that he does not feel this ruined the effect of the translations.

While Lo’lo’ah acknowledges the talent and dedication required to translate Shakespeare into Arabic, he has also criticized many of the approaches taken by other translators—especially those who ignore the sonnets’ linguistic and historical context.

Praising his teacher’s translation, Lo’lo’ah says: “Its phrases are elegant and the meaning is explained precisely.” But he still criticizes Jabra’s elaborate translation of long English sentences so as to make the sonnets comprehensible in Arabic while relying very little on explanatory text. He took the opposite approach to his teacher, preferring beautiful poetry in Arabic alongside lengthy footnotes explaining the original meaning.

He also noted that some previous translators had misunderstood the meaning of some English words in Shakespeare’s time: a “pen” used to be a painter’s quill, “brave” used to mean “beautiful,” and the word “modern” used to mean “cliché.”

The Arabic Novel in the West

File photo of books on a library shelf. (AFP Photo/Loic Venance)
File photo of books on a library shelf. (AFP Photo/Loic Venance)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Does the Arabic novel enjoy popularity in the West? What is the proportion of those who read the Arabic novel in the West, in comparison to those who read Turkish, Afghan, or Indian novels? Just who is reading fiction translated from Arabic?

These are just some of the questions that Asharq Al-Awsat put to a number of prominent Arab novelists and writers in an attempt to understand the place that Arab literature holds in the West. In the first of a four-part series, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Hanan Al-Shaykh, a Lebanese novelist, short-story writer, journalist and playwright. Her books seek to challenge the roles of women in the traditional social structures of the Middle East. She is one of the leading contemporary women writers in the Arab world and is known for her forceful books, such as Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story. Shaykh’s novels have been translated into English, French, Dutch, German, Danish, Italian, Korean, Spanish and Polish.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, she said:

“Like many, Westerners in one way or another believe that Egypt is Umm Al-Dunya (the mother of the world) and the most important Arab country.

“I do not think that the English are interested in Lebanese, Syrian or North African novels in general. I think that Palestine comes next in terms of English people’s interest in the Arabic novel, given the political events taking place in Palestine and the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.

“The Palestinian novel received more attention following the visits made by Emile Habibi, the Palestinian novelist, and Edward Saïd, the world-acclaimed academic, to London. In fact, they helped convey the Palestinian viewpoint to the English-speaking public.

“As for myself, I cannot be ignored given that I have been active in the UK for many years. In addition to this, writing plays has increased my readership, particularly given that the theater has traditionally enjoyed a larger audience.

“English speakers are not interested in Arab issues in general; however, they are interested in novels that tell interesting stories. This was obvious with Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men, which tells that story of his father who disappeared in ambiguous circumstances in Egypt. Some Saudi female writers have attracted Western attention as well.

“My book, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, achieved enormous popularity in the West. In fact, all of these novels tell interesting stories. Nevertheless, had my book been written by an Indian author, it would have definitely been more popular.

“All in all, translated Arabic books are not so popular in the UK. Besides, concerned about quality, British publishers only sign with writers whose books are expected to make considerable profits; they do not like to make a loss.

“This is why the Arabic novel does not enjoy much readership in the UK. Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love used to be a bestseller, given the English public’s passion for Egypt.

“I once met a culture editor at one of the UK’s major newspapers. When I introduced myself to him as a fiction writer, he responded in wonder: “I never knew that Arab women write.” I jokingly presented to him one of my books and asked him to confirm that the picture on the book is mine and that I am the real author of the book.”

The second part of this series, featuring the France-based Moroccan critic and short-story writer Mohammed El-Mezdioui, will be published tomorrow.