Friday, September 24, 2004

Language barrier

Reluctant publishers, translation difficulties and tired preconceptions have all hampered the progress of Arabic literature in the west, says Brian Whitaker

The Guardian
September 23, 2004

If you've got something to say, say it in English. Other languages really don't count any more.

Thanks to the old British empire and today's US pre-eminence, English has become the international language of business, technology, diplomacy - and the world's most celebrated writers.

Literary stardom "reflects only the ability of a writer or a book to make an impression on the most profitable areas of the world market," Pierre Lepape, the French author and critic, wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique earlier this year.

"An author might win the Nobel prize and be translated into 30 languages, but his or her work does not qualify as world literature until it is piled high on a prominent table in a Barnes & Noble megastore."

The world market in books is dominated by the US. US publishers and literary agents, together with many of their British counterparts, maximise revenue and profits by promoting star authors who, these days, are often celebrities rather than professional writers.

Meanwhile, authors from the rest of the world, with names that are unfamiliar - and sometimes unpronouncable to English speakers - scarcely get a look in.

Only 2.8% of the books published in the US are translations from other languages, and no translated book has reached the US bestseller lists for years. The figure for Britain is only marginally higher, standing at 3%.

Amid the general reluctance to translate foreign languages into English, books originally written in Arabic seem especially out of favour. Even in Germany, where translations account for 40% of published fiction, less than 0.3 % of those books are by authors from the Arab world.

This is somewhat surprising, partly because Arabic, with around 186 million native speakers, is the world's sixth major language, but also because of the enormous political and military attention focused on the Middle East and the way in which the region dominates news coverage day after day, year after year.

It is probably fair to say that the average well-educated American or Briton has never read any Arabic literature in translation. If pushed to name an Arab writer, they might - after some head-scratching - come up with Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel winner, or Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese mystic...



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home