Book Charts Arabic to English Impact

By Judith Gabriel

Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion

By Salih Altoma

Saqi, 2005

Salih Altoma’s book is a succinct but all-encompassing jewel of literary scholarship: it includes a comprehensive bibliography of modern Arabic literature in English translation, and also includes an all-encompassing guide to translations into English of fiction, poetry, and drama published between 1947 and 2003.

The book is divided into six chapters. The first deals with “Najib Mahfuz: His Place in American Publications.” The following five chapters each deal with a different literary genre – fiction, poetry and drama. Two chapters are dedicated to poetry; chapter four surveys poetry in Arabic anthologies, and chapter five in international anthologies.

Altoma devotes the entire first chapter to Mahfuz, who “is rightly credited with the primary role in developing the novel in Arabic as a new genre in a relatively short period.”  The account of Mahfuz provides an overview of the issues and obstacles relevant to the translation of modern Arabic literature in general, including the role of publishers, the negative attitude still prevalent in the Western countries and the obstacles often erroneously attributed to the Arabic language, which led the late Edward Said to refer to “Embargoed Literature,” reflecting his disappointment with the American publishing establishment’s reluctance to take on Arabic literature in translation.

Altoma, who spent years teaching and researching modern Arabic literature in translation, outlines the growing interest in three phases: 1947-1967, 1968-1988, and 1988-onwards. In the first phase Western readers showed little interest in Arabic fiction because the novel and the short story had only begun to evolve as a genre in the mid-19th century. In the second phase more Arabic fiction appears in English translation, while academic studies lead to a greater interest in Arabic fiction. Altoma calls the third phase the “Post-Nobel phase,” reflecting the increased frequency with which Arabic works of fiction were translated and reprinted in response to demand. The post-Nobel period, he notes, marked a turnaround in the reception of Mahfuz’s work in America. 

“Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion” is truly that – a keen, knowledgeable companion – for anyone interested in the growing body of such works.  It includes complete bibliographies, as well as references to reviews and articles in journals and anthologies. What is more is the scope of the entire field that it comprehensively and incisively presents.                                                          

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (Summer/Fall 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid