Publish (in English) or Perish?

The second part of Brian Whitaker’s article on publishing in the Arab world is up at the Guardian. (For links and commentary on the first part, go here.) This time, Whitaker tackles the issue of language. Very little foreign fiction is published in the U.S. (only about 3% of the books that come out every year are translations) and only an infinitesimal percentage comes from Arab fiction. Reasons for this, Whitaker says, range from a lack of aggressive marketing by Arab publishers of their authors’ translation rights to a shortage of qualified translators (I don’t actually buy this last argument, but, let’s just move on for now.)

[Peter Ripken, of the German Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature] says that when an Arabic book does come to the attention of a western publisher, it is usually as a result of it having been censored by Arab authorities or spotted by an enthusiastic translator. He also accuses western publishers of imposing their own ideas of what Arab creative writing should be about, selectively translating books that “meet the readers’ often prejudiced expectations of the orient”.

Readers of this blog will probably remember the case of Norma Khouri, whose bestselling hoax preyed on the expectations of the Western reader.

The main problem, however, is that works of Arabic origin are not widely read in the west. Only a few authors manage sales of more than 10,000 in translation, but it is unclear whether this is because readers do not like them or simply do not know about them.

I think probably readers don’t know if they’ll like something until they’ve had a sampling, and frankly what’s being translated for the American market right now is woefully out of date. With all due respect to Nobel winner Mahfouz and the like, I think there’s a need for something a little fresher to come out of the Arab world (there are exceptions–Hanan Al-Shaykh comes to mind, for instance). Whitaker himself does mention three younger authors, but one of them (Rabih Alameddine) actually writes in English, not Arabic, so he (Whitaker) isn’t really helping the issue. At any rate, it seems likely that the Frankfurt Book Fair will enable a few of the younger authors to get more exposure and perhaps open the European and American markets for them.