Reaching Milestones in
Arabic Literary Translation
by Ed Nawotka
In 1966, Al-Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North
was published. The book was one of the first contemporary
novels written in Arabic to travel far beyond its borders, when
it was published in English just three years later as part of the
legendary Heinemann African Writers Series.
On December 18, 1973 the General Assembly of the United
Nations approved Arabic as an official UN language, forever
marking December 18 as Arabic Language Day.
Then in 1988, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz was the first
Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel Prize.
These are all significant milestones. But why, after all this
time and considering that Arabic is the fifth most-spoken
language in the world, is Mahfouz still the only Nobel Prize-winner?
Well, it likely has to do with translation. The late Mark Linz,
director of the American University in Cairo Press, who died
in 2013, was instrumental in bringing Mahfouz to English-language readers for the first time. English, being a gateway
language, helped bring Mahfouz and scores of other authors
Linz published in translation, to the world. Alas, translation
cannot only go in one direction — and here lies the problem.
In 2002, Jordanian researcher Dr. Rima Khalaf Hunaidi,
then director of the Arab regional office in the U.N.
Development Program, issued a report that studied book
publishing and other habits among Arabs. She discovered
that the total number of books translated into Arabic was
typically no more than 330 per year. The report went on to
say that the total number of books translated into Arabic
during the 1,000 years since the age of Caliph Al-Ma’mun,
the ninth-century ruler, was then less than those translated
in Spain in one year. This lack of translation was later
underscored when UNESCO, which has been tracking literary
translations since 1932, said over the thirty-year period from
1979 to 2009, that just 11,500 books were translated into
Arabic from across the world.
“Fortunately, just a short time later, those numbers are
woefully outdated,” said Chip Rossetti, the managing editor
of the Library of Arabic Literature translation series at N YU
Press, which publishes pre-modern Arabic texts in facing-page
bilingual English/Arabic editions. “The number of projects
translating books into Arabic in recent years have been vast
and well supported. Many of world’s most important books
have already translated into Arabic or are in the process
And the range of titles being translated gets broader
every year. Rossetti cites the work of Egyptian-Lebanese
publishing house Dar al-Tanweer which has published Arabic
language translations of everything from difficult books, such
as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and
works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to more commercial fare,
such as George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and Paula
Hawkins’ Girl on a Train. Another publisher, notes Rossetti, Dar
al Arabi in Cairo, actively seeks out titles to translate from even
more exotic locales. It has an eclectic list of Arabic translations,
ranging from the Chinese hipster novel Running Through
Beijing by Xu Ze Chin to Icelandic dystopian enviro-thriller
LoveStar by Andri Snar Magnason.
When one looks at some recent statistics produced by
Arabic language online bookseller Neelwafurat, the company
estimates that the number of titles per year produced in
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
combined — which together account for some 80% of book
production — amounts to approximately 17,500 titles annually,
so about 15-20% of all books are translations.
Nevertheless, Arabic still ranks 29th on the top 50 list of
“target languages,” that is in translation to Arabic, according
to the latest UNESCO Index Translation Statistics. Where it is
stronger is in translations from Arabic to other languages: there
it ranks 17th on the list of “original language translation.”
Rossetti confirmed this: “My impression is that there has
been an increasing awareness of Arabic language authors and
far more books coming into English and other languages from
Arabic than ever before. I can say that in the United States, over
the past four or five years, there are also more presses willing to
This is leading to recognition as well. In 2017 in the United
States, the PEN Translation Prizes counted two Arabic-language titles on its longlist: Confessions by Rabee Jaber,
(which was also a finalist) published by New Directions,
translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and
Limbo Beirut by Hilal Chouman, published by the University of
Texas Press, translated from the Arabic by Anna Ziajka Stanton.
What’s more, the American Literary Translation Association
shortlisted No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled
Khalifa, published by American University of Cairo Press and
translated by Leri Price, for its National Translation Award.
Other books that have recently captured US readers’
imaginations as well include titles such as The Corpse
Exhibition, selected as one of PW’s ten Best Books of the Year,
a dark and inventive story collection of post-2003 US invasion
Iraq by Hassan Blasim, published by Penguin, translated
by Jonathan Wright, or The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, a
difficult, dystopian novel depicting events in Egypt post-Arab
Spring published by Melville House and translated by
“The image of the appeal of Arabic is changing; it is no
longer the dull corner of publishing that it used to be, the
source for the odd one-off novel,” said Rossetti. “It’s now highly
desirable and the best authors and books are highly sought
after much the same as those from any other language.”
Arabic, as a language of contemporary international
translated literature, has come of age.