Nov 13 2008 3:45pm

American Dreams in Arabic

My last post about why Latin American science fiction is relatively unknown in the United States led to an interesting discussion of translation costs. David G. Hartwell argued that the cost of translation makes it very difficult for translated books to make a profit, and both he and talked about how U.S. readers may tend to see translated works as damaged goods—they aren’t the words the author wrote, after all, and there’s no telling how good the translation is going to be.

Certainly good translations can be done (see, e.g., and ); in some cases, they might even improve the text. This story is probably apocryphal, but I remember hearing that German students of philosophy sometimes resort to reading Hegel in English translation because he makes more sense that way. But particularly good translators are doubtless more expensive than average. From a financial standpoint, getting an award-winning translator to work on an unknown novelist is almost certainly not in the cards.

But that’s assuming that the entity shouldering the translation costs wants or needs to make a profit. Derryl Murphy pointed out that arts organizations, sometimes with government funding (e.g., the ) might help to foot the bill. And just yesterday, the New York Times blog brought up Kalima, a project funded by the United Arab Emirates to translate English works into Arabic. Which brings me to the reason for this post’s existence.

Kalima is, to me, a fascinating initiative. “What literature best captures American dreams, opportunities and challenges?” its asks. “Which books could help build mutual understanding between the United States and the Arab world?” To answer these questions, Kalima “invites Americans to nominate U.S. novels, poetry or short stories for translation for Arabic readers worldwide.”

The Paper Cuts thread was started by Barry Gewen, the Times’ nonfiction editor, whose five recommendations for Kalima include Samuel Huntington’s political science classic The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which remains as important and controversial a book as ever, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One—as Gewen puts it, “the first volume of the autobiography of the man who is arguably America’s most important cultural figure of the last 50 years.”

But if it’s American dreams we’re talking about here, then science fiction and fantasy should be included. Which SFF books do you think would best serve as U.S. emissaries to the Arab world? And, after reading this post, why not head over to Kalima’s website and nominate them? And while we’re at it, who do we lobby for a similar initiative to translate Arabic works into English?

Liza .
1. aedifica
I've been told (by a German) that Shakespeare is even better "in the original German." (To clarify: my friend *does* know which language Shakespeare wrote in, he was implying that because the German version flows so naturally and is so good, it might as well have been the original. Ah, these things that can be conveyed by tone of voice that are missing in plain print.)
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
I would love it if the translation went in both directions. I'm Lebanese, but I don't speak Arabic, so I have no real understanding of Arabic lit except for that which was written in English or French.

As for what we could share with them...I vote for a whole mess o'Bradbury. At the very least, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles. Not only are they both beautifully written, there's something in broad dreaming and wonder of Bradbury's imagination that is as iconically American as Mark Twain or Walt Whitman. That's well worth sharing, I think.
3. martyred_cars
I just found this site via the Reason article on Tor Books. Where has it been all my life? I wanted to give you my take on the state of things as a translator of literary short stories in Russian. There are plenty of translators out there looking for good stuff to work on, and it would seem to me the problem is that few of them have found their way to the science fiction genre. Literary translation seems to be a monopoly of the academic literary world, and a lot of the folks in that set turn up their nose at sci fi and fantasy (unless it's associated with, like, Borges or Marquez). I know I'm not the only one, though, with a taste for sci fi. The fact is, most non-big-name translators are freelancers, and it's always difficult for us to find the right books to translate. My translations are much better when I'm working on a writer I feel drawn to as a reader, so editors assigning me work hasn't gone nearly as well as when I've chosen the work myself. But how to find those authors, the ones I really like, in Russian (not my first language), from America (where I don't have access to a broad selection of books in that language)? The well-known authors already have translators, and the hidden gems are, well, hidden.

I currently translate short stories (by a single
author) on spec, and then try to publish them in literary journals, in the process assembling a collection that I can hopefully publish in the future. The money I've made so far pays for a tiny fraction of the hours I've put in. Money would be nice, but it's not really the goal for me. My reward is practice in my second language, which otherwise degrades, and publications on my resume, which will help me in my future academic career, if I go that direction. And, well, I like doing it.

You mention getting "an award winning translator" to work on books is pricy, and indeed, but what about those of us churning away in obscurity, building our skills? Some of us are good. Some of us are improving. Some of us work with co-translators who are native speakers of the language in question. There are some resources for us out there for learning our skills, finding books, and navigating the publishing world (American Literary Translators Association is the main place I've found helpful ideas and contacts) but for the most part translation is a self-taught skill, and translators are lone operatives. But we work hard and many of us do meticulous work.

Overall, I'd love to see the gap bridged between the science fiction and literary worlds here. Reaching out to ALTA and looking for the not-yet-awardwinning translators would be a start.
4. Derryl Murphy
I'm at a loss here. You've set the bar with the title of the post, even though the article about Kalima specifically makes note that it's the "West" (which of course includes the US).

Of course, now that I've grumped about that, I'll promptly turn around and recommend a couple American authors: Ursula K Le Guin and Octavia Butler, mostly as a chance to see how someone within our (your) society views that society from the position of Other. Nalo Hopkinson would be excellent for that as well. And it has the added bonus of bringing the feminist POV to a part of the world that doesn't always see that.

And I'd be all over Bradbury's Something Wicked... while at the same time wondering about what more recent American fables exist.

Brian Slattery
5. brianslattery
@ 4: The discrepancy isn't mine, alas. The New York Times blog may have described Kalima as attempting better dialogue between the "Arab world" and the "West." But Kalima itself doesn't: On the page that I'm commenting on, it specifically reads: "Kalima Invites Americans to Nominate Literature for Translation into Arabic"--to build "mutual understanding between the United States and the Arab World." So it's the NYT guy who does the generalizing to the "West," which makes me as grumpy as it makes you. (I wonder why Kalima isn't as interested in hearing from Europeans? Aside from the fact that Kalima appears to be a joint U.S.-UAE effort.) That said, I'm sure it was just a product of writing quickly. What are you going to do?

The generalization that both use--and it's particularly surprising coming from Kalima itself--is the idea that one can speak of an "Arab world." I've heard that one either can or cannot do this, depending on who you ask and in what context, so my ears always perk up whenever the phrase is used. Complicated stuff, these labels.

@ 3: Wonderful to hear from an actual translator, and I apologize profusely for my unintended slight against nonaward-winning translators and the work that they do. Your idea about matching up-and-coming translators with promising authors is absolutely terrific, and it gets me wondering whether some sort of forum could be developed to do it. It could be a real win-win-win situation for writers, translators, and readers--managed properly, such a forum could lower costs and keep quality high, thus lowering the barriers to the translated works being published.

Yeah, yeah, I'm an idealist. Sue me.
Larry N.
6. Larry
Well, let's see...Thomas Wolfe is one that I would push, especially his You Can't Go Home Again. Another one that might translate well would be William Faulkner's works, since there is that sense of loss and pride despite that loss that might be appealing to those who chafe under the notion that the US is a monolithic institution.

But considering the inverse (Arabic to English), I did find this to be of use; it netted me the just-released English translation of Taha Muhammad Ali's collection of Palestinian poems, So What. I'd love to discover more as well.

And m_c, I can totally understand your reasons for translating on spec. I'm working on developing my Spanish translation skills to the point where I could hopefully translate portions of stories I'm reading from Latin American and Spanish SF authors and see if there might be interest from publishers. It is a crying shame some of those authors just aren't yet available in English...
Ian Sales
7. iansales
Arabs get to experience all the Western culture they desire on television and in movies. I don't see how publishing books in Arabic is going to have much effect.

OTOH, the reverse is certainly not true. While more Arabic fiction is appearing in English-language editions than ever before, there's plenty left. Admittedly, Arabs have a literary tradition stretching back over a millennium, but they only adopted the novel just over a century ago.
8. bililoquy
I suggested Song of Solomon. Lyrical prose, gentle moral authority, vast empathy, a touch of magical realism, and a truly stellar ending. And it's a stated favorite of President-elect Obama.

iansales @ 7: Isn't that a bit presumptuous?
David Lev
9. davidlev
@ 5 this may be because Arabs already have some interaction/understanding of Europeans. They're certainly less hostile

I would reccomend American Gods (would it count? It's by a Brit living in the US, after all). It's all about the mythology of America. Although the scene between the Arab guy and the djinn might make Arabs uncomfortable....
Ian Sales
10. iansales
@8: Howso? In most Arab nations, Western films are censored before being shown in cinemas, and national television stations only broadcast those programmes they feel are suitable. There's even a DVD factory in the UAE, for example, which manufactures censored copies of Western films for the Arab market.

They wouldn't do that if they wanted more.

Admittedly, it's a somewhat warped view of Western culture (Americocentric, for one thing), they get from the above. But then, how warped is our own view of the Arabic / Islamic world?

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