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?


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