When Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies won the 2019 International Booker Prize, in Marilyn Booth’s vibrant translation, many saw this as a turning point for Arabic literature in English translation. In particular, translators hoped women’s writing in Arabic would get more serious attention.
“I think that was wishful thinking,” Elisabeth Jaquette, executive director of the American Literary Translators Association, said over the phone. “Which is a shame.”
But while things did not instantly change for Arab women’s writing in English translation, Alharthi’s and Booth’s success is still being celebrated this Women in Translation Month, which is marked every August.
The month-long celebration was founded by the book blogger Meytal Radzinski in 2014, and it sits at the intersection of two different efforts. The first, spearheaded by the Three Percent blog, highlights how few literary works in the United States are translations. The second, started by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, tracks women writers’ representation in English-language magazines, newspapers, and journals.
The majority of literary translators are women. But as Women in Translation Month highlights, the books being translated are largely by men. Around 30 percent of new translations to English from across world languages are works written by women, while 70 percent are by men, Radzinski found.
Translations from Arabic to English follow a similar pattern. Of the 14 works submitted to the 2020 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, ten were by male writers and four by women. In 2019, it was three books by women, 13 by men.
Literature as Exotic Tour
Women’s books that are translated from Arabic to English also face an additional set of obstacles. As Amal Amireh, a scholar of literature and postcolonial studies, wrote back in 1996, Arab women’s novels are often presented “as sociological and anthropological texts that ‘reflect’ the reality of Islam and the Arab world and ‘lift the veil’ from what one reviewer called the ‘unimaginable world of Arab women.’”
Publishers and reviewers have treated much of Arab women’s writing not as literature, but as an exotic daytrip. Many book jackets of literary works in translation feature Arab and Muslim women fully covered, with only their eyes peeking out.