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Arab Women Writers Struggle to Get the Readers They Deserve

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.

There have been several English-language best-sellers in the genre that Lila Abu-Lughod, a scholar of ethnography at Columbia University, has called “saving Muslim women” stories. Yet, across languages, there has largely not been an interest in translating Arabic literature by women. Maria Isabel González Martínez, the blogger behind Separata Árabe, said over email that “of the 110 Arabophone authors translated into Spanish: 76 are men and 34 are women.”

“It’s not that I don’t enjoy the writing of male authors, but I seem to gravitate more towards and connect with writing by women authors.”

Sawad Hussain  
A translator

The scholar Nadia Ghanem tracks translations of Algerian writing. She noted that, while there are a few more Algerian women translated into French than into English, “regardless, there are a zillion more men translated in comparison.” When a Chinese Ph.D. student, Sha Min, put together a list of Arabic literature translated into Chinese in 2016, there was only one book by a woman writer.

Jaquette said she thought English-language publishers had been expressing more interest in finding new works by Arab women writers. But she added that this had yet to result in more women’s books in translation.

For her part, the translator Sawad Hussain said she felt the focus on male writers “stems from the Arabic publishing houses themselves, which have been putting forth their male authors for prizes and media opportunities.”

#WiTMonth: Providing a Nudge

In the last several years, both Hussain and Jaquette have spent more time exploring and translating work by Arab women writers.

“The first year that the Women in Translation movement came onto my radar, I thought that probably I had translated many women,” Jaquette said. “But I looked back through my publications and found that to be very untrue, that I had translated more men than women. In part, this was due to being commissioned to translate male writers. That was a moment of reckoning for me.”

But, Jaquette added, her preference for women writers is “not only a matter of principle, it’s also a matter of taste. There’s a lot in women’s writing that resonates with me.”

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Hussain said the same. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy the writing of male authors, but I seem to gravitate more towards and connect with writing by women authors.”

Hussain recently published a translation of Sahar Khalifeh’s classic Bab al-Saha (Passage to the Plaza) and has translations forthcoming of a novel by the South Sudanese writer Stella Gaitano and a short-story collection by the Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan.

If there has been a positive change, Jaquette said, it’s that Arab women’s writing is finding “more of a place in a literary context, vs. an ethnographic one. Part of it is the numbers. The more books by women that are published from Arabic, even if the overall numbers are not large, then that does create more room for a greater diversity of stories.”

“It’s true that what affects the translation is either being a bestseller or a prize winner, and then yes, more men have bestsellers than women.”

Sherif Bakr  
Head of Al Arabi Publishing

Several of the major, serious literary works appearing in 2020 are translations of books by Arab women. Two that will surely contend for 2021 awards are Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated by Jaquette, and Hoda Barakat’s The Night Mail, translated by Booth. In 2019, The Night Mail became the first book by a woman to be the sole winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It is set to appear as Voices of the Lost in September 2020.

Women’s Books Translated Into Arabic

Translations make up a larger percentage of literature published in Arabic than they do of literature in English. But the question of gender balance does not seem to have factored into many publishers’ decisions.

“I haven’t encountered the question of ‘Women in Translation’ in Algeria,” Ghanem said, “at least not posed that way. I feel examining gender in literature is a luxury that can be afforded or investigated only when there’s enough socio-political space, and economic stability, for it. It needs breathing and thinking space.”

Gender balance differed by genre. The U.A.E.-based Kalimat Group’s Rewayat Books imprint has focused on acclaimed and classic novels since its launch in 2017. The imprint lists translations of works by 37 men 15 women on its website, with many of the classics being by men.

Egypt’s Al Arabi Publishing is another major publisher of translated literature. Its publisher, Sherif Bakr, said over email that he doesn’t consider gender when he selects titles.

Al Arabi’s list includes more than 200 books from 50-plus countries, and its fiction list is close to evenly divided, with 59 percent works by men and 41 percent by women. On the other hand, its nonfiction list shows more disparity: 86 percent books by men and 14 percent by women, perhaps reflecting who is considered a global expert.

Bakr said he didn’t think most Arab publishers consciously looked at gender when selecting books. “It’s true that what affects the translation is either being a bestseller or a prize winner, and then yes, more men have bestsellers than women,” Bakr said. “For prizes, I see a growth in the number of women who are nominated and winning.”

Other noteworthy translations to look for this year include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanahtranslated to Arabic by Bothina Alibrahim, and Shahla Ujayli’s Summer With the Enemy, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019 and now translated to English by Michelle Hartman.

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