Fine words lost in transliteration

Modern Arabic Fiction
November 24, 2006

The establishment of the short story and of the novel as key genres in modern Arabic show the adaptability of the language and those who write in it. Both genres have attracted writers of great talent whose works are not only eminently readable but also give us insights into Arab society. The quality of the best writers was acknowledged in 1988 by the award of a Nobel prize to an Egyptian, the late Naguib Mahfouz. Though he was a clear choice, several others must have run close. The pleasure that the writing gives, however, is often more than matched by the pain evoked by the general background. Most Arab societies are dysfunctional, being beset by rampant poverty, widespread corruption and regimes kept in place by the military and the dreaded mukhabarat (security police). On top of that, there is the enduring misery that has been the lot of the brutally oppressed Palestinians and, more recently, of the Iraqis, both during and after the Saddam regime.

Gifted and enthusiastic translators have put many major works before the English-reading public, but hitherto there has been no anthology on so large a scale dealing with prose literature. Modern Arabic Fiction is a huge volume containing about 900 pages of translation from more than 140 authors from all parts of the Arab world and beyond. It will undoubtedly find its own niche among those who study modern Arabic literature, especially for the selections from authors from the Arabian peninsula.

Whether it will do so among the general reader, and in particular the student of comparative literature, is doubtful. I approached it with considerable expectations but by the end I was disappointed, not by the translations but by the lack of editorial rigour.

For the most part translations have been specially made or reworked for the volume. Their standard is high. Occasionally there are passages that lack clarity, but this is normally a reflection of the original text rather than a failure of the translator. Not all is flawless. One comes across ungrammatical sentences: "His skin turned blue, and almost the whole family rushed him to a nearby clinic, with just Marmara and I left at home in case my parents should arrive and find the house empty." However, such infelicities are rare, and one can have confidence in the translators.

Earlier translations are normally mentioned in the introductory sketches on the authors that precede the excerpts from their work. However, this is their only mention, as there is no bibliography, a sad and reprehensible omission.

The anthology is divided into three sections: "The pioneers", "Short stories" and "Selections from novels". Given the generous selections in each, it is fairly pointless to argue that this author or that novel should have been included, either as an extra or in lieu of one of the pieces printed. In fact, such arguments are virtually impossible because there is no explanation for the rationale behind the selections. Even so, some oddities are apparent. For example, the introduction contains a section on "Gha'ib Tu'ma Farman and Fu'ad al-Takarli: The novel of individual action".

This might lead one to expect that there would be an excerpt from a novel by each of the two authors. This turns out not to be the case. Each is represented by a short story. Similarly, I would have preferred an extract from a second novel by Mahfouz to the two short stories given. Also, I regret the absence of an excerpt from Muhammad Husain Haykal's pioneering novel.

There are greater problems with some other decisions. The division into the three main sections is rational enough, but one cannot say the same about the decision to arrange the authors within each section in alphabetical order according to surnames (in transliteration). A chronological order would have been much more helpful.

Another failing lies in the way extracts are presented. For most of the anthology an extract or group of extracts is preceded by a brief sketch on the author. The title given to the piece by the editor follows and then the translation. The absence of an introductory note and of proper dating often makes appreciation of a piece difficult or impossible. Dating is crucial in gauging literary development and contextualising a work. There is a note explaining that "in some cases, the transliterated forms of authors' names reflect an author's own personal preference. This may lead to apparent inconsistencies in the system of transliteration used". This is a fair point; but there is an implication that the transliteration will otherwise be consistent. This is simply not so. Notes on the texts are infrequent and sometimes inadequate. The notes to the introduction are much better, but the introduction itself is not without problems. It tells us much about the editor's own enthusiasms and expertise, but, as pointed out above, its focus does not always connect with the excerpts.

There are simple steps that the general reader can take to get at some of the missing background. The best website is probably http:///arabworldbooks.com , which has information on a whole host of prominent authors. For full translations, a search of www.abebooks.com  for Arabic fiction produced more than 1,100 titles, and one on www.amazon.co.uk produced more than 200. However, the best tactic may be to buy Modern Arabic Literature by Paul Starkey.

Alan Jones is emeritus professor of classical Arabic at Oxford University.

Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology

Editor - Salma Khadra Jayyusi
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 1,088
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 231 13254 9

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