Arab literature goes international

Nicholas Clee
Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 14th October 2010

The interest in reading translations of contemporary literature from the Arab world has grown enormously over the last 10 years, writes Margaret Obank Last year saw at least 42 titles by Arab authors published in English: 32 translated from Arabic, six written originally in English, three originally in French, and one originally in German. This compares with the year 2000, which saw seven titles from Arabic, one from Dutch and two originally written in English. Readers of Arab literature can now look to many websites and blogs for information and reviews, meet translated authors at literary festivals, and choose prizewinning titles to read. A number of factors have contributed to this interest, and Banipal the magazine of Arab literature in English translation has done its bit to encourage it.

There are now a number of prizes and initiatives in place to celebrate the translation of contemporary Arab fiction into English. The first of these was established in 2005. Called the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, it is administered by the UK's Society of Authors. It raises the profile of Arabic literature in translation, taking it into the homes of readers of world literature and making it more than just a subject for academic study. This year's judges are author Margaret Drabble, translator Elliott Colla, and Professors Susan Bassnett and Yasir Suleiman.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was established in 2007, the result of discussions between Arab and Western publishers after the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair, when the Arab world was the Guest of Honour. Its aim is to encourage publishers of other major languages to translate contemporary literature from the Arab world. Supported by the Booker Foundation (London) and the Emirates Foundation (Abu Dhabi), the Prize was launched at the 2007 Abu Dhabi Book Fair, and in the short space of three years it has become the most important literary prize in the Arab world. It is run by a Board of Trustees drawn from both the Arab and international literary communities, and its panel of judges is completely independent.
The 2008 and 2009 winners, Bahaa Taher for Sunset Oasis and Youssef Zeidan for Azazeel, have been translated and published in10 languages between them Bosnian, Croatian, French, English, German, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian and Romanian. At least seven of the shortlisted novels and a number of the longlisted ones have also been translated into a number of languages.
Arab publishers love the Prize: it has led to greatly increased sales and many more readers. The responsibility of the judging panel to arrive at independent and transparent decisions based solely on the literary merit of the works is something new in the Arab world, prompting many articles in the Arab press and myriad opinions, and is driving the success of the Prize.
As an off-shoot to the prize, the Trustees started an annual workshop for aspiring authors, mentored by two of the year's shortlisted authors. The first, highly successful workshop took place in Abu Dhabi last year an anthology of their short fiction will be published later this year. Five of the authors were later selected as the best Arab authors under the age of 40 in the Beirut39 Hay Festival/Beirut World Book Capital project, another initiative promoting reading, translation and publishing Beirut39, an anthology of new writing from the Arab world, was published by Bloomsbury in April.
The Arab world has seen a major flourishing of young literary talent these last few years from Egypt, the Gulf, to Syria thanks to these and other initiatives. These include both the translation of contemporary Arabic literature and literary collaborations: European poetry and literature festivals are inviting more Arab poets and authors; the Dubai Emirates Airline International Literature Festival has been established; many more publishers in the West are publishing Arab authors such as Arabia Books (UK), Archipelago Press (USA) and Quercus (UK), to name a few, as well as the more mainstream Random House and Penguin, and the collaborative venture Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing; and European literary agents have been taking on more Arab authors.
Finally, this year's Frankfurt Book Fair included a panel on the Literature of Tunisia well known as a holiday destination, but not so much for its literature. The panel was hosted by Banipal and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and panellists include Habib Selmi, shortlisted in 2009 for his novel The Scents of Marie Claire, now published in English, French, Italian and German editions; Nouri Obaid, President of the Tunisian Publishers Association and recently appointed a Trustee of the IPAF prize; and Samuel Shimon, editor and co-founder of Banipal which will focus on Tunisian Literature in Banipal 39.
Margaret Obank is Publisher/Editor of Banipal ( She can be contacted at 'editor at banipal dot co dot uk'. The website for the Banipal translation prize is
This article first appeared in BookBrunch and Publishers Weekly's FRANKFURT FAIR DEALER.