The Ethics of Book Selection

March 1, 2009

Provocative description of a recent panel at the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, in which panelists complained about which books written in Arabic are chosen for publication in the West. Which books, one might have already predicted, are those in which the content “is violent, sexually explicit and speaks of political instability in the Arab world, which sells like hot cakes in the Western world.” I’m not terribly  sympathetic to a suggestion that books be selected in order “to make the right impression by choosing the right type of literary works,” but I can certainly understand some of the writers’ other complaints:

Ibrahim Nasrallah said during the discussion, “The main reason is the theme these books are based on. Those chosen for translation talk about sensitive issues. The theme is of primary importance, and the artistic standards of writing are ignored. I believe that better books should be translated.”

Fadhil Al Azzawi added , “We admit that translation plays a very important role but they are chosen as per the western agenda. Besides, the ethical perspective, there is also a commercial agenda to translation of Arabic books.”

I found most compelling of all Nasrallah’s statement that “it was important that the rest of the world realizes that Arab authors are capable of creation and innovation.” I unfortunately know very little about literature translated from Arabic. I can understand the political instability claim, but I don’t think of Arab literature as being terribly sexual or violent. It does seem entirely plausible, though, that Western audiences would be most fascinated by literature about resistance to the norms of a culture we’ve been trained to think of as repressive and autocratic. (In a similar vein, a lot of Chinese “literary” movies that become popular in the U.S. seem to be about individuals, particularly beautiful, fragile flowers of Asian womanhood, being crushed by rigid traditionalism and societal demands.) We don’t much enjoy having our stereotypes challenged, and we like dramatic stories of individuals confronting larger forces.

In any case, while, like I say, I don’t think of translated Arab literature as being terribly sexual or violent, it may also be that the U.S. is simply not the target for these complaints. After all, we notoriously do not translate much, whereas France and Germany, who also have rapidly growing Muslim populations, translate a lot. It could be that those and other European countries are translating a lot of mediocre stuff from the Middle East that touches on titillating issues. We don’t have to bother to translate it: we’ve got The Kite Runner.

The ethics and politics of book selection, though, is a fascinating and problematic issue that I think should be more at the forefront of translation discussions. Maybe at the moment we’re so desperate to get something, anything, in translation out there, we’re postponing the debate for another time.



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