Spreading the word - it's difficult

Yasmina Jraissati
Opinion - International Friday, 02 November 2018

While the publishers' conference programme at Sharjah has grown impressively, writes Yasmina Jraissati, barriers to international recognition of Arabic literature remain

For the past 10 years, professionals of the book industry have been meeting at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE to attend seminars and workshops, and most importantly, to meet Arab colleagues for match-making sessions. At first there were only a few of us, but in recent years, the number of fellows has grown substantially, and in 2017, over 300 publishing professionals attended this event at the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce.

The translation grant that supports translation between any two languages is without doubt an important factor in attracting international editors. But this growing attendance is also a sign of an increasing interest in the Arabic book market as well as in Arabic literature. For those of us who have worked hard in the past decade to ignite editors' interest in Arabic literature, this is good news, and we seem to have finally reached an interesting place. More, however, needs to be done.

Though the number of deals involving rights to Arabic books is increasing, progress is still difficult and slow. The translation cost is certainly one important hindering factor, but many other old challenges persist.

First, the language remains mostly inaccessible. The number of literary translators from the Arabic has increased in some territories (there is for example a sizeable new generation of translators into English), but in many other territories, literary translators from the Arabic are rare. Though many editors express their interest in Arabic literature, most of those are yet to invest the time and money to create a network of reliable readers from the Arabic.

Also, reaching readers with a title translated from the Arabic is still particularly challenging for publishers. For example, in my personal experience, TV or radio shows that were initially interested in hosting an Arab author withdrew the invitation after being told that the author needed an interpreter: the format of these shows is simply not designed for international authors who do not master at least the English language.

All in all, though there is growing interest and more financial support towards translation from the Arabic, the Western industry and market do not yet seem completely ready to commit to introducing this literature.

As an agent, I have often wondered why people aren't motivated enough to make the extra effort. The challenges mentioned above are important, but there needs to be a change in attitude. There are also structural problems within the Arabic book industry itself, which slow down efforts to promote Arabic literature.

One of them has to do with the general quality of our production. Though there are many great Arabic books, too many published books display some surprising weaknesses. These weakness are bound to deter those who acquire books, and might be already reluctant.

Certainly, books are a matter of taste, and fortunately, tastes vary among people and places, but storytelling is universal. We all seek to be immersed and transported by a narrative, be it emotionally or intellectually, in fiction or non-fiction. We can all recognize the value of a book, its capacity to carry us away. While there is no absolute rule as to what makes a good book, any experienced reader knows an absolute bad book: where an invisible line has been breached in the narrative structure, and the magic is gone.

Little editing
For various reasons, Arab publishers are traditionally producers, and editorial feedback is often limited to proof reading. As a result, many print books display a lack of editing. Too many of these books are on offer on the international rights market, and some of them are acquired and published for reasons that are sometimes questionable, contributing to the negative perception of the general quality of our books.

This situation is linked to another deficiency in the Arabic book industry: the absence of professional, dedicated media. There is no real evaluation of a book's quality. The absence of such public platforms, where literature is evaluated, has another worrisome consequence: many Arab authors will seek recognition in translation through Western media. As an agent I have been approached by young authors who, without having yet published their first books, were already thinking about selling translation rights. This innocent fantasy of being published abroad has one dangerous upshot: many of these books end up targeting mainly Westerners. They are more often than not irrelevant to the Arab audience, somehow disconnected from our deeper reality. They feed on mutual perceptions (how Arabs perceive Westerners' perceptions of Arabs) that are most of the time incomplete, or even inaccurate, and ironically end up cultivating the prejudices they were intending to upend.

Book professionals have been complaining for years about the absence of a strong distribution network (which is why the digital age of ebooks and audiobooks can be extremely promising for this particular market), but people never complain about the total absence of information and evaluation. This is the true key to the development of the book industry within the Arab region. Our literature will only travel and truly succeed on the international scene after it is genuinely valued at home.

Photo of Yasmina Jraissati by Jacob Russell

Yasmina Jraissati runs the RAYA Agency for Arabic Literature.

The Sharjah International Book Fair runs until 10 November.

This article first appeared in A World of Words, the Sharjah International Book Fair preview from Publishers Weekly and BookBrunch.

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