How often do you read books in English that have been translated from other languages? Chances are, not often. Have you ever read a book in English that was translated from Arabic? Chances are, you haven’t. Statistically speaking, your chances of finding any work in translation—works from the Arab world in particular—on the shelves of your local bookstore are minimal.

Roughly 3 percent of books published in the U.S. every year are works in translation; of that 3 percent, only about 4.3 percent are translated from Arabic. This spring, Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of Amherst’s literary magazine The Common, moderated a panel conversation at Amherst about contemporary Arabic fiction and began by citing these bleak statistics (which come from publisher Chad Post, who provided them to Publishers Weekly for this article).

“Our hope,” Acker explained, “is that all of our collective efforts as readers and writers, community members and publishers … can help to increase that number.”

Held in conjunction with the Amherst College Copeland Colloquium, the panel featured six internationally known writers, editors and translators. Gathered in front of students, faculty and local community members, they discussed “new” writing styles emerging in contemporary Arabic fiction and the challenges Arab writers and their editors face in getting those works into the hands of American readers.

Watch the full video of the panel conversation.

Jordanian author Hisham Bustani joined the conversation via Skype. He discussed some emerging themes in what he calls “new” Arabic fiction, which he sees as a departure from “traditional” Arabic fiction of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. At that time, he says, Arabic writing was more certain, hopeful and romantic; there was a feeling of solidity in the text. Now, he says, Arabic writing is a product of social and political turmoil; texts reflect feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness, and raise unsettling questions about the future. His essay “‘New’ Arabic Writing: Cataclysm in Fast-Forward,” published on The Common website in advance of the conversation, delves deeper into the subject.

Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi-born author living in Finland, also joined the conversation via Skype. He spoke about having his works censored by editors and publishers in the Middle East; for this reason, he said, “I no longer give my books to Arabic publishers.” His work is finding new readership in the U. S. thanks to John Siciliano, executive editor at Penguin Random House. Published by Penguin in February, Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq depicts post-invasion Iraq from an Iraqi point of view. During the panel conversation, Siciliano described Blasim’s work as “distinctive” and “new,” a voice from Iraq that American readers haven’t yet heard.

Another panelist, Palestinian author and editor Michel S. Moushabeck, has dedicated the past 30 years to publishing works in translation by authors from around the world. In 1987, he founded Interlink Publishing with a mission to promote dialogue, cross-cultural learning and a greater understanding between the West and people in the rest of the world. Moushabeck said there are still many challenges facing foreign writers, those in the Arab world in particular, who seek to publish their works in the U.S. “Arabs and Muslims are still discriminated against,” he explained, “and their literature faces that same bias.” By founding Interlink, he’s been able to supersede that bias and get more works in translation into the hands of readers.

With the same goal of giving foreign writers an opportunity to share their works in the U.S., The Common will publish a special issue in spring 2016 that will feature contemporary Arabic fiction, with a special focus on work appearing in English for the first time. It will include works by 25 writers from more than a dozen countries, co-edited by Acker and Bustani. For further information, contact Acker.

This post is cross-posted with permission of The Common.

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Image Credit: Steven Tagle

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