Arabic Literature Strongly Represented in 2014 PEN Grants

Arabic has gone from de facto English-language invisibility to the “fourth-most-translated” literary language in the US. Part of this surge in sightliness comes from the funding support behind Arabic translations, and, this year,  both the “PEN Promotes” and “PEN Translates” grants are supporting Arabic translations:

French still has Arabic outnumbered –with three “Promotes” and two “Translates” grants — but there is no other language that comes close. Chinese and Albanian both have two titles, one on each list. All other languages are represented singly.

Moreover, two of the French titles (one by Algerian Boualem Sansal and another by half-Mauritanian, half-French Karim Miské) were arguably written by Arabs.

The two grants will support a total of 21 publications, including its first PEN-supported Welsh translated. Samantha Schnee, chair of Writers in Translation, said in a prepared statement that, “‘This current list of PEN-supported titles…will greatly enrich the landscape of publishing in the UK for years to come, increasing cultural literacy. In the hands of some of the foremost translators working today, titles from Arabic and Chinese, from Turkmen to Nynorsk, will open windows onto other cultures for readers of English.”

Thus they are not just emphasizing bringing great literature into English, but “increasing cultural literacy.” Nonetheless, we can hope that all the titles also represent great literature.

The PEN Promotes-winning Arabic title is The Book of Gaza, ed. Abu Atef Saif, published by Comma Press. The collection brings us short work by Atef Abu SaifAbdallah TayehTalal Abu ShawishMona Abu SharekhNajlaa AtaallahGhareeb AsqalaniNayrouz QarmoutYusra al KhatibAsmaa al Ghul and Zaki al ‘Ela.

The same book has also apparently won a PEN translation grant, as has the futuristic collection Iraq + 100, edited by Hassan Blasim and also published by Comma. This, like The Book of Gaza, has multiple translators, and asks ten contemporary Iraqi writers to reflect “on what their home city might look like in the year 2103,” 100 years after the US-led invasion of their nation.

The last Arabic book on the list is The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, to be translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Melville House.

According to Jaquette, “The project wouldn’t have been possible to publish without the support of English PEN, and the grant wouldn’t have happened without Sal Robinson at Melville House, who is a wonderfully passionate, around-the-clock translation advocate.”

Jaquette was first drawn to the novel she’s translating, The Queue, because “of how timely it felt when it was published. Yet even with all that has changed in Egypt since Basma wrote it in December 2012, I believe it’s just as chilling a reflection of Egyptian politics as it was then, if not more so. So much of the art and literature that deals with the revolution in Egypt is characterized by clear moral lines, and I’m looking forward to bringing a work into English that struggles instead with ambiguity, subtle forms of resistance, and the ethics of duty versus complicity.”

She adds: “Stylistically and thematically, I think this novel comes closest to Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar (which came out last year, and which Max Weiss did such a brilliant job translating) and Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee.”

Her advice for others looking for similar funding?

“Apply everywhere – aside from English PEN, you could start with the PEN / Heim Translation Fund Grant, the NEA, or NYSCA if you happen to be based in New York state. Know your project’s strengths and be ready to advocate for it. And before you turn in the sample: edit, edit, edit. Get someone else to edit. Leave it for a while and then edit again. The usual!”

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