The World of Arabic Literature in Translation

17 April 2024

The World of Arabic Literature in Translation


From the timeless classic One Thousand and One Arabian Nights to the works of more contemporary authors like Sonallah Ibrahim, Arabic literature has an undeniably rich and diverse culture.


Literary translators play an important role in disseminating Arabic literature to people who are unfamiliar with the language. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the complexities of translating Arabic literature and why it’s important to seek new and diverse works to translate and share with global audiences.


One of the key challenges is the vast array of Arabic dialects. While Modern Standard Arabic serves as a standardized variant of the written language, many Arabic-speaking writers prefer to express themselves in their vernacular dialects, adding layers of cultural nuance and authenticity to their work — a Tunisian novelist like Habib Selmi, for example, is likely to utilize some pretty different vocabulary and turns of expression from a modernist Yemeni poet like Abdulaziz al-Maqaleh.


This diversity presents a challenge for translators, as they then have to carefully navigate the intricate nuances of the author's dialect to convey the original meaning and emotion of the text. Greater diversity in Arabic literary translators is critical for the literary cultures of the Arab world to spread — after all, one translator might have an excellent grasp of one author’s style and dialect but struggle a bit with another’s.


Many readers of Arabic literature in translation have noticed disproportionate focus on certain themes and narratives — such as stories about war and political upheaval — in translated Arabic literature. This is in large part a result of the dominance of Western publishing biases.  Organizations like the Sheikh Zayed Book Award are supporting the diversification of Arabic literature in translation by awarding translators who are able to translate Arabic works into other languages.


By promoting a wider range of Arabic literature in translation, we can enrich the global literary landscape and foster greater cross-cultural understanding. The importance of translating Arabic literature cannot be overstated. Through translation, we gain access to new perspectives, voices, and experiences that broaden our understanding of the world.


Moreover, the translation of Arabic literature plays a crucial role in promoting the Arabic language itself. By making Arabic works available to a global audience, Arabic literary translators are helping to expose readers from all across the world to a rich and fascinating literary culture.