Arabic Literature in Polish Translation

/ by Marcin Michalski

If we want to talk about the reception of Arabic literature in Poland in a short essay, it is convenient to narrow down our perspective to modern literature, more specifically to modern prose published as books. It is this genre that reaches the widest audience, and which publishers seem to know. The translations from Arabic that they usually publish, and republish, are prose works, mostly novels and novellas, although they also include literary reportage, quasi-documentary and travelogue. Translations of Arabic poetry and drama will not interest us in this text. Nor will literature created by Arabs in other languages, chiefly French (this concerns authors from Morocco and Algeria, e.g. Tahar Ben Jelloun and Yasmina Khadra) and English (e.g. Jubran Khalil Jubran, Hanan al-Shaykh, Ahdaf Soueif), but also, in isolated cases, in German (Rafik Schami) and Hebrew (Sayed Kashua).


Since 1980, when the Polish translation of Yusuf Idris’ novella The Dregs of the City appeared, 43 modern prose titles have been published in Polish as book editions. This means that such translations have been appearing at an average rate of a little more than one book per year. Is this many or few? At any rate, there is an upward tendency. With five new titles and one reissue, 2010 was a record year. So, perhaps we could be optimistic? After all, Arabic has the greatest number of Polish translations among the so-called “Oriental languages.”


However, it is not easy to be optimistic. It is more probable for an ordinary customer in a less ambitious bookstore, or for an incautious internet user to stumble on books by Polish or, in general, Western authors that deal with the Arabs in a stereotypical, often Islamophobic and/or Arabophobic way. They are instantly recognizable by a veiled female face on the cover, and a feminine past participle title: Betrayed, Silenced, Disgraced, Disfigured, Imprisoned and the like.


Which Arab countries and writers are represented in Polish translations? With as many as 10 titles translated into Polish, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who published more than 50 novels and collections of stories and won the Nobel Prize in 1988, is the best-represented Arab prose writer in Poland. Other authors have only one book available in Polish, with four exceptions, who each have two.


If Mahfouz is an indisputable leader in this respect, so is his home country. Out of the 43 modern Arabic prose books translated into Polish, more than a half come from Egypt. Even if we do not count Mahfouz’s production, Egyptian titles make up a third. They include such modern classics as Taha Hussein’s autobiographical novel The Days, Yusuf Idris’s two socially engaged novellas, Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat, a pseudo-historical novel in which he analyzes the nature of despotism, Edwar al-Kharrat’s Stones of Bobello, i.e. a Christian’s reminiscences of his childhood in the Nile Delta, and Alaa al-Aswany’s two novels: The Yacoubian Building, a criticism of various layers of contemporary Egyptian society, and Chicago, a depiction of Arabs and Americans in contact after 9/11. There are also two female authors from Egypt: Salwa Bakr, who in her Golden Chariot describes experiences of female prison inmates to analyze the condition of the Egyptian woman, and Miral al-Tahawy, whose novel The Tent is a literary introduction to the life of a daughter of a Bedouin chieftain.


Egypt is followed by Lebanon, with five titles. Jubran Khalil Jubran’s Broken Wings (of 1912, according to some, the first Arabic novel) is a tale of tragic love that foreshadowed the women’s emancipation movement. In her Women of Sand and Myrrh, Hanan al-Shaykh recounts experiences of four women living in an unidentified conservative Middle Eastern country. Rashid al-Daif’s Dear Mr. Kawabata is a bitter semi-autobiographical novel about twentieth-century Lebanon and its civil war. Rabee Jaber, in The Druze of Belgrade, tells a quasi-historical tale about banishment, tolerance and identity. Finally, Elias Khoury’s Yalo is a novel about the intertwining of war, sin, love and literature.


Syria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia are countries with three books available in Polish. From Syria, Polish readers can read Beirut Nightmares by Ghada al-Samman, a first-hand relation of the Lebanese civil war, and two novels by Salwa al Neimi, who writes about sexuality and disturbed identity. The most important Saudi author is Abdelrahman Munif, with the first volume of his quintet Cities of Salt, in which he analyzes how oil changes the Arab society. Saudi Arabia is also represented by two female writers: Rajaa al-Sanea, who in Girls of Riyadh portrays the relationship between men and women in her country, and Raja Alem, author of The Dove’s Necklace, a detective novel set in Mecca. Two out of the three Sudanese novels available in Polish are Tayeb Salih’s; one is his famous Season of Migration to the North, postcolonial novel dealing with a Sudanese intellectual’s attempt to redefine his relation to the former colonizer, while the other, The Wedding of Zein, recounts mysterious events brought about by a village idiot’s getting married. The third Sudanese book is The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir, a tale of a former secret agent who decides to become a novelist and discovers how thin the line can be between a writer and a spy.


Two titles represent Palestine: Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, a satirical depiction of the life of an Arab under Israeli occupation and Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, a literary reportage about the author’s banishment and return to his occupied homeland.


Tunisia and Kuweit each has one book available in Polish. Sadly, there are countries from which no prose work written in Arabic has been published in Polish as a book. Among them are such important countries as Algieria, Morocco and Jordan.


What stands out is the absence of any book written by Khairy Shalaby, chronicler of the Egyptian lower class, Sun Allah Ibrahim, ironic observer of the modern Egyptian society, and the feminist author Nawal El Saadawi. Apart from these Egyptian writers, it would be good to be able to read in Polish a book by Waciny Laredj from Algeria, Mohamed Choukri from Morocco and Salim Barakat from Syria.


Finally, five collections of short stories should be mentioned: A collection of Egyptian authors, an anthology of stories from various Arab countries, a collection of stories by Ghassan Kanafani (Palestine) and another one by Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya). All these titles are rather old; they were published before 1986. A more recent exception is The Madman of Freedom Square by Iraqi Hassan Blasim, published in Polish in 2013.


This configuration of numbers reflects Egypt’s leading position in the Arab literary and cultural world. What else determines the choice of titles and names to be translated? Naguib Mahfouz is, of course, known to publishers as a Nobel Prize Winner, but arguably, in most cases, titles are not chosen by publishers, but are proposed to them by translators, who know much better what is going on in the Arabic literary world. Very often, the translator’s task is not only to translate a book, but also to discover it, propose it to a publisher and convince them to publish it. What is translated into Polish from Arabic depends primarily on the translators’ tastes and choices (and these are fine), rather than on some policy of publishing houses.


Such a policy concerning Arabic literature does not exist in Poland. Although the Arab world is on the news every day, and you could guess that there is a great need for Arabic literature, I do not see or expect a boom in translations from Arabic. As this short survey shows, Polish readers can read in their language a number of important works of modern Arabic literature. However, the situation is far from being satisfactory and there is still a lot to be done. In this respect, a crucial role should be played by publishing houses, among which Dialog and Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy in Warsaw, Smak Słowa in Sopot, and Karakter in Kraków are notable exceptions in that they discern how important and good Arabic literature can be and decide to publish it.

Marcin Michalski