Arab publishing was a focus at this year’s BookExpo America and in the first of a series of panels held last Friday about Arab world publishing, panelists wondered why so few Arabian writers are translated into English.

Publishers Mark Linz from the American University of Cairo Press, Rana Idris, general manager of Dar al Adab Publishing in Beirut, and Chad Post from Open Letter at the University of Rochester, seemed to square off against Erroll McDonald, v-p an executive editor of Pantheon, as to where the responsibility lies for the paltry number of translations from Arabic available in the U.S.

Linz said that 25 years ago there were only a handful of novels translated from the Arabic and then Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize and “when you win the Nobel everyone comes running.” Since then, the University of Cairo Press has translated 150 books although not many have been distributed in the U.S.. One notable success has been HarperCollins’s publication of Alaa Al Aswany’s novels The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. Idris, whose publishing company was founded by her father in 1953, noted that while there is a new interest in the Arab world , it is mostly for the wrong reasons, overlooking the fact of the regions bountiful literature. A hundred novels have been translated recently, she said, none of which have received reviews.

Arab publishing, it was suggested, has to find better and more translators, establish awards, participate in international book fairs, and overcome the West’s desire for stereotypical views of Arab culture. Literature, all agreed, can be a bridge in an era of violence and misunderstanding, but Linz emphasized that Arab literature should be read also just because it’s good literature.

Post trains translators at the University of Rochester, and he noted that only 2%-3% of novels in all foreign languages are translated into English. Most translations are from European languages, Post said, observing that in part that is because countries like Germany have their marketing in place, with an office in the U.S. to promote their books..

McDonald suggested that the Arab world establish connections in centers like Paris, and make a case for their literature. He emphasized that a book must have a platform, that it’s rare for an editor to buy a book in a foreign language without an idea of how and to whom it will sell. And he added that the U.S. is “breathtakingly provincial in its taste” in not only books, but music and films as well. Linz jumped in to say that every book is published because of an editor’s passion and Post insisted that it’s a publisher problem and not a reader problem. Idris smoothed the waters by admitting that Arab publishers should push more to establish their books, to build relationships with publishers and agents, and agreed they should pursue the U.S. market through Europe which is more open to translated literature.

Click here for more BookExpo America 2009 coverage from PW.