In an oft-cited statistic, Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester and an outspoken advocate for books in translation, estimates that 3% of fiction and poetry books published in the U.S. are translations. And of the 1,590 fiction and poetry translations published stateside in the past three years, only 68, or 4.3%, are from the Middle East; large commercial houses, he notes, tend to focus on Europe.
Why is so little fiction from the region translated for U.S. readers? Aside from the obvious language barriers and expenses, Post says, it’s difficult for U.S. publishers to negotiate a sharply divided region’s idiosyncratic publishing infrastructure and bookselling networks. “It’s a crapshoot for the typical press to find information about a book written in Arabic. If publishers have special connections to the region, then they can find interesting books to publish, but it’s difficult to gain access without understanding the history, politics, or culture.”
The U.K.’s Banipal Trust for Arab Literature recently awarded its 2014 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation to Sinan Antoon for his translation of his own novel The Corpse Washer, published by Yale University Press in 2013. A number of university presses, among them Syracuse, University of Arkansas, and NYU, have long-standing relationships with Middle East scholars and institutions, and active Middle East literature-in-translation programs.
Also this year, the Banipal Trust awarded its high commendation to Paula Haydar for her translation of June Rain, by Jabbour Douaihy, which will be published in June by BQFP, a partnership between Bloomsbury Publishing and Qatar Foundation. BQFP, established in 2008 and headquartered in Doha, publishes fiction and nonfiction in English and Arabic, and it is releasing more than a half-dozen novels in translation in the U.S. this year.
Another major player is Interlink, which specializes in books by international authors and is headed by founding publisher Michel Moushabeck, a native of Beirut. Interlink, which publishes 40–50 titles each year, is coming out with two novels translated from Arabic in the first half of 2015. The house typically publishes five or six Middle Eastern novels in a given year.
“Arabic fiction is becoming trendy, contemporary, and hip,” Moushabeck says, praising work he’s seeing by current young Arab writers, calling it “unlike anything I’ve seen before.” Interlink’s releases have always sold well to the educational market, he says, but sales to the trade have picked up in recent years.
In August, Metropolitan Books, Holt’s international imprint, is releasing The Sound of Our Steps, written by Ronit Matalon and translated by Dalya Bilu, which will be the third novel by the Israeli writer to be published stateside. “Israel has more exposure in this country,” says Riva Hocherman, Metropolitan’s executive editor, who previously acquired the graphic novel adaptation of the animated Israeli documentary Waltz with Bashir, which the imprint published in 2009. Hocherman says her ability to read Hebrew helps considerably in the acquisition process, as she can assess Israeli literature in its original language. Still, she says, publishing fiction from the Middle East can be daunting because of the difficulties in finding qualified translators, and working on such titles can be “like working on two books,” because of the extra steps necessary to produce them.
Akashic is building up its list of Middle East titles, thanks in large part to the advocacy of senior editor Ibrahim Ahmad, who studied Middle Eastern literature in college and has family in Iran. Beirut Noir, a collection of short stories edited by Iman Humaydan, will be published in June and is part of the press’s series of geographically focused short-fiction anthologies. It’s the third volume in the series set in the Middle East; three more are in gestation.
Noting that 700 people attended the October joint book launch in New York City for Tehran Noir and Tel Aviv Noir, Ahmad says, “It’s a clear sign that there’s a keen interest in literature from this part of the world.”