The tradition of literary translation from Arabic is not long. It was only in 1966, when Al-Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was published, that a contemporary Arabic-language title attracted international attention when it appeared in English just three years later as part of the legendary Heinemann African Writers series in a translation by Denys Johnson-Davies—who was himself the winner of the very first Sheikh Zayed Book Award for translation in 2007. In 1973, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved Arabic as an official UN language. Then, in 1988, Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel Prize.
These are all significant milestones. But they show just how much road there is left to travel. After all, Arabic is the fifth most-spoken language in the world, with some 370 million users, yet Mahfouz still the only Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel.
Much of this has to do with translation, Mark Linz, the trailblazing director of the American University in Cairo Press, who died in 2013, was instrumental in bringing Mahfouz to English-language readers for the first time – and was a regular visitor to the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. English, being a gateway language, Linz helped introduce Mahfouz, and scores of other authors Linz published in translation, to the world. It was Linz who became Denys Johnson-Davies’ publisher of record late in his life. (Mahfouz was responsible his own SZBA, when in 2015 that Hanawa Haruo won the SZBA for translating Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy into Japanese.
Today, according to the latest UNESCO Index Translation Statistics, while Arabic is only 29th on the top 50 list of "target languages", which considers translation of titles into specific languages, it is significantly stronger in translations from Arabic to other languages, where it ranks 17th on the list of "original language translation.”
What changed? When considering the production of Arabic language books, one needs to take in the entirety of the Arab-speaking world, which includes 22 countries of the Arab league: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, KSA, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, Yemen. While accurate statistics are difficult to come by, the online bookseller Neelwafurat has estimated the production of new Arabic books at between 15,000 and 18,000 titles per year, of which 20% are translations from other languages. That means that foreign publishers have a minimum of 12,000 new titles per year to choose from.
In the United States, 321 books were translated and published by mainstream trade houses from 2008 until the end of 2021, according to Publishers Weekly's Translation Database. It is clear that Arabic language books are garnering more and more international attention as well. To wit: the awarding of the 2019 International Booker Prize to Celestial Bodies, a book about a trio of Omani sisters who take different paths in life by Jokha Alharthi, in a translation from Arabic by Marilyn Booth. It was published in Sandstone Press.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is contributing to this wave of change. Not only does it offer awards to translators from Arabic, but it offers funding to support, facilitate, and foster the translation of books from Arabic into other languages. The program—the Sheikh Zayed Book Award Translation Grant Initiative—was introduced in 2018 to help support the translation and publication of SZBA-winning and short-listed Arabic language books around the world. Sixteen books have been translated into multiple languages since the launch of the grant, including English, German, French, Italian, Greek, Georgian, and Ukrainian.
This year, five international publishers were awarded translation grants, resulting in six translations of SZBA-winning titles. Among these titles are 2017 winner Hatless by Kuwaiti author Lateefah Buti, which is being translated into English by Nancy Roberts in collaboration with Darf Publishers; 2020 winner Lilac Girl by Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat, translated into German by Suleman Taufiq to be published by Germany’s Sujet Verlag; and 2014 winner Thirty Poems for Children by Lebanese poet Jawdat Fakhreddine, translated into French by Leila Tahir and into English by Huda Fakhreddine with Bookland Press.
From the Literature category, 2018 winner Remorse Test by Syrian author Khalil Sweileh has been translated into German by Suleman Taufiq by Sujet Verlag. Lastly, the 2015 winner The Madmen of Bethlehem by Palestinian author Osama Alaysa, was translated into Georgian by Darejan Gardavadze to bepublished by Intelekti Publishing.
Through the SZBA Translation Grants it becomes clear that Arabic-language literature resonates around the world, even in times of crisis. This year two Ukrainian publishers Eleonora Simonova of Nora-Druk Publishers and Anetta Antonenko of her eponymous imprint discovered books by acclaimed Lebanese and Syrian authors for translation. They note the opportunities for cultural exchange supported by the SZBA translation grant, which comes at a time when it is essential to support Ukrainian translators and publishers. In this way, the SZBA is having an impact far from home and where it can have the greatest cultural impact.