Interesting piece in TheNational.ae, a United Arab Emirates newspaper, about the dearth of translators available to translate books from Arabic into English — whereas demand is rising. From what I can tell, there’s not really a thriving Arabic crime fiction scene, but it’s a UAE newspaper so that’s what they’re interested in.
Insofar as there is genuine interest on the English language side it is pretty obviously in response to Steig Larsson’s books being so successful. There was a scramble to secure English translation rights for Swedish crime writers after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hit the best-seller lists, and now I guess the English language publishing world is looking for the new fertile ground.
To my knowledge there is not a thriving Arabic language crime fiction scene, but there are a lot of Arabic speakers so there is unquestionably some. Soho Crime, over the years, has found noir fiction in places throughout the world that I never would have dreamed it existed. But in the Arabic world, the possibilities for noir fiction seem almost mind-bogglingly huge.
Yet so few books get translated from Arabic into English in the first place, partially because of there being relatively few translators — but ultimately I believe it’s because English language audiences are so unbelievably fickle and unpredictable in their reading tastes — and there is, of course, a resounding prejudice against Arabic-language anything in the English speaking world.
If English language publishing is genuinely interested in Arabic language crime fiction, it should view the Mediterranean Noir scene as a cautionary tale; there is a thriving subculture of Italian dark crime writers, and has been for years, yet the relatively large number of Italian Noir books translated into English at best seem to sell as much as your average midlist literary novel, not a best-seller. Anyway, here’s The National:
With Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo’s Scandinavian crime fiction continuing to sell millions, and Haruki Murakami’s forthcoming novel one of the publishing events of 2011, fiction translated into English has surely never been so popular. In Murakami’s case, the desire to get IQ84 into the eager hands of English readers as quickly as possible has been so great, the third instalment was translated by a completely different person from the previous two volumes.
An odd decision, but if nothing else it would seem to confirm that these are heady days for in-demand literary translators. Well, not quite. The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, now in its second year and due to announce a winner tomorrow, was set up specifically because a new generation of translators is finding it difficult to break through.
“It’s of course natural that publishers only want to commission very experienced translators, because it costs a lot of money and you want the best you can get,” says the founder of the prize, Briony Everroad. “But it means those starting out in translation find it almost impossible to stand out against that kind of competition.”
And Everroad should know – she publishes Nesbo during her day job as an editor at Harvill Secker. She founded the prize last year in the hope that it would redress the balance for those under 35. But what makes the prize unique amid the multitude of literary awards is that the entrants all have to translate the same piece into English. Last year, the original story was in Spanish. And intriguingly, this year the chosen language is Arabic.