‘Women in Translation’ Month, and 5 New or Forthcoming Books by Arab Women

‘Women in Translation’ Month, and 5 New or Forthcoming Books by Arab Women


This August marks the third annual Women in Translation month, held with the aim of encouraging readers, reviewers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians – but especially readers – to engage with women writers in translation:

Women writers represent only about 30 percent of what’s translated into English. “And,” Women-in-Translation-month founder Meytal Radzinski writes over at her introduction to #WITMonth, “if you don’t mind me throwing in some anecdotal evidence as well, women writers in translation seem significantly less likely to get profiled by major literary outlets and are less likely to have their books sent for review.”

Meytal is curating lists of women’s writing in translation on Twitter (@Biblibio). German translator and “Translationista” Susan Bernofsky also has a list of recommended new works over at her blog that include Palestinian-Chilean novelist Lina Meruane’s stunning Seeing Red (2016), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, as well as Dunya Mikhail’s 2014 poetry collection Iraqi Nights, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

As Arabic-English translator Lissie Jaquette wrote over at ArabLit, the problem certainly pervades Arabic literature in translation. Like many literary prizes around the world, the main Arabic literary prizes, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which is also called the “Arabic Booker,” often overlook women’s writing. Why Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue failed to make even the IPAF’s longlist should be a mystery to anyone.

There are younger literary prizes, like CairoComix, that have celebrated women’s work, and smaller ones, like the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which was long headed up by feminist literary critic Samia Mehrez. But many publishers look to the Booker-surrogate literary prize for guidance.

On the positive side, novelist Kamila Shamsie’s challenge to make 2018 the Year of Publishing (only) Women was accepted by small presses And Other Stories and Tilted Axis; both primarily publish literature in translation. There have also been efforts to create a literary prize for translated fiction by women. And translator Katy Derbyshire reports that ocelot bookshop on Brunnenstraße in Berlin has put together a wonderful display for #WITMonth.

There’s still much to be done. But we can start below.

Bonus: All the books below were at least co-translated by women.

Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, trans. Elisabeth Jaquette (May 2016), Mellville House Books.

The Queue – an exploration of post-2011 Egypt originally published in 2013 – is a work of magico-political realism, the literary child of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and English writer George Orwell, with a bonus: Abdel Aziz is one of the few to really write down the details of Egyptian women’s lives and to craft female characters who come from a wide variety of social classes.

Alawiyya Sobh’s Maryam, Keeper of Stories, trans. Nirvana Tanoukhi (June 2016), Seagull Books.

There is even a literary award named for Alawiyya Sobh (the “Alawiya Sobh Literary Criticism Award”), but this is the first of her works translated into English. This acclaimed novel, originally published in 2002, is set during the Lebanese Civil War and presents portraits of women’s lives during the conflict.

Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, ed. and co-translated by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry (August 2016), Seagull Books.

This collection includes “The Mirror,” by Yasmeen Emam, in which “a teenage girl is paralyzed by the question of whether to wear a revealing or conservative dress to the wedding of a man she dreamed of marrying.” It was written in 2009 and was first produced in Cairo in January 2014, and more recently staged in Boston and at Rowan University outside Philadelphia.

Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, trans. Michelle Hartmann (September 2016), Interlink Books.

In The Weight of Paradise, documentary filmmaker Maya Amer discovers a suitcase full of letters, photographs, a diary, and an envelope labeled, “Letters from Istanbul.” The story follows both Maya and the owner of the papers, Noura Abu Sawwan, a journalist who fled Syria just before the Lebanese civil war.

Jana Elhassan’s The Ninety-ninth Floor, trans. Michelle Hartmann, 99th floor (November 2016),Interlink Books.

Jana is the only woman writer to have been twice shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and her The Ninety-ninth Floor, which takes place between Lebanon and New York City, made the 2015 shortlist. Its protagonist, Majed, is a Palestinian refugee who was raised in Beirut and is also shaped by the massacres of Lebanon’s long civil war, split between the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres and 2000 New York.

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