Who You’re Reading When You’re Reading Arab Women

When Arab women are translated into English, the characters often reflect the prejudices of Westerners

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Who You’re Reading When You’re Reading Arab Women
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

Arab women’s writing was slow to be translated from Arabic to English. Eighteenth and 19th century Orientalists focused largely on canonizing medieval men. Certainly, their writing was better preserved and thus more available to Western academics than women’s, yet even prolific female writers like Aisha al-Ba’uniyya (1456-1517) were largely overlooked. This pattern held for most of the 20th century, and many gifted female writers from the Middle East — Layla Ba’albakki, Samira Azzam, Saniyya Salih — still have no book-length translation in English.

Naturally, the same can be said for some brilliant men. Yet for most of the 20th century, the books translated from Arabic to English were written by men. Their protagonists were also, largely, men.

The first big crossover by a female author writing in Arabic came a few years before Naguib Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize in literature. It was a 1977 work of nonfiction by Egyptian doctor, researcher, and author Nawal El Saadawi, who died last month at the age of 89.

Forty years later, El Saadawi’s works are still widely taught in English-language universities. When, last year, Bhakti Shringarpure and Lily Saint polled professors of African literature about what they taught, the North African author whose name appeared most often was neither Naguib Mahfouz nor Tayeb Salih, nor was it a 21st century star like Laila Lalami or Leila Slimani. None were taught as much as Nawal El Saadawi. Poll respondents mentioned five of her books; she has more than 20 in translation.

In truth, El Saadawi has been an influential writer in Arabic. Yet as Amal Amireh notes in her classic essay “Framing Nawal El Saadawi,” the El Saadawi of Arabic-language readers is not the same one who appears in English.

Any reading is a chemical reaction between audience and text. Even if a translated book could “faithfully” mirror its original, the book would still appear differently to people with different cultural associations. If I expect women to be oppressed and men to be coarse and violent, then I’m more likely to find those things in a book — even if the translator hadn’t changed a hair on their heads.

Our readings are also influenced by cover design, jacket text, and social mediators: teachers, critics, influencers. All these things can subtly change how we read a book in translation. However, for several female characters translated from Arabic to English, the changes haven’t been subtle at all.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, English-language publishing has what people call a “strong” editing culture. By contrast, Arabic editing culture is often called “weak.” Indeed, English has a more elaborate system of editorial control. And yes, you can often open an Arabic novel and find typos. However, the “strong” editing culture of the U.S. and the U.K. also means readers are more likely to find their translations altered.

In Arabic, when translations are changed — as the first Harry Potter translations were — translators and editors usually argue that the contents aren’t suitable for their audiences. In English, it is more common to find editorial changes aimed at “improving the book” or “making it easier” for the English-language reader to understand.

Haruki Murakami’s work is a particularly well-known case. In the 1980s, his translator and editor reportedly had “American — particularly New York American — readers in mind.” According to an essay in The Atlantic, they thought these readers wanted something “contemporary.” So, for the 1989 publication in English of his book “A Wild Sheep Chase,” they took out references to the ’70s and added a bit about Ronald Reagan. They must have been pleased with the results; from the next book, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” they trimmed about 100 pages.

These decisions are made explicit in David Karashima’s “Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami.” We know much less about why significant changes were made to Nawal El Saadawi’s breakthrough nonfiction, “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World.” This was mostly a translation of her Arabic book, “Al-Wajh al-’ari lil-mar’a” (literally: The Naked Face of the Arab Woman), and it first appeared in one form in the U.K. in 1980, from Zed Books. By the time it reached U.S. audiences in 1982, from Beacon Press, it had been significantly changed.

In “Framing Nawal El Saadawi,” Amireh doesn’t have any direct quotes from El Saadawi; from translator Sherif Hetata, who was El Saadawi’s then-husband; or from the two publishers. We are left to guess why the book was changed.

We know that when it appeared, there was significant Western interest in what is now called female genital mutilation, or FGM. El Saadawi was quoted in the press as an anti-FGM campaigner, and this seems to have sparked interest in her writing.

It also seems evident her publishers thought readers wouldn’t be able to digest the complete Nawal El Saadawi. Two chapters disappear as the book moves from Arabic to English: “Woman’s Work at Home” and “Arab Woman and Socialism.” The chapters are rearranged, and a heading appears in front of the opening section: “The Mutilated Half.” There is also a whole section that isn’t in the original, “Circumcision of Girls.”

In the original, genital cutting only appears in a flashback to El Saadawi’s childhood. But by the time the book reached a U.S. edition in 1982, critiques of capitalism and imperialism had vanished and FGM became its focus. The main character who is changed here is El Saadawi herself. According to Amireh, reviewers read this altered El Saadawi not as a fiery campaigner but as a victim.

The next breakthrough female writer to receive wide acclaim when translated from Arabic to English was, unlike El Saadawi, also rated as a stylist in Arabic. Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh’s “Hikayat Zahra” was chosen by the Arab Writers Union as one of the best novels of the 20th century. In Peter Ford’s translation, which appeared in the mid-1990s, “The Story of Zahra” gained wide acclaim, going on to become a staple of U.S. and U.K. university courses.

The Publishers Weekly review from 1994 leads by saying the novel was “banned in several Arab nations,” going on to say that the novel “mesmerizes with its frank sexuality and scenes of war-torn Beirut.” These two elements — banning and sex — have dominated English-language discussions around the book. Tens of thousands of results show up in a Google search of “The Story of Zahra” and “taboo.”

And yet, if there are taboos in evidence, they are shown in the choices made by the book’s translator, Peter Ford. As with El Saadawi’s book, extensive cuts have been made to the novel, removing much of its cultural specificity.

These changes alter our view of the characters, particularly women. Michelle Hartman writes that these changes, in general, show “a horizon of expectations that constructs Arab women as oppressed and passive victims of war.” Moreover, the translator seems to have a general fear of writing about sex. As novelist and scholar Layla AlAmmar recently observed on Twitter, “the number of times the term ‘make love’ is erroneously used is shocking.”

Rather than translating udhajiyuha as something done to someone, as, for instance to screw her, Ford takes a scene one might describe as marital rape and gloss it with the phrase “to make love.”

As AlAmmar writes: “The original Arabic demonstrates how he (the male character) views sex as something he does TO something rather than WITH someONE. It’s disappointing (but unsurprising) that such nuance is lost on a male translator. It’s all ‘make love,’ no matter the circumstance and/or her degree of willingness.”

In the absence of an interview with Peter Ford or the novel’s English editor, it’s difficult to know how and why the changes came about. But the slightly archaic sounding “make love” certainly seems to suggest the translator or editor were uncomfortable writing about sex. As Ghenwa Hayek writes in “Whitewashing Arabic for global consumption: translating race in The Story of Zahra,” this is not the only thing erased from the translation.

It’s not only Arab female writers who have seen changes made to their female characters in translation.

In the case of Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s “Where Pigeons Don’t Fly,” published by the now-dissolved Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), female characters were de-sexed for the English-language reader. In this case, we have some idea why.

In a 2015 Skype interview, then-director of BQFP Arend Küster said the publishing house was limited by what the Qatari censorship board would allow. “We didn’t have the … (issue) that they rejected a book outright,” Küster said. “They have objected to certain sentences.” When that happens, he said, “You have to go back to the translators and the author and ask them please.”

When Al-Mohaimeed’s “Where Pigeons Don’t Fly” appeared in English, descriptions of sexual pleasure, oral sex, and references to sex between women had been carefully excised. In the original Arabic, the Saudi author’s novel describes Saudi women at wedding functions emerging from bathroom stalls in disarray. The English translation has lost this reference to sex, among others. The excisions were made with the eventual agreement of the author.

Khaled Khalifa, by contrast, felt surprised by changes made to his main character. Speaking at Duke University in February 2016, Khalifa suggested he had not known of his publisher’s decision to remove the final chapter from the English translation of “In Praise of Hatred.” The book’s translator Leri Price said she also didn’t understand the extent of the changes the editor wanted to make until just before the book went into print.

As Ina Kosova writes, Khalifa’s novel is changed significantly by the removal of its final chapter. At the end of Khalifa’s novel in Arabic, the central female character has left Syria. She is now living in London and working as a doctor, where she feels numbed and nihilistic. The removal of this ending, Kosova writes, changes the novel to “a memoir of the veiled, secluded Muslim female.” She adds that, “by depriving the novel’s female narrator of a conclusion, she is left imprisoned in a stifling, claustrophobic, internal and external praise of hatred, rendering this translation a particularly violent one.”

Shifts in translation come not only from the text but also from the way a book is marketed. The cover of the U.S. edition of “In Praise of Hatred” is dominated by the face of a veiled woman; we see only her dark eyes peering out.

As Lila Abu-Lughod notes in “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” this visual cue screams “oppressed Muslim women.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a wave of popular books “published by trade presses, reviewed widely, and adopted by book clubs and women’s reading groups, a lurid genre of writing on abused women — mostly Muslim,” Abu-Lughod writes. The visual language from the covers of these bestsellers has often been borrowed for the marketing of Arabic literature in translation.

In his 2013 talk, “Translating for Bigots,” translator Adam Talib suggested there is a “hostility” in the mind of many English-language readers to Arab female characters who don’t fit within passive stereotypes.

“Translating Arab women characters is … extremely fraught,” Talib said in his talk at the American University in Cairo. “Why? Because if you’re a reader of modern Arabic literature, you know what happens in modern Arabic literature. People date in modern Arabic literature; people have sex in modern Arabic literature; people drink and take drugs.” He added that when reading passages where women move outside of narrow stereotypes, “the reviewer says, ‘What an unrealistic depiction of Arab women.’”

In the last decade, there have been changes.

One key difference is that Arab women have become a larger force in English-language publishing: as authors, editors, and critics. More complex books by women are receiving positive critical attention. In 2019, Jokha Alharthi’s “Celestial Bodies” won a Man Booker International Prize in Marilyn Booth’s translation. In 2020, Adania Shibli’s “Minor Detail,” translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, received serious engagement from critics.

These changes, as yet, have been small in scale. As Shringarpure and Saint found in their survey last year, curricula at U.S. and U.K. universities remain, in significant ways, frozen in the 1980s. Beautiful, new translations are appearing, but old mistranslations still hold their place. Given the economics of publishing, it’s unlikely that Hanan al-Shaykh’s “Hikayat Zahra” or Khaled Khalifa’s “Madih al-Karahiya” will get re-translations any time soon. But we shouldn’t ignore those books, as they live on in their disfigured forms. Rather, we can read them along with detailed criticism of the translations, which might help us see other possible books, other possible futures.

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