Sunday, April 04, 2010

An Introduction to Literature in Arabic

L.D. Mitchell (book collector, professional librarian, author, photographer) did everyone a great favour by posting a ten part introduction about the literature in Arabic that any serious reader should have on their shelves.

Given the enormous debt that Western Europe owes to Arab scholarship, it is puzzling why the Arab world's own native literary traditions remain so poorly known and understood in the West.

I have written often about contemporary Arab writers whose works are being translated into English (Humphrey Does It Again, Darwish Celebrated in Film, Arab Literature Breaks Taboos - in Translation, On Translating Arabic Literature, Taha and Adina - Translating the Other, From "Religion Dispatches" - Translating Rumi], but Mitchell takes us on a journey from 1001 Nights to Naguib Mahfouz, touching on folklore, religious texts and science, then stopping long at poetry, moving on to compilations of Jahiz, Maqdisi and the globe-trotter Ibn Battuta, biographies of the Prophet and other greats, Ibn Khaldun's seminal work on sociology and the histories of Tabari.

Mitchell says that his mini-introduction would not improve the general ignorance of the subject much, partly because of the frustrating lack of English translations. rest assured, my dear librarian, that there is a similar frustration among the Arabic-speaking generation Y and Z who no longer use classical Arabic and cannot comfortably link to Tabari, Ibn Battuta or Jahiz. Modern translations from 7th-12th century Arabic to Modern Standard are either non-existent, or very few and far between. Add to that high levels of illiteracy, censorship, and rote-learning. I read my first 1001 Nights in Burton's translation, not in the original Arabic, although the whole set was adorning our bookshelves when I was growing up.

What books in Arabic get to see the light of the English presses also depends on which political buttons are pushed, as Youssef Rakha writes in his article "A literary prize fight: politics and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction".

For all your English to Arabic and vice versa translations that will help you expand your business into the Middle East visit Arabic Language Experts at

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