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Friday, October 24, 2008

Reading Modern Arabic Literature

Recently modern Arabic literature seems to have made several long strides all at once. It is interesting to note that in the 20 years from 1947 to 1967 a mere 20 titles from modern Arabic literature appeared in English translation. In the next 20 years the situation improved slightly with 84 titles being published in translation between 1967 and 1988. I do not have figures for the yearly number being published these days, but the position has greatly improved.

Modern Arabic literature is no longer read by just a few students interested in the subject. I remember not so long ago being told off in a review of a book of mine that I was not transliterating the names of writers properly. How was it that I was writing, for instance, Tayeb Salih when the correct rendering should be al-Tayyib Salih (with dots under the t, the s and the h to distinguish them from other letters in Arabic which are not to be found in English)?

The situation has now arrived where one calls a writer by the name he has chosen for himself in English. What reader cares whether the 's' in Salih is in fact the letter 'sad'(so called in Arabic) or whether the 'y' in his first name is doubled or not? We see names like Dostoevski and Tchekov written in different ways and do not feel that any harm has been done to the writers; after all, we are not students of Russian and do not have to spell out their names in that language.

Anyway, the position is now "the simpler the better," and no one any longer has to learn Arabic in order to read modern Arabic literature. Something I had long been advocating has now happened: modern Arabic literature has been taken out of the academic cupboard.....


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