Farouk Mardam Bey: The success of a translated Arabic novel is just a coincidence

The French publishing house Actes Sud is known as the French publishing house that publishes the most translated Arabic literature. The publishing house “Acts Sud” was originally established in 1978 and was concerned with foreign literature in general, and since its early years focused on translations. It is worth noting that the first literary work translated from Arabic appeared in this house between 1989 and 1990, and there was no series dedicated to translated Arabic literature yet. At first, a collection of short stories appeared by the Egyptian writer Nabil Naoum and a novel by the Lebanese Rachid Al-Daif, then I recited the rosary. The house has published works by many names, and these works have been well received in the press and in bookstores. The house focused in particular on translating Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry and prose.

Years after its establishment, Act Sud bought Sinbad Publishing House, an old house that was established in 1972 and was the first house to print works by Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih and Ghassan Kanafani in Europe. Sinbad Publishing House, founded by Pierre Bernard in Paris, had the greatest credit for launching the movement of translating classical and contemporary Arabic literature in France. Until the mid-nineties of the twentieth century, this house worked actively, translating masterpieces of classical and contemporary Arabic literature, until it was bought by Act Sud. It included it in its already existing series and combined efforts to translate a large number of masterpieces of Arabic literature.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the “Sinbad” house, the pioneer in translating Arabic works and transmitting them to the French reader, we had a meeting with the Syrian historian, translator and publisher Farouk Mardam Bey, who is responsible for the Sinbad series, published by the French “Acts Sud” house. Farouk Mardam Bey has headed Sinbad House since it joined Act Sud, dedicating his efforts to promoting Arab culture in France and Europe. Mardam Bey, who supervised the publication of more than a hundred works transmitted from Arabic, announced the launch of a children’s literature line within the “Sindbad jeunesse” house, in the hope that this series would improve sales due to the high demand for children’s books.

Difficulties in translating Arabic literature

At the beginning of our conversation with Farouk Mardam Bey, who was a consultant at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (1987-2008), we wanted to know the most prominent difficulties facing Arabic literature to reach French publishers and be translated. Mardam Bey replied, “There is a difference between “Act Sud” and the rest Publishing houses, here I am an Arab reader, I have my relationships in the literary community and I follow the Arab publishing movement since ancient times, I have standards and accounts that are not found by the officials of translation from Arabic in other French publishing houses. And to choose a work, they ask to translate multiple pages of it to see if it is suitable for translation or not, and in my opinion this is not enough.Other publishing houses may rely on the opinions of university professors and others, as they may rely on translations of the novel into other languages. It was good and they decided to translate and publish it, but this is not enough in my opinion.”

When asked about the criteria for choosing a novel to be translated into French, Mardam Beck answers: “To choose a work for translation, there is the criterion of the writer’s name and our previous dealings with him, as we have our ancient writers who have priority to us. Other publishing houses publish only one work of the writer without this implying the adoption of all his works. While we, in Acts Sud, adopt the writer, complete with him, and translate his following works, such as the case of Jabbour Al-Douaihy, Najwa Barakat, Alaa Al-Aswany, and others. We consider that the writer cannot have a presence in a language if only one of his works is translated.This strategy reduces the The number of new writers we translate for.My criterion of choice for a new writer is to receive his novel by critics and journalists, as I take the opinions of my friends who are educated readers and journalists in the Arab world.In general, publishing houses and writers are the ones who send me their novels, but as I said, I follow criticism in the Arab press and trust the opinions of my friends. Among the readers and intellectuals, I also mention the literary agent Yasmina Jreissati and her agency “Raya”, which I rely a lot on her suggestions and the books she gives me. The writer was a literary agent, in addition to close social relations to be able to deliver his books to the world. The writer must be well-known, active, and have a literary agent to facilitate the process of finding him, entering into an agreement with him, and translating his works.

Speaking about what is being translated, Farouk Mardam Bey adds: “There is also the geographical distribution that enters into the calculations. It is not permissible to limit the translation to the Egyptians and the Lebanese, especially since they obtained the lion’s share in the foregoing with the boom of the Lebanese war narrative. The Egyptians and Lebanese covered others in translation for many years and did not There were no novelists who had weight outside these two countries.In Palestine, for example, the three great novelists are Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi, but they had contracted with other publishing houses and signed with others besides us.But today the situation is different and there is now writing a novel in Arabic in the Maghreb. After the tendency was to be Francophone, and therefore we have come to a time when it is imperative to translate the works of the Maghreb as well. The Gulf, in turn, has begun to produce and its works cannot be ignored. Today, translated works are emerging from various countries of the Arab world.”

Reader of Arabic literature translated

Speaking about the readers of Arabic novels or translated Arabic works, Mardam Bey says: “We published novels, short story collections, poetry collections, and university studies. With the passage of time, the quantity of production decreased and the published genres were limited. It was difficult to promote university studies, and translated novels became the dominant house in the scene due to the narrowness of the market and its orientation “Act Sud” is generally published to literary works and not studies.Our readers are from all spectrums, I cannot identify a specific reader, and the reader is not limited to the Arab audience only, there is the second and third generation of Arabs, of course, and most of them do not read Arabic, so they read translated novels as there Among the best-selling names are Alaa Al Aswany and Naguib Mahfouz, for example, as well as Elias Khoury in his novel “Bab Al Shams.” We discovered years ago that publishing two works a month made it necessary for one of the two works to vanish behind the other. It is harmful for the writer, the translator and the publishing house, so we decided to publish only one work per month.There are three bad months for publication in a year: July, August and December / December. During these months, there are many holidays that keep readers away from libraries. These months, sales are low, so we can say that we publish eight translated Arabic novels a year, which is a very small number compared to the number of books published in the Arab world. However, if we compare the numbers of translations of Arabic in France with others in Europe, we find that the translation of Arabic literature in France is much better. Italy, which was very active in translating from Arabic, has declined in the past two years.”

Speaking about sales and ways to stimulate the market, Mardam Bey added: “In terms of promoting our books, we send about a hundred copies to the press when the book is published, and we try to secure press interviews for our writers, and we try to secure enough press coverage for the book. There were bookshops selling Arabic works in Arabic and French, but unfortunately they disappeared. There are Islamic libraries, but they do not fall within our interests, and there is the library of the Arab World Institute. There is no tool in France for libraries and publishers to guide them. There are no activities in this field. There is a demand in return. We must encourage the demand for translated Arabic literature, and it is not enough just to translate. As long as there are no readers, no market, and no demand to guarantee the sale, it is of no use to translate a lot.”

Translation and cost

Speaking about the dilemma of translating Arabic literature into French, Mardam Bey talks about a decline in sales in previous years, something he tries to explain its causes. The same.There are excellent novels, but they are large in size and we cannot cost huge amounts of money to translate them, so we do not translate them because of their size, which is an important matter that we take into consideration. The writer may be praised on the pages of newspapers without achieving sales rates. The fact that the writer is well received in the press does not necessarily mean his success in the market. This is the case of Douaihy’s “The American Quarter,” for example, about which newspapers and newspapers wrote about, but he did not achieve popular success. The work of a translator sells five thousand copies is a wonderful thing, but this is very little. The quantity of sales has clearly and clearly decreased. The book must be present in windows and front tables in bookstores, and be talked about in the literary press to gain its chances of success. Success, but this is difficult given the huge amount of books published every month. There is an inflation in French production, which occupies the forefront of the scene, and therefore it becomes difficult for literature translated from Arabic to appear in the forefront. Only Act Sud publishes thirty French works a month, Seuil publishes 35 works, and Gallimard perhaps 40. How can we market a single novel translated from Arabic in this sea of ​​publications?

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As for the criteria or conditions necessary for the success of a book translated from Arabic, Mardam Bey says: “The success of a work is purely a coincidence. The reader’s taste cannot be caught today. There is a certain atmosphere that occurs at the moment of the book’s publication. There are, for example, internal or external political news, there are circumstances that contribute to The book’s success or failure. Either circumstance will favor the translated work or the book will be unfair. There is no reason in the novel itself in general to prevent its sale, it may be accompanied by indifference and indifference, it may be accompanied by a charged political atmosphere and people will reject it, as happened with one of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels that were issued simultaneously With the “Charlie Hebdo” case, the readers did not buy it because of their anger at the Arabs. There are tides and ebb and flows that affect the translated novel. In the general understanding of the French citizen there is no rule. Of course, it is difficult for the novel to be bad and succeed, but there are novels that we expect much more success than success. Which I achieved and it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for that.”

Novel quality standards

Finally, Farouk Mardam Bey explained to us some of the criteria that may contribute to the success of a translated novel for the French or Francophone reader. He said: “There is the quality of writing, the ease of reading, the beauty of translation, and many influential social factors. There is no basis for the success of a particular work, there are a set of influencing factors. A simple work by an unknown writer may succeed, and a good work by a famous writer in the Arab world may be marginalized due to unfavorable circumstances.The novel “Bab Al Shams” for example by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury sold ten thousand copies directly, while the novel he published after that, which may be better in terms of level The narrative technique sold much less. The general public favors literature that has a story and plot and has events that are narrated with interest. There is, of course, a higher taste than the latter that is concerned with language, style and eloquence of expression. The success of translated literature depends on the activity of the publisher and on favorable social and literary tools, but also on the text. .

In a question about the impact of wars and political crises on literature and which topics are the most attractive to readers, Mardam Beck answers: “Wars greatly affect reading the literature of the conflict zone, but only at the beginning. Literature after a while, the Syrian crisis, for example, today lost some of the sympathy and curiosity that it aroused about it in its infancy among readers.The world’s problems are many and the internal French problems are also many, which makes the reader’s interest change and shift from one place to another.The subject of excitement is not necessarily sold, this may be It is true in the past, but not today.The issues of Islam and extremism may interest readers, and there are publishing houses that are rushing to publish them, but I do not do that, because I do not want to offend the image of Arabs or further distort it, on the contrary, I want to show the creativity of Arabs in the best possible way. We must try to mitigate the effects of prejudice on the Arabs in order to alleviate a little the suffering of Muslims and Arabs residing in France.”

In a final question about the steps that he sees as useful for the spread of the translated Arabic novel in France, Mardam Beck says: “American literature dominates translated works today. It is unlike French literature, and is not full of exaggerated intimacy. Asian literature is not as strong as Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese literature. The problem is in Arabic It lies in the fact that we need a tool of definition and guidance that follows the publishing movement in the Arab world and directs French publishers to translate and publish the good.The English Banipal, for example, has done a great job in this field by introducing to English works from the Arab world that deserve to be translated.There are institutions like the Arab World Institute that can He creates a publication dedicated to introducing new Arabic productions to bring what is issued from libraries and publishing houses closer to French houses. This work is not huge and could be achieved to shed light on Arabic literature and its most prominent texts, with the aim of encouraging and facilitating translations into French.”