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The exoticism of the ordinary and the politicization of the meaning

di Redazione

How the Arabic novel in Italian translation is presented to, and received by, the general public.

The English adaptation of Elisa Ferrero‘s speech given at the “Sixth International Cairo Conference on the Arabic Novel”, 15-18 March 2015.

Italy has a very long tradition in Arabic studies that dates back to the Middle Ages. The first translations from Arabic language (into Latin) concerned the Quran and several treatises of philosophy, science, medicine, geography, astronomy and other sciences. However, it is only at the beginning of the 20th century that the modern school of Arabic studies was established in Italy, with
the founding of renown centers such as the university L’Orientale in Naples, the university Ca’ Foscari in Venice, the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient in Rome and the Institute for the Orient Carlo Alfonso Nallino, also in Rome. The latter institute was the first to initiate the translation work of the classical masterpieces of Arabic culture, such as the One Thousand and One Nights, and acted as well, for several decades, as the publisher of these translations.

In the modern history of the Italian translation of Arabic novels it is possible to identify three distinct periods. The first period goes from the beginning of the 20th century until approximately the mid-1980s
. During this time, the Italian translations of Arabic literature remained essentially confined within the academic world. The translators were academic scholars, the publishers were academic institutes and the translated works could be found only in academic
libraries or specialized bookshops, exclusively frequented by specialists belonging to the academic circles. Among the Arab authors translated in this period we find Tawfiq al-Hakim, Taha Hussein, Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Gubran Khalil Gubran, just to mention a few.

The second period in the history of the Italian translation of the Arabic novel goes approximately from the mid-1980s until the end of the 20th century.
During this period, a turning point can be observed. In fact, in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature and this produced a surge of public interest in the Arabic novel, further strengthened by the political circumstances of the time, as the 1987 Palestinian intifada had aroused a remarkable attention and curiosity towards the Arab world and the first Gulf war, in 1991, maintained it high. In this period, the translation of Arabic novels gradually spread from the sole domain of academic institutions to that of small, specialized publishers, who tried to reach a wider public of non-specialist readers outside the academic circles and thus respond to this new general interest in the Arab world.
This is the case, for example, of the publishing houses Jouvence in Rome and Tullio Pironti in Naples. As a consequence of this effort, in this ten-year period, the Italian translations of Arabic narrative almost tripled with respect to the previous period of almost ninety years, passing from about 40 translated works to 112(1). In this decade – in addition to Naguib Mahfouz who, up to now, is still the most translated Arab writer in Italian language – the selection of Arab authors available in Italian translation became wider and more variegated, including names such as Muhammad al-Busati, Gamal al-Ghitani, Youssef Idris, Edwar al-Kharrat, Bahaa Taher, Tayyeb Saleh, Ibrahim al-Koni, Mohamed Choukri, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Ghassan Kanafani, Emil Habibi, Sahar Khalifa, Hoda Barakat, Ghada Samman, and many others. However, these minor publishers still relied on a restricted group of scholar for the choice of both the works to be translated and the translators.
Eventually, the translated works remained far away from the general public and the major distribution.

The third period in the history of the Italian translation of Arabic novels starts with the beginning of the 21st century,
when the translation of Arabic novels in Italian language witnessed a new revival, as a consequence of the renovated interest in the Arab-Islamic world caused by the 9/11 attack to the Twin Towers in New York and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that followed. A steady increase in the number of translations can be observed until 2010(2) and, although after this year no systematic study or accurate data collection have been carried out yet, this trend has likely continued. However, compared to the surge of interest in the Arabic novel experienced in the second period of the history of translation the new wave of interest of the last fifteen years materialized in a new way. The Arabic novel exited from the ghetto of the minor, specialized publishers to enter the realm of the major, non-specialized publishers, such as Feltrinelli and Mondadori, two giants of the Italian publishing world. Hence, the Arabic novel also gained access to the major distribution, finally reaching out to the general public.

As of today, the translated works can be easily bought in non-specialized libraries and bookshops, as well as from online stores. Newly published Arabic novels are visibly placed in bookshop windows, on an equal footing with Italian and other foreign novels, and not anymore on hardly reachable shelves in a special section usually labeled as “Africa and Middle East literature” or “Asia and Middle East literature”. Furthermore, both the mainstream national press and TV are now paying a considerable attention to newly published Arabic novels, hosting book reviews and author interviews. Literary (and not only literary) festivals have started to frequently invite Arab novelists to present their books in front of crowded audiences. The annual Turin International Book Fair, the biggest and most important in Italy, has hosted Egypt and Palestine as guests of honor in 2009 and 2011, respectively. To all of this must be added an intense Internet “tam-tam”, through specialized and non-specialized websites, blogs and social networks.

The broader interest achieved by the Arabic novel in the 21st century could lead us to conclude that the Arabic literature has finally gained a fair recognition in Italy. But is it indeed so? A closer look at the number and kind of novels that do reach the general public and are the subject of the media’s interest will reveal that things are not so positive.
First of all, the percentage of Arabic works translated into Italian, with respect to the total amount of translations from any language, keeps oscillating, from one year to the other, around a tiny 0.1% and this percentage further decreases to 0.06% when we consider Arabic novels only. But this is not the main problem. The main problem is that, of the small fraction of novels that are translated and published, those that are chosen by the biggest publishing houses, and thus are best promoted and cause the vastest echo on the media and the internet, are only those that can be more easily presented to the Italian reader either as narrations from/on a mysterious, exotic world, or as socio-political documents, or both things at the same time – in other words, only those that can be exoticized and politicized. In the first case, the ordinary characters of a novel, their ordinary behaviors and the ordinary world they live in are presented and received as if these characters were the protagonists of a fantastic world, strongly evoking, in the Western reader’s imagination, atmospheres and images from the One Thousand and One Nights. In the second case, the novel is presented and received as an analysis of the socio-political reality of contemporary Arab societies and is requested to respond to the Western reader’s interrogatives about them.

This two-fold phenomenon of the exoticism of the ordinary and the politicization of the meaning happens regardless of the literary quality of the translated novels. It acts in two stages: at the moment of the publishers’ selection of the novels and when the translated novels are presented to the general public. In other words, novels that cannot be reduced to an exotic representation of the Arab world, or do not have a strong socio-political dimension, are discarded by the big publishers, while those who are deemed suited for translation by these publishers have to endure, during their promotion period, the full process of being exoticized and politicized. This occurs through book reviews,author interviews, short book presentations on the publishers’ websites, and even through the book covers.

One finds that, when presenting an Arabic novel to the general public, certain expressions and words are constantly repeated, clearly revealing the pattern of stereotypes through which the Arabic novel is still being received in Italy. The exoticism of the ordinary, for example, particularly affects novels written by women authors and narrating about women. In reviews and presentations,these novels are almost invariably said to “reveal” or “penetrate” the “secret world” of the Arab women, a world described as made of hidden “eroticism” and “sensuality”, floating amidst the “vapors and perfumes of the hammam”. Or, alternatively, these novels are said to “bring to light” the internal mechanisms of a “patriarchal society”, where the “forbidden” and the “taboo” are dominant, and “rebellious” Arab women are fighting against, or succumbing to, “traditions” that require their “submission” to men.
It is understandable, then, why a book such as Raja al-Sanea’s Banat al-Riyad, defined by a leading Italian newspaper as “the Arab Sex and the City”, has become a bestseller, and how a book such as Samar Yazbek’s Ra’ihat al-Qirfa, which narrates a strong, tough story involving physical and psychological violence experienced by the two female protagonists, could be described, by a famous literary supplement of another leading Italian newspaper, as “sweet and seducing”. Thus, the Arab female protagonists of these novels become, in the reader’s imagination, either fascinating creatures of a fantastic world that has to be “disclosed” and “discovered” like an unexplored, mysterious land, or the brave heroines fighting evil and obscure powers like what happens in fantasy novels.

The politicization of the meaning,
however, is the most pervasive phenomenon. It basically affects all translated novels. Every time an Arabic novel is introduced to the general public, it is hard to find a book review or an author’s interview that does not state that “this book will make you understand what is happening” in this or that Arab country, or in the Arab world as a whole. The general public’s main expectation from an Arabic novel, thus, is to “explain” the Arab world.
Arabic novels are frequently represented as “denounces” of authoritarian regimes and societies. Words such as “Islamic extremism”, “corruption”, “oppression”, “sectarianism”, “violence”, “censorship” and, of course, “women’s condition”
are undoubtedly the most recurrent when presenting Arabic novels, and this can happen because Arabic novels escaping from this reduced representation of the Arab world simply do not make it to the wide general public. Thus, book reviewers and authors’ interviewers rarely comment on the language, style and narrative techniques of an Arabic novel. They just concentrate on the “reality” that these novels are said to reveal, requesting the Arab authors to speak, first of all, about the “situation” in their home countries and the Arab world in general. This explains the big success, for example, of Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building and this also explains the attempt to present many Arabic novels translated and published soon after 2011, especially those written by young authors, as “the book that has anticipated the Arab spring”. This happened, for example, with Ahmad Mourad’s Vertigo.

Edward Said wrote, in his illuminating book Orientalism, that “the East presented by orientalism is a system of representations delimited by an ensemble of forces that have introduced the East in the Western culture, then in the Western awareness and finally in the Western colonial empires” and that orientalism is “an ensemble of ideas, beliefs, clichés and notions about the East”(3). He also added that, “orientalism is a product of forces and activity of political nature”(4).
Given the fact, as we have seen, that the interest in the Arabic novel is closely tied to the political events going on in the Arab countries and touching the West, and given the phenomenon of exoticization and politicization of the Arabic novel that I have described (which lets come out clearly all these persisting “ideas, beliefs, clichés and notions about the East”), I can say that the mechanisms of orientalism are still alive, even if the word orientalism today is rarely used.
Colonial empires have fallen, but new political forces and equilibriums have emerged that allow orientalism to continue to play a role at many levels. The Arabic novel in translation is unfortunately victim of this situation that is not easy to change, as this would require an entirely new approach to the Arab world in general, not only in the literary field.


1 Mariangela Masullo, Translating from Arabic into Italian, Anna Lindht Foundation and Transeuropéennes – Università L’Orientale di Napoli, Paris & Naples 2010.

2 Ibid.

3 E. Said, Orientalismo. L’immagine europea dell’Oriente, Feltrinelli, 2006, p. 201.

4 Ibid, p. 203.

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Aldo |

interessante disamina. grazie.

bibi |

quanta fuffa! niente di più attuale, che so, parlare della persecuzione dei cristiani nelle vostre terre, la criminalità e lo spaccio dei nordafricani, insomma, qualcosa di più reale no? continuate nella vostra politica dello struzzo.

Giulio |

In Kenya 150 studenti sono stati scannati per la sola colpa di essere Cristiani e nello Yemen i piissimi musulmani si stanno a loro volta massacrando sulla base delle divisioni settarie, L’Isis avanza il mondo islamico è sull’ orlo del baratro e voi continuate a tacere. Complimenti vincereste il campionato del mondo del gioco delle tre scimmiette se solo esistesse, non vedete non sentite e non parlate. Ma forse è meglio così sui grandi temi non siete capaci di idee e slanci coraggiosi!

Nadia |

Grazie per l’interessante articolo! 🙂

Alessandra |

…un approccio diverso e nuovo al mondo arabo?! Ma dai!! Siamo bombardati da notizie di gente di origine araba che non ha capito nulla del loro Corano e si è arruolata nell’ISIS o IS o Califfato e taglia gole, crocefigge, brucia vivi.. e la menate con sta roba?! Siamo bombardati da notizie di ingiustizie in Pakistan di musulmani verso cristiani, di ebrei ridotti al l’osso in Yemen, di donne cui è negata la libertà di guidare in Arabia Saudita di gente schiavizzata in non so quale emiro dove si disputeranno i mondiali di calcio ..dove lavorano 16 ore al giorno a 50-60 gradi all’ombra con circa 1000 morti per infarto tra questi lavoratori stranieri, cui in virtù della kafala o come si chiama sono confiscati da datore di lavoro passaporto e documenti ..o di blogger liberali ingiustamente incriminati sempre in Arabia Saudita e frustati in pubblico. Gli unici che stanno bene nei paesi arabi sono le persone con tanti soldi reversibilmente di sesso maschile!!

Alessandra |

..tradotto per me non siete per niente esotici ed attraenti..