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date: 01 July 2022

Gender, Authorship, and Translation in Modern Arabic Literature of the Mashriqlocked

Gender, Authorship, and Translation in Modern Arabic Literature of the Mashriqlocked

  • Emily DrumstaEmily DrumstaUniversity of Texas at Austin

Summary

Among the many challenges facing Arabic literature in translation, the question of gender has historically been one of the most fraught, particularly as it presses upon Arab women writers. The persistence of Orientalist tropes such as the veil and the harem; the continual othering of the exotic and supposedly untranslatable East; the frequent lumping together of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern identities; the slippage between memoir, or autobiography, and fiction; and the tendency to isolate gender issues from their political, historical, and social contexts—these are some of the many phenomena that scholars and translators have examined in the Western academy. Some issues, such as the burden of mimesis, the tendency to depoliticize the work of controversial authors, and the continual association of Arabic with the Qurʾān (and thereby with the untranslatable and the sacred), face all works of Arabic in their translation for the English-language marketplace. Other issues, such as the stereotyping of Arab women as either helpless victims, exceptional escapees, or deluded pawns of Arab patriarchy, in Mohja Kahf’s reading, affect Arab women’s writing (and literature featuring Arab women characters) with particular force. Many scholars have highlighted the division between the simplistic, flattening representations of Arab women writers offered in mainstream Western publishing and the more nuanced, literarily sensitive presentations in translated works published by small, specialist, and university presses. Pressing issues of genre are also at play: the desire among American publics for a sociological, ethnographic “glimpse behind the veil” of Middle Eastern society has created a preference for both documentary memoirs and mimetic–realist works of fiction that has drawn attention away from works of experimental prose and—most notably—from poetry. Whereas male poets such as the Palestinian Maḥmūd Darwīsh (Mahmoud Darwish) and the Syro-Lebanese Adūnīs (Adunis) have multiple discrete volumes in English translation, Arab women tend to be confined to the realm of anthologies, where one or two poems are meant to represent an entire life of variegated poetic creation, and where the emphasis on their personal identity (“Arab woman”) is highlighted above their role in a more complex literary, social, and historical world. Although several contemporary poets have managed to break from the anthology loop, early-21st-century works in translation suggest that the stereotype of the Muslim woman in need of “saving” has not yet gone away. Still, scholars and translators have also offered numerous strategies and tactics for “rewiring the circuits” that govern the representation of Arab women in the West.

Subjects

  • African Literatures
  • West Asian Literatures, including Middle East
  • Poetry

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