Translating Arabic Book Covers into English

Even in the e-book world, book covers are still an important business. A crummy design signals, to the reader, a crummy book. And an incredible design can cut through a world full of clutter and arrest a reader’s attention.

The original of Radwa Ashour’s Specters is on the right, with (from right to left), the British edition next, then the AUC Press’s Middle Eastern English edition, followed by the US edition at far left. I have to admit a preference for the UK cover, although none of them feel really evocative of the text.

Covers don’t always have to be translated. Ahmed Mourad’s design for Miral al-Tahawy’s award-winning Brooklyn Heights was picked up by AUC Press for the English translation. Still, though, the original is lovelier: I guess it’s the font on the English-language edition.

For various reasons, titles also change in translation. Some simply don’t work: Wajdi al-Ahdal’s بلد بلا سماء  could perhaps become  A Land Without Sky or A Land Without Skye, and you could translate the protagonist’s name to Sky/Skye, but in William Hutchins’ translation it becomes instead A Land without Jasmine. Not nearly as evocative as a land without sky.

Bensalem Himmich’s هذا الأندلسي is much more provocatively re-titled The Muslim Suicide in Roger Allen’s translation, although this was apparently Himmich’s wish, closer to his original desire for the book’s name. Both covers have something to recommend them, although I think those who pick up the English A Muslim Suicide looking to be titillated by some modern-suicide-bomber-love-story will be a bit disappointed.

The double-use of Mourad’s cover for Brooklyn Heights is a rarity. Almost always, publishers find a need to design a new cover for their market.   After all, the cover is the book’s face to the world, and each publisher wants to put his or her stamp on it.

The translations are not always an improvement over the Arabic-language cover, as with Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada.

I have not yet addressed Orientalist stereotypes. Because anyhow, lots of people have addressed this. One more picture of a woman in niqab on a book jacket, and the whole world might explode. But you already knew that. (There’s even a Tumblr for Niqabs and Kitaabs.)

Woman at Point Zero used to look like this. But the re-issuance (at right) apparently required a new, sexed-up design.

Sometimes both covers are clean, clear, arresting and lovely, as with the Arabic and English covers of Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here. I’m not sure if there will be a separate cover for a US edition?

I hope not.

A very helpful reader sent in four covers of The Locust and the Bird, by Hanan al-Shaykh:

I’m not sure what it says about me, but I like the cartoony American jacket from Pantheon.

Book cover design:

I was going to try to use Pinterest to organize good/bad examples of Arabic book covers and covers-in-translation. But then I’ve been lazy.



Categories: cover design, translation

4 replies

  1. I suspect that, like most things, cultural context should influence choices for book cover art. I wonder to what extent Arab publishers make their selections based on what they think will appeal, rather than any real information about market trends. It would be interesting to survey customers in bookstores about the appeal of different types of cover.

    • I keep meaning to do a real article about the changing world of Arabic book-jacket design. Very lazy, I am!

  2. This post sparked an idea! It would be really neat if there’s a way to collect book cover images and pair the original Arabic with the English translation/design. It’d be the raw material for several Arabic 101 and Arab Lit drills. The ones that are direct translations are good for vocab and reading. The ones that are not direct translations are good for testing familiarity with the plot/synopsis.

    • Sounds like a great idea. I think you should make your students do it. :-) AND have them put it on a blog so that others can use it, too.

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