5 Years of Arabia Books: Expectation, Reality, and Lessons Learned

Haus Publishing was founded in 2005 by Barbara Schwepcke (@BarbaraSchwepck), with a nudge from the brilliant German author W.G. Sebald. Then, five years ago this March, the Haus team launched Arabia Books, one of a handful of English-language imprints that focus on bringing Arab literature to an English-reading public:

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Barbara Schwepke

In 2013, its fifth year, Arabia will bring out Samar Yazbek’s novel Cinnamon, trans. Emily Danby, and Rachid Boujedra’s dense, driving The Barbary Figstrans. André Naffis-Sahely. Haus has had a different focus from the Cairo-based AUC Press or the Doha-based BQFP, with a particular emphasis on Syrian (Yazbek, Rafik Schami, Fadi Azzam) and Algerian (Boujedra, Anouar Benmalek) authors.

Haus founder Barbara Schwepke corresponded with ArabLit about what led her to launching Arabia and what the team has learned in the last five years. She writes of Arabia’s beginnings:

“Initially Haus only published non-fiction, namely history, biography and travelogues. One slightly unusual launch title in the latter category was Damascus: Taste of a City, an homage to his hometown Rafik Schami had written together with his sister Marie Fadel. Rafik’s German publisher asked me after that launch whether I knew any publisher who would be interested in publishing his magnus opus The Dark Side of Love, a magnificent, multi-layered story about two feuding clans and 100 years of Syrian history, a kind of a Romeo and Juliet story. Well, this was too tempting an offer to pass up, so Harry [Hall] and I started Arabia Books as a possibility to explore this rich vein of storytelling, which is the Arab world.”

But now, Arabia isn’t Haus’s only Arab-focused imprint. In 2011, they also launched Swallow:

sarmadaWhen The Dark Side of Love was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize [in 2010], Rafik declared that if he won he wanted to dedicate his prize money to the help of emerging writers from the Middle East and finance their translation into the English language. Thus Swallow Editions was born and at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011 we launched the first title: Sarmada by Fadi Azzam, a brilliant young Syrian, whose writing had impressed Rafik so much that he had mentored his young ‘colleague’ – as he called him – in the completion of this novel. Swallow Edition financed the translation into English by Adam Talib.

It was also Rafik Schami, Schwepke said, who pointed them in the direction of Samar Yazbek, and Yazbek’s notes on the first months of the Syrian revolution, A Woman in the Crossfiretrans. Max Weiss. Arabia also took on Yazbek’s novel, Cinnamon, which Schwepke says “voices the same passion and defiance to be found in her most recent work[.]“ She adds:

“Although written prior to the Arab Spring, the book remains highly pertinent to unfolding events; it conveys a palpable sense of the oppressive conditions, and the inequalities, that would soon erupt into protest. More personally, it resonates with Yazbek’s own political aspirations and provides insights into her reasons for identifying with the revolution, and participating in it despite the considerable costs.”

And, Schwepke says, for any reader, “the work raises profound and unsettling questions about innocence and consent, abuse and love.”

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But Arabia isn’t only focused on supporting emerging writers. They also have found it’s to their benefit to support emerging translators and editors of Arabic fiction in translation, a project they’ve launched in connection with Prof. Marilyn Booth at the University of Edinburgh, the Center for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW), and the UK’s Translators Association.

One thing they have learned along the way, Schwepke said, is how essential it is to work closely with authors and translators from the very beginnings of a project. If they had done this from the beginning, “It would have meant that we could have involved them much more in the publishing process, which works so differently in the UK and the US than in the Middle East. But it was a bit of a steep learning curve for both us and our authors and their translators.”

prod_main342Because of this, Schwepke said that, with the help of the Translators Association, Arabia has joined “a mentoring scheme, pairing young translators with experienced ones and hence Cinnamon was translated by a hugely talented young woman called Emily Danby, who was mentored by Marilyn Booth.” This was followed by a new editing process: “When Emily delivered her translation the editing was done by the first Arabia Books intern, Aran Byrne, who was the first recipient of a generous grant of CASAW. It was Marilyn’s conviction that it was important to develop best practices of translating, editing, and publishing literature in translation and we share her conviction and intend to continue to give that opportunity to many more young people in the future.”

Closer ties with the author from the beginning, Schwepke hoped, could avoid inflated expectations for how a translated title could be marketed and sold to Anglophone readers. She said that, “almost simultaneous with the beginning of Arabia Books came the arrival of agents and big prizes in the Arab world.” These may be good things for the future of Arabic literature in English, but Schwepke said it also meant that many authors believed they could get huge advances and that winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction would mean that their books, once they had been translated into English, would sell as many copies as an (English) Booker winner’s.

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“The reality is unfortunately very different,” Schwepke said. “A close cooperation with the author and his or her translator and an open involvement of them in every aspect of the publication can prevent this disappointment and make for a very exciting project for all involved, who are all stakeholders in a shared success story.”

The imprint’s fifth year will also be a time of celebration and gift-giving as well:

We are terribly excited that in our fifth anniversary year both Samar and Rafik have promised to come to England — especially exciting since Rafik has declined every previous invitation — and will do an event in aid of Samar’s Syrian women’s initiative and Rafik’s Syrian children’s charity. At this event, they will hand over the first set of Arabia Books (every book we published in the past five years) to a public library, because Harry and I have decided that as a birthday present we will give away a set of Arabia Books to every public library in the UK who signs up to this give-away — we believe that in this age of austerity public libraries need our support and we would like to give many more people in the UK the opportunity to explore Arabic literature in translation. Hopefully that way we can help rebuild a few bridges, which wars and terror have caused to crumble.



Categories: publishing business, translation

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