Why SF Author Noura Noman is Waiting to Publish English Translation of ‘Ajwan’

There is vivid interest in the growth of Arabic science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels — among Arab readers, scholars, and readers abroad. Among the emerging SF novelists is Emirati writer Noura Noman:

Coming to English after you've read it in Arabic, thank you very much.

Coming to English after you’ve read it in Arabic, thank you very much.

This Monday, I saw on the “World SF Blog” an interview with Noura Noman about her debut novel, Ajwan. 

In it, Noura said she’s been holding off on an English translation, which is already complete but unpublished. She said:

And while all my friends are urging me to publish it in English, I cannot do so too soon. The problem we have in this part of the region is that our teens are reading English and almost no Arabic. The whole idea behind Ajwan was to provide Arabic content for teens. My 17-year-old daughter read it in Arabic and liked it. Three young ladies of close age tweeted to me saying it was the first Arabic novel they had ever read. This means that the subject matter (sci-fi) made Arabic seem more approachable to them. In short, I am going to wait a bit before I publish it in English.

I strongly sympathize. I can imagine the statement makes some English-language readers uncomfortable — the idea that something is being held back — but loads of things are being held back, elided, ignored. This is perhaps the best of all reasons to wait on a translation. 

Yesterday, I was reading from the Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé’s beautiful novel, Kite, and this passage charmed me:

Mali burst out laughing and said, ‘What a pity the charm of the Egyptian language is untranslatable!’ ‘Why do you always want to translate everything?’ relied Fuad, still pleased with his story, ‘The main thing is that we enjoy it,’ he added, banging his fist on the table as he said ‘we’.

Certainly, I would never turn up my nose at translation. But fostering and enriching Arabic writing and reading communities (and creating books that charm and engage them) is yet more important.

But also on the subject of SF, fantasy, horror:

Ashraf Fagih, author of The Impaler, has an interview in the Courrier International (French). He is not averse to the idea of translation.

And another Q&A with Fagih (Arabic), in which he notes that he did not avoid being influenced by Orhan Pamuk’s style.



Categories: science fiction, translation

13 replies

  1. I really appreciate this point of view. My daughters will happily read a 200 page English book in a day, but I have to pay them to read books in Arabic! If you’re wondering how much (and I know you are), I pay 100 NIS (like $25/book) and they can’t manage to read more than one every month or two. I support Noura’s position and will get a hold of Awjan as soon as I can! Thanks!

    • Wow! I’ll read some Arabic books for you. :-)

      For mine, I try to limit comic books in English (although that’s quite hard), since comic books are like candy; I’m definitely glad that there seems to be no “Mickey” in English. But still, it’s hard, reading in English comes so much easier since there’s no diglossia, etc.

  2. Thank you for today’s post, Marcia. My friends are upset with me. They want me to publish Ajwan soon, AND they want me to break it apart into 3 volumes instead of the one which is 420 pages in Arabic. Two of my daughters keep whining that they can’t read it in Arabic and are waiting for the English edition. Sigh.

    • I don’t oppose the trilogy idea…it could build excitement. But ah, these children! My eldest was telling his Arabic teacher yesterday that he was going home to read Ursula Le Guin. Of course I wanted him to say he was going home to read something in Arabic. :-)

      Curious…would they read it if you translated it into Emirati 3ameya?

      • Mashallah, Marcia; which of your kids reads Le Guin?

        Yes, I suspect Roudha would read Ajwan in 3ameyah. She often reads online short stories in 3ameyah.

  3. I’ve seen the book around in bookstores but I never thought of picking it up (although I enjoy fantasy, that never stretched to a love of sci-fi books). Finding a sci-fi book originally published in Arabic is a rare thing since Arabic literature has been lingering too long on politics and social commentary without trying to add much substance over the decades.

    I think that that’s the main reason why teens don’t read much Arabic fiction today, or at least the reason I don’t (I still qualify to give my voice as a teenager, I think). So I applaud Noman’s choice to wait a little for the English translation to come out, and I hope this is a one book of many to come that would get Arabic youngsters into reading local and regional literature more.

  4. Although I began reading English with the scifi genre, I stopped around 18-20 years ago. But I cannot stop reading fantasy.

    And I would love to read what you would write about Arab teens and their preferences. We are in desperate need of that question answered.

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