Starting Wednesday, 14 October, for four consecutive days, the usually well attended Frankfurt Book Fair is going to bow to the impact of Covid-19 and hold its events online.
Through one of its virtual sessions, publisher Sherif Bakr is presenting a pioneering project, “Arab voices”, to offer a selected list of contemporary titles that appeared in Arabic as possible material for translation.
As Bakr said in interview on the eve of the launch of the project that the objective is to introduce international readers to the many new Arab writers whose contributions should not be language-locked.
According to Bakr, this project is supported by the EU Mission in Cairo and European cultural institutes in Egypt within the framework of consolidating social and cultural cooperation.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Bakr said the selection was made by an independent and trusted panel that looked into lists provided by publishing houses that had shown interest in joining the project.
The final list of 32 books was subject to consultation between the panel and professors of literature with expertise in cultural exchange projects, including Neil Hewison, former director of the AUC Press, and Tila Lavite, director of the Netherlands Cultural Institute in Cairo and professor of Egyptian dialect Arabic.
Bakr added that the titles are assembled with short reviews in an inventory that would be made available. The inventory, he said, includes 13 titles by women writers and 19 titles by men writers.
Among the titles offered in the inventory are Haytham Dabour’s “The cross of Moses” (Salib Moussa), Adel Essmat’s "The Wills" (Alwassayah), Ashraf Ashmaway’s “The House of the Coptic Woman” (Beit Alqebtayah), Noura Naguie’s “The Spirits of Cameilia” (Atiaf Cameilia), Doha Assie’s “A French Fog” (Ghioum Frencaiyah) and Wagudi ElKomy’s “Tempo” (Iqa’a).
“We essentially settled for literature material, basically novels, rather than any other type of writing because we thought that this would be the most appealing for foreign readers and thus for possible translations,” Bakr said.
Other “texts” included in the inventory, Bakr explained, fall essentially within the category of “personal narratives” like Eman Merssal’s “In the Search of Enayat ElZayya” and Charels Akl’s “Food for the Copts”.
“When we were making the final selections we were focused on attracting the attention of the possible translator and publisher; we offered titles that would raise their curiosity; we wanted to get them interested,” he said.
Simple language and an easy but artistic style of writing was another criteria that the panel observed in making its selections, Bakr added. “If we were to take titles that require deep cultural understanding we would have been taking a risk to limit the possible audience who could get through these books,” he argued.
“Our focus was to get contemporary Arab literature translated and sold in as many countries as possible. It is as simple as that. And the selections were made to serve this very straightforward objective,” he stated.
As coordinator of the pioneering project, Bakr is hopeful that a significant number of the 32 titles included in the inventory will get picked up for translation. He is also hopeful that the initiative leads to a much more ambitious scheme of starting up a fund for the translation of contemporary Arab literary production.
“I think there is enough interest all over the world to read the production of today’s Arab writers. We just have to make the best use of it,” Bakr said.
Himself a publisher, Bakr is closely following growing interest in contemporary Arab literature as demonstrated the sales of volumes produced in foreign languages by Arab writers like Ahdaf Soueif and Hisham Matar, or by the nomination of Arab writers to prominent literary prizes.
“The key thing here is to be very impartial and very pragmatic in making the selections that could get the translators and publishers interested; this is how we can avoid previous failures of the past that tried but got lost on the way to present and promote Arab, including Egyptian, culture and literature,” he said.
The success of prominent writers whose names have been made famous across the world through translations, including Latin, Asian and Scandinavian languages, is something that Bakr is confident could be secured for Arab literature.