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Everything you need to know about the world's great writers and emerging voices is being collected and shared on the English PEN Online World Atlas. Head over to the Atlas to create (or edit) a profile for your favourite author or book, leave a comment or contact another user, and discover your next great read. We believe that great writing has the power to change your life and change the world, one book at a time.

The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Nobel Odds & "the big dialogue of literature"

Ladbroke's have Syrian poet Adonis, a stalwart Nobel contender, at 4/1 (second shortest odds) and Algerian novelist Assia Djebar at 25/1. (Words Without Borders offer links to English translations from the "usual suspects"). No mention of Mahmoud Darwish but I hope that he is under discussion in the Secret Nobel HQ in Sweden, for his contribution to Peace as well as Literature. Were I a betting person, I would have a perverse and quixotic flutter on mind-bending Danish poet Inger Christensen, whose It is one of my finds of the year. And a differently perverse flutter (at 150/1) on Bob Dylan.

Nobel committee permanent chair Horace Engdahl said in an interview today that he Nobel committee sees US literature as "too insular." In Particular:

"They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

While publishers and editors have rushed to defend the wide scope of US literature and the many generations of immigrant writers who have contributed to it, but so far have made no riposte to the challenge on translation. Three Percent, a US blogger who agrees with Engdahl's assessment, noted back in February that, although there's some conflicting information out there, the statistics on original translations of fiction and poetry from languages other than English in the US are pretty weak, hovering at around 3% of all books published, hence the title of the blog.

The UK doesn't rate much better, and when it comes to the breadth of contemporary Arabic literature, according to a 2007 conference paper on Maghrebi fiction in English (download PDF here),

Salih Altoma notes that of the 322 translations of works of fiction from Arabic into English since the end of the Second World War, nearly two-thirds have been published since 1988... Furthermore, works selected fortranslation from the Arabic are overwhelmingly by Egyptian writers (170 out of the 322 recorded by Altoma).

As Pickford continues, the landscape is changing slowly:

a few dedicated publishers – principally Quartet, Saqi, University of Texas Press, and AUC Press – have an ongoing commitment to building up a collection of Arabic-language literature… a number of the publishers are based in the Arab world itself. This reflects a laudable effort on the part of local publishers, who recognise that if their counterparts in the West do not show an interest, it is up to them to challenge this cultural marginalisation and seek out a Western readership.

Initiatives such as the British Council's New Arabic Books and the PEN Atlas hope to change things further still, so the rate of translation for Maghrebi books is more that one every 2.5 years. Assia Djebar's name on the Nobel odds list from Ladbrokes is a positive sign - and a challenge to explore the region's writers further.

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