Burton Pike, writing last week in Publishing Perspectives, warned of a creeping “cultural homogeneity” that’s working its way into “our” prose fiction. He certainly was not the first: Kazuo Ishiguro caused any number of hands to clap against any number of mouths when he, in an interview with Time, criticized other writers for making translation difficult.
Ishiguro has elsewhere hedged what he meant by that, saying in Der Spiegel, “Something that looks great in English may not work in other languages because it relies too much on puns, brand names, cultural references. And I feel a pressure to remove these things from my writing. This can be very dangerous.”
Meanwhile, there is a somewhat different debate in Arabic publishing. For many decades, authors wrote their novels exclusively in “fos7a,” or in Modern Standard Arabic. Fos7a allows authors to draw on a thousand-plus years of rich linguistic tradition and to reach a broad Arab public. But it simultaneously narrows their reach, as fos7a must be learned separately from one’s mother tongue.
An acclaimed Lebanese children’s book author told me that, when she first began writing books for children, she wanted to write them in Lebanese Arabic, to mirror and echo the spoken vernacular. But publishers urged her not to: They couldn’t sell books that were accessible only to Lebanese readers. They needed to sell books also to Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Emiratis.
But more and more Arab novelists have been infusing larger stretches of their books with colloquial Arabics: first the dialogue and then beyond. Indeed, a number of adult books are written entirely in colloquial, although children’s books still seem to hold the line.
There is pushback: For instance, Galal Amin, the judging chair for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, said, “There are some colloquial words or phrases which are very close to the fos7a, or to the classical Arabic. And there are others which are too colloquial, too local, to be understood, and to be even accepted.”
Whereas Iraqi short story writer Hassan Blasim said recently, “I’m not interested in preserving ‘the beauty of the Arabic language’. During the civil war in Iraq, people were still talking about the beauty and sacredness of Arabic as a language. … I know it’s a rich language but for a long time the one spoken in the street has been different – one day I want to write just in colloquial. I like film because I can just use normal language. If you use fos7a you’re scared of the language all the time. When you write in fos7a you are like something from history. How can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?”
Many authors, of course, have written beautifully within the structures and strictures of fos7a. But one doubts that critics fear ugly books so much as a breaking apart of Arabic literature into a dozen or more mutually incomprehensible literary islands.
True, both “creeping balkanization” and “creeping homogenization” could be scary prospects. Homogenization has surged into other parts of our lives, vividly so in the world’s big supermarkets. But, in prose fiction, one suspects this apparent homogeneity is often due to the lenses we use. If the few books published in English translation seem awfully similar to what we’re reading in English, then perhaps publishers value and cultivate these similarities.
Meanwhile, literatures flourishing in Arabic(s) and Bengali and Malayalam and Urdu and Chinese(s) and many other languages are doing all sorts of different things, local things, wonderful and ugly and crazy things. We might never hear about them in English, but then again, it may not much matter if we do.