What American Fiction Ought We to Translate Into Arabic?
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage runs a program called "Kalima," which translates 100 titles of "high quality foreign writing" into Arabic every year. According to "Poets and Writers," Kalima means "word."

See how important translation can be? I bet you thought Kalima was a girl's name, or an atavistic cult that worships a jealous death god.


Anyway, Kalima is asking American literates to help them decide what books to translate next, asking:

"What literature best captures American dreams, opportunities and challenges?"


"Which books could help build mutual understanding between the United States and the Arab World?"

Those with an opinion have been asked to submit candidates for translation online, along with an explanation of why they feel a particular work of literature is worthy to leap into this new tongue.

Translation of books to and from Arabic is the reason that civilization exists in the first place, in case you do not think that this is a big deal. According to Wikipedia, things like algebra and astronomy are the reason we have good things like pornography and divorce, as a result of a shift from faith to reason during the period of Western Time known as the "Renaissance."

It is time to give back.

So far, the only work of fiction that has been translated through this program is "Kafka on the Shore," by Haruki Murakami. However, Kalima also plans to translate "The Pickup," by Nadine Gordimer, "The Sound and the Fury," by William Faulkner, and "Stranger in a Strange Land," by Robert Heinlein (when they get around to it).

I know it doesn't matter. I know that "Atlas Shrugged" is going to be the next book they pick as a result of their survey of American literary taste. But here are the books I am going to submit, and my reasons why:

"Dune," by Frank Herbert

If you want to know what most Americans think about the Middle East, then you need to read this book and see what lies beneath the surface of our glib soundbites. We think you are all unstoppable desert warriors who can call worms of God to your aid and would rather destroy your "spice" than let us have it for our "guild navigators." The book may be racist, condescending, and perverse -- but who do you REALLY want controlling your sietches? The United States or the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen? Perhaps self-determination under the jihad of Muad-Dib is more your style. Anyway, mentats in Abu Dhabi should read this book and be either appalled or enchanted, or both.

"Lonesome Dove," by Larry McMurtry

This is one of the true masterpieces of American writing from the past fifty years, and shows how Americans can be both criminals and law enforcement agents at the same time without missing a step or batting an eye. We've got swagger because we've got a peculiar way of looking at the world: we try to do the right thing with what we steal. Our morality may be convoluted and hypocritical, but it is always majestic, as is our land, which was once beautiful, harsh, and free. See the west through the eyes of our most fully-realized gunslingers.

"A Wrinkle in Time," by Madeleine L'Engle

Meg and Charles Wallace fight entropy and oppression with genius, courage, and "love." This is a central text of the American liberal mind, influencing everything from the choice of our mates, to how our suburban children feel about mailboxes and the delivery of the morning newspaper. It's a good book. You'll like it. It's one of those books everyone assumes you have already read, so you ought to have the chance.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor

These are some of the best short stories ever written by arguably our best American short story writer. If you are going to translate American fiction, you have to translate American short stories along with novels, and you should start here, and then move on to Carver and Poe. O'Connor's stories will remind you that America is not a united front, despite what it says on our money. We are millions of different strands gathered together and bound up in one common predicament. Nobody pits an unsolvable problem against another unsolvable problem better than O'Connor.

"The Secret of Santa Vittoria," by Robert Crichton

Robert Crichton spent ten years trying to write a novel and failing while living on the residuals he made from writing the biography of the "world's greatest con artist." After ten years of failure, he wrote this book over the course of one long, hot New York summer. It is about how the powerless, cowardly, craven, and drunk can overcome strength, death, torture, and oppression through the magic of lies and cunning. I treat it as a handbook for all of life, and I think anyone who feels oppressed by injustice -- whether in the Arab World or in America -- can take solace from Crichton's Message. Was he inspired by God? Who is? Who isn't?

Posted by miracle on Sun, 21 Sep 2008 14:03:54 -0400 -- permanent link

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