Discover more from Kafka in Tangier
The Challenges of Publishing and Promoting Arabic Literature
Translating Kafka in Tangier
Before translating Kafka in Tangier, I was aware that I knew very little about the dynamics of the Western publishing industry. After I published it, I would say that if I knew anything, I knew nothing at all.
Now, as the novel's narrator said: Since I’ve caught your attention, let’s go back to the beginning and take things one step at a time. […] Do you ask who I am? Oh, the curiosity of the limited human mind, which cannot hope to grasp me in my enormity! Suffice it to say that I have gone by many names throughout human history, among them, the Storyteller… [I’m the author]... Now, can I get back to the tale?
No! You need to know more, okay: I am Mohammed Said Hjiouij. While I was waiting for my debut novel "Kafka in Tangier" to be published in December 2019, I received the news in November 2019 that the first draft of my third manuscript, "By Night in Tangier," won the Ismail Fahd Ismail Prize for the Short Novel. My second published novel, "The Riddle of Edmond Amran El Maleh," has been shortlisted for the "Ghassan Kanafani Prize for Arabic Fiction (2022)", and a Hebrew translation is forthcoming next September; besides, as far as I can tell, this provocative novel, The Riddle, has received very high critical acclaim. And for this disturbing short novel that I'm both proud of and hate, Kafka in Tangier, has already been translated into Kurmanji, with excerpts in Hebrew and Italian.
What a success, you can tell. But no sales.
Despite a large number of Arabic speakers throughout the Arab world, the number of Arabic book readers remains very limited. For one thing, the low reading rate reflects the level of literacy and living standards, as well as a lack of access to books in many areas. Additionally, the publishing industry and distribution are often poor in many Arab countries, making it difficult for writers to reach a wider audience.
As a result, we, the Arab writers, are generally unable to rely on book sales to earn a sufficient income, and our greatest dream often becomes winning one of the big literary prizes. However, such prizes are few and far between, and their criteria are vague.
Our other dream is to have our books translated into other languages, mainly English, to reach a broader readership. But the truth is that, in general, we are largely unfamiliar with the dynamics of the Western publishing industry and the world of literary translation.
Arabic literature is not a priority for Western publishers. Most translations of Arabic literature in English are published by small presses associated with university faculties specializing in comparative literature or Oriental studies. Unfortunately, these presses cannot promote these translations widely, nor do they aim to achieve high sales, and the books remain confined to university libraries and small scattered bookstores. As a result, the author often receives a tiny advance or no payment at all, and their works fail to receive significant critical recognition.
So, why are Western publishers indifferent to Arabic literature?
One key issue is the lack of literary agents who can represent Arab writers in the global market, which means that most Arabic literature remains far from the awareness of Western publishers.
The only way Western publishers can become aware of new Arabic literature, particularly novels, is through prestigious awards such as the Arabic Booker Prize (IPAF) and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. However, this approach is fraught with significant challenges. First, the awards themselves are not always seen as trustworthy due to concerns about favoritism and conflicts of interest among the judges; as a result, it is not uncommon for the award to go to undeserving writers or publishers. Second, the awards offer translation grants to publishers to encourage the translation of Arabic literature. While, in theory, this is a positive step, it does not always indicate genuine interest or support for the books. Instead, many publishers view the grant as a means in itself. They publish the translated work in limited circulation, without any type of investment in its promotion or long-term success.
If the publisher is really interested in discovering Arabic literature, the previous two points can be bypassed. And herein lies the main problem: he doesn’t care.
His primary justification is that the reader is not interested in Arabic literature. In the beginning and end, the publisher is looking for profit; he will not publish a work that will not sell. That is his right, but unfortunately, this lack of interest and investment means that many potentially important and distinctive works of Arabic literature remain undiscovered.
Ultimately, the challenges facing Arabic literature in the global market are rooted in deeper economic and political issues which affect the entire Arab world. Because of that, the potential of Arabic culture and literature will continue to be undervalued and underrepresented on the global stage, although I know, from my limited experience, that the Western reader is hungry for good literature from anywhere. But you have to put it in his hand yourself.
Therefore, when a U.S./U.K. publisher decides to translate an Arabic novel, he looks only for themes of an Oriental nature, which show the superiority of the West (stories which show those in the East still riding camels), novels about taboos (sex), or those which feed into the West’s immediate interest in political issues (such as the Syrian civil war or the invasion of Iraq). This narrow view of Arabic literature has made it difficult for Arab writers to have their work translated and published in the West, and many talented writers in the Arab world will remain unknown to readers around the globe.
So, what is the solution? It seems absurd to wait for a deus ex machina solution from the other side for a Western publisher to come and throw a lifeline to Arabic literature. Relying on Arab institutions funded by undemocratic governments to support the translation movement from Arabic to other languages is even more absurd. The writer is left with no choice but to do everything himself, as he initially did when his book was published in Arabic. He writes, markets, and even sells. As for the publisher, all he does is print the book and participate in book fairs.
After signing the contract for my first novel, Kafka in Tangier, I wasted no time drafting my second novel, The Riddle of Edmond Amran El Maleh (ahjiat iidmun amran almalih), and began to look for a translation, even before securing a contract with an Arabic publisher. As the novel’s themes delved into the Jewish issue and Moroccan Jews, my focus was on translating it into Hebrew, and indeed this seemed feasible. However, the global lockdown due to COVID-19 postponed the matter until last summer, when I contracted with the Maktoob Foundation in Jerusalem to translate the novel into Hebrew. Simultaneously, I remained in communication with an American translator to translate Kafka in Tangier into English; the pandemic also caused delays in this translation until we resumed work at the start of 2022. In February 2023, the English translation was published, thanks to the beautiful and flawless translation by Phoebe Bay Carter. And now, I am collaborating with a Spanish translator to complete the Spanish translation of the same novel, while the rights for the Kurmanji translation of the novel have been granted to a small Kurdish publishing house in Denmark.
Of course, translating is not all there is to it; finding a publisher is not easy, even when a translation exists. So, when translating Kafka in Tangier, I had to use a hybrid publishing approach, relying on a small, local publisher in Tangier to make the novel available in Morocco and relying on self-publishing to make the novel available worldwide. And this remains just the first stage. Getting published is only one aspect of making the book available for purchase; the more challenging step is to reach readers. To help them find the needle in the haystack. To tell readers: “Look, it’s a new novel. It was translated from Arabic and is not inferior to English novels.” It is not enough to translate a novel from Arabic; readers need to be convinced that it is just as good as English novels.
Promotion and marketing are more demanding than writing itself.
And getting reviews is the most critical phase of any book marketing plan. Here's my first shock: Most magazines and outlets won't accept a published book for review consideration. You have to send them the book at least four months before the publication date. Yes, that's the norm. But as a writer from this miserable part of the world, we are unaware of this requirement, which means that we are in a weak position from the very beginning.
A quick note on self and hybrid publishing, and I may come back to this later: If you are a genre author, you can do very well with this approach, and if you have time to invest in marketing, you can even secure a regular contract with a major publisher later on. On the other side, if you are a literary author, you can make some good sales if you know your way to the readers and you work hard. But as for the critical reviews and the awards, it will be very difficult or entirely a loose end.
As a part of my marketing plan, I am writing this essay in Arabic. I have to rely on machine translation applications and several other programs for proofreading and editing to make the translation readable. And I may depend on the services of a professional editor before sending this article to an English outlet.
The intention was to publish this essay in an English magazine or website, but I did not succeed. Now I'm hitting the publish button on Substack to send this article to you, the readers who are already familiar with Kafka in Tangier. My original goal of publishing this article as a step in my marketing plan is going nowhere.
Anyway, I enjoyed writing it, and I hope you enjoy reading it. I would be grateful if you could share it with your friends.
Mohammed Said Hjiouij