German literature is popular in the Arab World

14 August 2019

The year 2019 marks a decade of collaboration between Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and the Kalima section of the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. Together they are working on translating works of German literature into Arabic. A pool of translators was established at the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies (FSTK) in Germersheim, and 142 titles have been successfully produced since then.

"There is enormous interest in literature in the Arab world," says Mahmoud Hassanein. "Translations in particular are very popular and translators generally play a more prominent role than they are accorded in Europe, for example. Many readers select their material on the basis of who translated the text. They come to trust that specific translator's judgment, ability to select suitable subjects and the quality of his or her work."

As Hassanein talks, he rummages through a few large boxes next to his workspace in the JGU campus in Germersheim. They are stuffed to bursting with books. The first to emerge is Christa Wolf’s story Leibhaftig (published in English as ‘In the Flesh’), followed by Daniel Glattauer's novel Gut gegen Nordwind (‘Love Virtually’) and Atemschaukel (‘The Hunger Angel’) by Hera Müller – all translated from the German into Arabic. Hassanein then pulls out a series of books for children and young people. He himself translated Peter Härtling’s Das war der Hirbel (‘Herbie’s World’) and Eine Woche voller Samstage (currently unavailable in English) by Paul Maar, among other works “We also have collections of essays and non-fiction,” he says. Walter Benjamin is represented as is Joschka Fischer with Die Rückkehr der Geschichte: Die Welt nach dem 11. September und die Erneuerung des Westens on the impact of 9/11.

A competent partner in Germersheim

This broad range of works reflects the strength and scope of the translation project launched just over ten years ago. In March 2009, a declaration of intent was signed in the presence of then Rhineland-Palatinate Minister-President Kurt Beck. It laid the groundwork for what would become an extremely fruitful cooperation between JGU and the Kalima section of the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi.

“At the time, I was a student assistant in the Faculty for Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies in Germersheim,” Hassanein recalls. "Kalima had been founded two years earlier to promote translations into Arabic. The section functioned in effect as a state-run publishing house, publishing books on its own. At some point they started looking for suitable partners for translations from German – and by chance we in Germersheim were also looking for support for our translation work.” Dr. Hans-Joachim Bopst and certified translator Mustafa Al-Slaiman from the Intercultural German Studies unit at JGU made contact with the directors at Kalima. “They got the whole thing moving, and Mustafa Al-Slaiman continues to coordinate the project, even though he now works and lives in Berlin.”

The Germersheim faculty proved an attractive partner for Kalima; it was able to quickly put together a pool of 24 skilled translators who, with only a few exceptions, either worked in the faculty or had earned a degree there. This is how Hassanein became involved. He remembers his former lecturer Al-Slaiman pressing Härtling’s Das war der Hirbel into his hands with the words: "You absolutely have to translate this."

Authors and translators meet to celebrate anniversary

For Hassanein, that proved a crucial turning point. He built up a profile as a literary translator and in 2014 even received the German-Arabic Translation Prize from the Goethe Institute in Cairo, the city of his birth. In Germersheim, he holds a teaching post in translation from German to Arabic, with additional responsibility for cross-language courses in the field of translation studies and literary translation. Included among his projects is a concept designed to establish Arabic as a first and second foreign language in the faculty. “Interest in Arabic is unusually strong among our students,” he says.

In June of this year, Germersheim organized an event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the translation project. Hassanein joined Al-Slaiman on the organization committee. Among other events, six prominent German authors gave readings together with their translators: Ilma Rakusa, Klaus Reichert, Paul Maar, Annika Reich, David Wagner and José Oliver met with Shatha Kilani and Samir Grees, Mustafa Al-Slaiman and Mahmoud Hassanein.

“These past ten years have seen an entire library come together," Al-Slaiman says with admiration from Berlin. "We’ve translated 142 titles. What was always crucial for me was that our people were well paid for their work. They receive €40 per standard page, although €24 is the customary rate. In addition to this, I put an emphasis on ensuring their names appear on the title page of the book, which is not standard practice. There are other ways we make sure they also get the recognition they deserve: We send out invitations to workshops and are a perpetual presence at book fairs in Frankfurt and Abu Dhabi.”

Collaboration with German publishing houses has developed very positively over the years. “Over time, I have actually formed close friendships with many of the authors,” Al-Slaiman says. At the start of the project, these bonds resulted in something truly memorable. “In 2009, I received a copy of Herta Müller’s latest book Atemschaukel as an electronic file before it was even published. That allowed us to bring out the Arabic translation at almost the same time as the original, which meant we were celebrating with them when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Müller that same year."

EUR 3 million for new translations

The successful translation project is continuing. “Our annual budget has once again been increased by Kalima,” Al-Slaiman notes happily. “It’s currently at 12 million dirham. That’s roughly €3 million, just for translations and administration. In total we translate from eleven languages, but German literature represents the largest share - in no other language do we achieve the same volume of output.” The quality is also extraordinary. “I work with wonderful colleagues. Mahmoud Hassanein for example does more than just translate into Arabic. He works together with the authors and in effect produces a completely independent text. He was especially successful with the material from Maar. He got a lot of recognition for that.”

In Germersheim, Hassanein is packing the books back into their boxes. “I’m just one translator among many,” he points out modestly. “I’m not looking to draw the spotlight on myself.” Even so, in many ways he’s become the face of the translation project in Germersheim, capable of explaining its work.

The 142 books are actually a present from Kalima. They were used for an exhibition in the faculty as part of the anniversary event. But it’s clear that more are in the pipeline. And it is also certain that Al-Slaiman, Hassanein and their colleagues will be presenting their work at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Book Fair, where Germany will be a guest nation, meaning more attention for Maar’s character Sams, Härtling’s Hirbel and Müller’s Atemschaukel in the Arab world, along with Rilke’s poems, Kafka’s diaries and much more.