CAIRO — Amid shifting copyright and publishing norms, adaptation and translation of existing works is as contentious an issue today as ever in the literary world. The questions are particularly relevant for the Arabic novel, both for its recent and not-so-recent history.

Many have accused Ahmad Mourad of reproducing characters from Naguib Mahfouz in his novel 1919 (2014), and borrowing from Peter Burger's New Zealand film The Tattoist (2007) in writing Al-Fil al-Azraq (The Blue Elephant, 2012). There has also been much discussion about the influence of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996) on Ahmed Alaidy's An takun Abbas al-Abd (Being Abbas al-Abd, 2003).

Going back to the late 19th and early 20th century Arab renaissance, critics questioned whether the Arabic novel itself merely mimicked a European genre.

But the novel's journey into Arabic was actually "clandestine, meandering and mischievous," Professor Samah Selim argued during a recent Cairo lecture entitled, "The People's Entertainment: Translation, Adaptation and the Novel in Egypt."

Established by Khalil Sadiq in 1904 and published until 1911, The People's Entertainment included at least 80 novels and short stories. Selim says around 12 were originals, 13 were close translations of foreign-language novels, 27 were adaptations citing an original author, and the remainder are not attributed but loosely based on French or English fiction.

Certain adaption processes make the novel an "adaptable, anarchic and popular genre," Selim says.

She cited Arsène Lupin, French writer Maurice Leblanc's fictional character, whose adaptation in Arabic was a way of drawing on older forms of local popular knowledge. Similarly, the first Arabic version of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) was published in 1838 anonymously and followed by a host of other adaptations.

Imitation and adaptation were the norm everywhere before 18th-century Romanticism emerged, Selim points out, along with the parallel emergence of nationalism in Europe.

Discussion around Arabization, Egyptianization and creative adaptation were prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with texts commonly presented as "authored by," "rendered by" or "from the pen of" in pieces seen more as a "textual voyage" than a fixed moment of ownership, Selim says.

She explains that some 20th-century Arab authors even published their own original stories as translations, because the genre was so popular.

Selim challenges the notion this was pure obsession with the "foreign."

Domestic critique

Firstly, the foreign novels selected for adaptation often contained an implicit critique of global modernity and predatory capitalism, which coincided with Egypt's catastrophic 1907 stock market crash. In this way, European and American cities, particularly Paris, were stripped of their specificity and came to symbolize the global system and a cultural voyage beyond merely the self and the other.

Secondly, Lebanese author Jurji Zaydan drew parallels between the European novels of the 19th century and oral Arab storytelling traditions, such as The Thousand and One Nights.

Manuscript from 14th century of The Thousand and One Nights. Photo: Wikipedia

Adaptation has always been part of the development of new genres, Selim argues. And although the power relations in the colonial and post-colonial context are problematic for translations and adaptations like those in The People's Entertainment, and might prejudice people against them, they can also be used to subvert these power relations by destabilizing the original.

In a theory of mistranslation developed in The Translators of the 1001 Nights (1936), Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges emphasizes the "importance of the displacements that occur when one goes from original to translation, and how these displacements create the potential for new and unexpected meanings."

Growing interest in Arab lit

Of course the adaptation of references beyond the local is never a one-way endeavor. A global interest in modern Arabic literature has increased in recent years. Most English-language academic syllabi are still obsessed with European and American canonical authors, but the Internet and increasing diaspora communities are introducing Arab writers and filmmakers into the mix. 

A new generation of Arab storytellers, some of whom have arisen from blogging and film writing, are playing with creative notions of adaptation, for example Muhammed Aladdin (The Gospel According to Adam, 2006), Rajaa Alsanea (Girls of Riyadh, 2005), and Alaidy. Some are bilingual, and their subversion of traditional forms of narrative structure is changing the ways in which Arabic literature is read and understood.

Meanwhile, in downtown Cairo last month, a few hundred young people gathered for EGYcon — a localized version of Japanese Cosplay, in which fictional characters are re-enacted. This is part of a phenomenon of global youth culture, but was also adapted to the local context. 

The fact that translation and adaptation are, as Selim says, "the most basic, if largely invisible, mechanisms in the production of new genres, devices and motifs across literary cultures," is evident not only in the circulation of fiction, but also in wider popular culture.

* Samah Selim’s talk can be viewed here.