Rebecca C. Johnson, Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation (Cornell University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Rebecca C. Johnson (RJ): I started thinking about this topic as early as my first year in graduate school. I had noticed a contradiction in the way that scholars described the history of the Arabic novel. At the time, it was generally agreed that the novel rose in 1913 with Zaynab. But consistently, in those same scholars’ footnotes, they noted that there were many—even hundreds—of novels published before that date. They just did not count them as Arabic novels— “novels proper, or “properly” Arabic. They were, in contrast to Zaynab’s national imaginary, translated or adapted from European texts; they focused on foreign people and places. And they were characterized as protonovels, European-style imitations. And thenwhen I started looking for more about these works, I found more contradictions; they were described as “servile” imitations of the Western form, but also bad translations, unfaithful copies. How could they be both at once? Both too similar to the European original on the one hand and, on the other hand, not similar enough? That was one question. But then there was another particularity of this corpus: it was also a body of work that few of those scholars had read: they had in fact based entire histories and definitions of the Arabic novel “proper” on these works’ titles aloneAssuming that if the title reads “Les Misérables” then the contents must be equivalent to Les Misérables. Even if, let’s say, the translation and the source texts had radically different lengths or styles. So, of course, I wanted to read those novels—which was itself a long-term project.

J: Did you learn anything unexpected from reading these novels?

RJ: When I started my research, I made some surprising initial discoveries that yielded the central insights that I put forward in the book.

First, I encountered publication practices I had not considered before: the central place of serialization and the circulation of reprints; single editions appear in different locations; retranslations in different countries; excerpts in different journals. From that I understood that the national print culture frame, long dominant in novel studies, needed to be significantly rethought.

Second, I also discovered that importance of the paratext; I looked at advertising language, the position of a novel on the newspaper page if they are serialized, translators’ prefaces. These allowed me to see how a text was framed, and to see translation as a form of critical reading. These authors often situated their translation in a larger history of the novel in which Arabic was central, rather than marginal, in a long history of the novel in translation.

Lastly, I found translation in places I did not always expect; I found translated novels themselves, which created a transnational imaginary for their readers. But translation also appeared in original novels. Translation was discussed in journals, in dictionaries. More than that, nearly every aspect of print production revealed an act of translation, from the translation of foreign newspapers for the World News sections, to the reception of telegraphs. Translation, I discovered, was a condition of reading in the nineteenth century. It was a technique embedded in reading practices that we think of as monolingual ones. The first novels in Arabic were not only published in translation, but required the reader to read “in translation”—among and against multiple frames of reference, voices of authority, languages, and intertexts.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RJ: Most centrally, this is a book about how literature and literary forms circulate, and it looks at the history of novelistic production from 1835 (when the first novel appeared in Arabic) to about 1913. I look at translated and original novels from this period, alongside periodicals, linguistic treatises, proceedings from literary societies, and other archival materials. I use them to understand not only the early history of the Arabic novel, but also how the novel circulates as a transnational form. For a long time, scholars worked with variations of a diffusion model of the novel–where the novel “rises” in Europe and then is exported elsewhere. Essentially, I am arguing that this is a Eurocentric model that assumes that Europe is the center of literature and the location of “originals,” and that everywhere else simply “receives” the novel as the inferior copy of the original. If we look at translation as literary production, rather than reception, then we see that the translations are not at all copies of the original—they are original works that are created in a critical relationship with a source text. Translation is not copying, but critical reading, interpretation, political critique. And the translated novel is not a copy of an original novel but a theorization of it. So the translated novels that comprise the earliest history of the novel in Arabic (and elsewhere, you might argue) are therefore not belated versions of European originals, but theorizations of them, and the genre at large; they have something to say about what a novel is and doesStranger Fictions is an attempt to understand those theorizations of the novel and transnational circulation, which requires seeing translators as translation theorists and informed commentators on literary history, who organized a transnational canon for an Arab readership, reinterpreting and recontextualizing the European originals, often estranging them in the process.

But it is also a book about the various institutions of literary modernity as they existed in Arabic in the nineteenth century. It shows how the institutions of the printing press, linguistic modernization, and the print public sphere—those marquee projects of the nahḍa—were all founded on translation’s new modes of reading. It demonstrates how translation predominated as a mode of reading, writing, and cultural analysis for nineteenth-century Arab authors as they postulated their modernity in relationship to Europe, their own literary heritage, and often the world at large. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

RJ: In a way, an answer to that question is baked into the subtitle itself. It is A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation, and not a History of the Arabic Novel. That is to say, while it is embedded in a linguistically specific textual archive, the archive itself speaks to larger conditions, and theorizes the novel in general as a genre that relies on translation. Many of the translators I study presented their own work as occurring within an ongoing history of translation and circulation; they argue—as do I—that the Arabic novel takes translation and cultural transfer as its foundation, as does the European novel. The novel did not “rise” in one context and “travel” fully formed to another; it emerged in and through a dynamic process of translation. In this sense, the Arabic case is not only central; it is paradigmatic. This means that the findings of the study do have implications for transnational literary circulation at large, as well as histories of non-Arabic novels. So, apart from scholars of Arabic literature and historians of the Nahḍa, I would hope that scholars working broadly in the history and theory of the novel, as well as translation studies, would find it a useful work.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

RJ: Right now, I am returning to my master’s thesis project, which is—in a way—a version of this research, only placed in the twentieth century. I am interested in the long history of contemporary literary aesthetics and styles (sometimes called the “experimental” or “the avant-garde”) and how they relate to political commitments in and after the era of decolonization. But my main project is figuring out how to get research done under the (post-) pandemic conditions of academic labor. I suppose that requires some experimentation as well!


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, “The Novel in the Age of the Comparative World Picture,” pp. 146-166)

The popularity of The Count of Monte Cristo came at the leading edge of a much larger Arabophone imaginative interest in transnational communications and transportation networks. Nahḍa readers regularly encountered advertisements for foreign-produced publications, overseas letter and package delivery services, and foreign distribution of local periodicals; notices announcing the construction of telegraph cables and the establishment of postal systems; and articles following the opening of steamship and railway lines.… Nor was this interest confined to the Arabophone reading public. The opening of the Suez Canal was itself an international media event: Arab newspapers—like their European and American counterparts—covered the 1866 connection of the American continent to Europe by telegraphic cables, the 1869 linking of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads to span the coasts of the United States, and the 1870 incorporation of the Indian railways that allowed travel from Bombay to Calcutta.

By the last quarter of the century, the world itself had become a common unit of analysis. Articles quantifying the “railroads of the world” or “newspapers of the world” appeared with increasing frequency, as did those explaining modes of travel “around the world” and comparative essays that explained differences between “areas of the world.”Readers could understand themselves as living in the same world as people far away. They had a railroad too, that is: the Egyptian, Syrian, or Iraqi railroad was one of the “railroads of the world”; it was understood as belonging to a larger global series of railroads. The translations of Monte Cristo and other fictions of connectivity joined these reports of connectivity to allow readers to participate in the worldwide reimagination of the worldwide.

In January 1872, in fact, readers in Beirut learned that they themselves could circle the entire globe. Between other news of transnational circulations—an account of a mobile haunting in which spirits followed a French family to multiple locations (“it is the truth, though inexplicable”) and an update on international prices for coffee, sugar, and rice—readers of the Catholic weekly Al-Bashīr encountered a news item entitled “A Trip that Takes the Traveler around the World.” “It was reported in the Trade Gazette,” this notice began, “that one can see, hanging on the walls of the city of San Francisco in America, a notice advertising a trip around the globe in the span of 82 days.” After enumerating the itinerary and distance of each leg (“Hong Kong to Calcutta, 3,500 miles”), the author explains that the reader can make the same trip even more quickly and with more convenience: “Circling the globe in just forty minutes,” he explains, would soon be possible with the telegraph, once the line between America and Japan is completed. Members of the nahḍa reading public could read about a connected world, as well as travel it, metaphorically and literally. Communications and transportations networks acted as both figure and ground to the global imaginings of this readership.

Indeed, in the case of representing the world, the material and the imaginary were often, and often necessarily, fused. In September 1874, two years after the advertisement for a trip around the world appeared in Al-Bashīr, the same readers learned of another journey, entitled Al-Riḥla al-jawiyya fī al-markaba al-huwā’iyya al-ma`rūfa bi-l-bālūn (Air voyage in the flying vessel known as the ballon), which was “summarized” from Jules Verne’s Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon; 1863). Serialized until November of the next year, this translation appeared alongside factual accounts of long-distance travel and was even ambiguously presented as one. Though it appeared below the bar in the section previously devoted to narrative fiction, it was not labeled as a qiṣṣa (a fictional narrative) as the previous serialized narratives were. Instead, it was simply described more generally as a kitāb, or book, about “a voyage from East to West Africa” in a balloon. Compounding this ambiguity was the fact that it was interrupted by several long factual articles about travel and exploration: “Research in Geography and Cartography” and “British Expedition to the Kerguelen Islands” replace the narrative for an issue, while “The Benefits of English Scientific Exploration to the North Pole” interrupts it for three consecutive weeks. The voyage recounted in this kitāb could have taken place in the real world or a fictional one.

This fusing of the imaginative and the material worlds is no sign of epistemological naiveté. Journal producers did not interpose these genres because they mistook fiction for fact. They did so because they participated in the central ideological project of late nineteenth-century globality: the transformation of all of the diverse areas and peoples of the world into a single, legible, and interconnected entity. “The fundamental event of the modern age,” as Martin Heidegger argued, “is the conquest of the world as picture,” which is itself “the world conceived and grasped as a picture . . . in its entirety.” Far from a solely empirical process, that is, the making of globality was also a procedure of the imagination and one that required new techniques, aesthetics, and forms. … World maps, globes, and atlases, all of which gained in popularity in Europe as explorers mapped what they saw as the last remaining “undiscovered” spaces, were manufactured using what a literary scholar might call figurative means: extrapolations, abstractions, and projections.


Translations of explicitly global fictions…helped readers mediate their understandings and experiences of globality at a moment when its promises of greater prosperity were pierced by experiences of economic and physical precarity along with increased government involvement in bodily and family autonomy and movement. During the period between 1885 and 1895 in which these translations [of Jules Verne’s global narratives] were produced, readers saw their own movements regulated by regimes that were themselves managed and restricted by outside forces—via direct and indirect colonial rule. At the same time that these novels depicted sovereign-seeming bodies moving autonomously and unobstructedly through space and even time, their translations contained traces of those experiences of restriction.

The dangers of circulation were no abstract fact to the producers of these novels. The translators [of Journey to the Center of the Earth] Yūsuf `Aṣāf and Iskandar `Ammūn were born in Mount Lebanon, while the publisher Salīm Khalīl al-Naqqāsh (1850–1884), who founded Al-Maḥrūsa, and Jurjī Zaydān, who founded Al-Hilāl, were both born in Beirut; all had emigrated to Egypt between 1875 and 1885. What that means is that they, like over a third of the population of Mount Lebanon, had been displaced by civil war, government oppression, or economic pressures. What is more, all of the translators had direct ties to colonial regimes. Tawfīq Dūbariyah Ibn Yūsuf Bey, translator of Voyage au pole nord [Journey to the North Pole], was the grandson of Alexandre Debray, a member of a contingent of medical scholars invited to Egypt by Mehmet `Alī and led by Clot Bey. And both Yūsuf Aṣāf and Iskandar Anṭūn `Amūn were employed by the British colonial administration at the time they published their translations. … Thus enmeshed in institutions of colonization at the very moment of their inception, these translators produced works and worldviews that were inextricable from coloniality.

[…] While Verne’s texts set out to demonstrate that the world is synchronous, single, and traversable, the Arabic translations instead note that global unification was an effect of the imperial project. These two translations offer complex pictures of nineteenth-century globality and are far more than utopian images of global harmony. … Praise for the North American railroad as “an instrument of progress and civilization thrown across the desert, designed to link towns and cities,” for example, is simply omitted. Instead, just pages later, that railroad is described as an explicitly colonial enterprise. As in Verne, the train is attacked by Sioux horsemen—who are described as monkeys in the French but not in Arabic—an attack that the Arabic portrays as justified by the violence of the railway’s construction. The Sioux, as Aṣāf’s Arabic remarks, had, “since the establishment of the railway on their lands,” “made it their business” to attack the trains: this was no unthinking attack or mercenary act but calculated anticolonial violence whose “business” was liberation. In Al-Riḥla al-`ilmiyya fī qalb al-Kura al-arḍiyya [a translation of Journey to the Center of the Earth], when Professor Lidenbrock pays the guide’s weekly salary, it is no comic punctuation to the tense story but itself an event worthy of commentary and expansion. In the Arabic version, the scientist had, for the entirety of the journey, kept a record not only of the entire history of the world but of his servant’s salary. The history of the globe, this addition reminds the reader, cannot be written without an account of servitude.

What these fictions of connectivity offer is not resistance to globality but a competing conception of it. Technological modernity can only offer a broken totality, they show, and not wholeness. This explains why, more often than not, the word “world” itself is omitted in these translations; wholeness is withheld. Yet, importantly, it is not annulled but merely reconfigured. In Al-Riḥla al-jawiyya, that wholeness is withheld until the very end, when—after omitting at least four references to the world, earth, or globe—[its translator, Yūsuf] Sarkīs adds a globally minded summary lesson that was entirely absent in Verne’s French. While Verne ends his text by explaining that the narrative’s significance is in the geographical knowledge about Africa that it provides, Sarkīs widens the scope of the text’s importance, summing up with much-larger geographical and moral claims. […] This is why Pheng Cheah argues that the literary work does not simply reflect global forces or reactively respond to them but has what he calls a “normative force . . . in the world.”A novel does not show the reader what the world is but makes an argument about what it should be: “it fight[s] the fight in which the disclosure of beings as a whole—truth—is won,” Heidegger explains. As Sam Weber explains, “there are no secure places” in Heidegger’s worldview. These translations of Verne’s global fictions highlight the gap between the world and worldview, what Heidegger calls the “openness” of works of art—by which he means not simply their ability to create meaning in multiple and conflicting ways but their ability to create multiple frames of meaning…. Thinking the whole world, all of these authors and translators understood, meant reading in translation.