Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Dima Ayoub reviews Stranger Fictions

Rebecca Johnson. Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2021. 288 pp.

Review by Dima Ayoub

Rebecca Johnson’s Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation is a timely theoretical contribution to comparative literature’s recent turn to translation and shift away from Eurocentrism. When scholars of Western comparative literary studies have considered Arabic over the last few decades, it is often as a marker of the outer limit of comparison and translatability. As Shaden Tageldin puts it, Arabic has become “an avatar of untranslatability.”[1] But through her study of nineteenth-century translation practices, Johnson shows that Arabic has always been central to practices of reading comparatively across languages. In illuminating the culturally important ideas produced by the Arab world, Johnson joins Tageldin, Samah Selim, Tarek El-Ariss, and Hosam Aboul-Ela in rescuing Arabic literature from the parochial waters of area studies. By centering Arabic as a primary-text language, Stranger Fictions answers Samah Selim’s call for critical engagement that emerges “from local—national or regional—contexts rather than as an appendage of contemporary Euro-American epistemologies and intellectual histories.”[2] With a deep understanding of the material circuits of production and dissemination, Johnson draws on a vast archive of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts and critical debates. Her book surfaces “invisible critical traditions” and develops an impressive archive of Arabic translation that has heretofore been submerged in the footnotes.[3]

Spanning six chapters that cover nearly a century of translations published in Beirut, Cairo, Malta, Paris, London, and New York, Stranger Fictions demonstrates an exceptional grasp of literary and cultural history. Beginning in the 1830s with the translation of Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Lebanese and Egyptian translators under the auspices of British missionary societies in Malta, the book ends with Arabic translations of British and French sentimental and crime novels published in Cairo during the first decade of the twentieth century. Each chapter connects the supposedly marginal enterprise of translating foreign fiction to canonical nahda thinkers and the literary and cultural debates in which they participated.

In her thorough, original, and well-written monograph, Johnson reads the role of nineteenth century translators as “de facto translation theorists and informed commentators on literary history” (p. 5). The significance of Johnson’s historical intervention is not limited to Arabic literature but is relevant to world literature more broadly. Against existing trends in English-language scholarship, Johnson rejects the tendency to position Arab translators as mere “literary curiosities or footnotes”; instead, they are elevated to the position of historians and theorists of the novel and modernity (p. 6). In developing a transnational method of writing literary history and analyzing literary forms, Johnson argues that translators and authors of the nahda did not merely produce examples of comparative literature but theorized it under unequal global conditions. Johnson illustrates the extent to which nahda translators understood that the work of comparison is political. Far from being passive receivers of novels written elsewhere, translators saw themselves as active participants in literary circulation. They developed translation techniques and writing styles that cultivated a new mode of reading that Johnson terms reading in translation, a process wherein the reader moves comparatively and mutually between languages and texts with “an awareness of divergent interpretive frameworks animating the investments of multiple audiences” (p. 8).

Stranger Fictions is full of rich examples of translators who are compelled to transform texts for Arab audiences—not for the sake of innovation, but to appeal to the habits and values of an Arabic readership. The translation of Robinson Crusoe offers a fun case in point. In place of Robinson Crusoe—that paragon of Enlightenment-era empirical reason who learns the hard way to avoid eating tortoises and to make bread from cornmeal through trial and error—Arab readers get “Rubinsun Kurūzī,” who wisely invokes Arab culinary wisdom to prepare kebabs and make bread “by cooking the dough over some embers in a hole . . . like the Arabs do” (p. 33). By altering Crusoe’s foraging habits, the translator carefully reconfigures the protagonist as someone Arab audiences will respect and recognize. As Johnson emphasizes, these translators felt a sense of entitlement over the work. But sadly, boringly, their “strange” translations were often ignored or dismissed as inferior work produced by unskilled hacks (p. 2).

In addition to pushing back against a stiff paradigm of original versus translation, Johnson gives us a polycentric and polygenetic reading of the novel—and of modernity itself. If the history of the novel is yoked to translation, it means that the novel did not “rise” in Europe and “travel” fully formed into Arabic. Rather, Johnson argues that the novel emerged only in and through a necessarily imperfect process characterized by mutual misunderstanding and disjuncture. Building on Emily Apter’s concern for the untranslatable in Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013), Johnson embraces the many valences of translation, accounting for the wide range of translation practices—including “bad” translation, mistranslation, and pseudotranslation. Carving space for Arabic within comparative literature and world literature, Johnson argues that in this way, “the Arabic case is not only central: it is paradigmatic” (p. 8).

Johnson’s translation-oriented intervention confronts theory’s hostility towards Arabic and renders it passé: Arabic operates on its own terms now. Stranger Fictions transforms the pressure points of conversation by loosening the binary between the indigenous and the imitative. This transnational history of the novel is radical not only for orienting readers away from paradigms of national development precipitated by anticolonialism, but also because it develops important theoretical tools from within Arabic literature. Arabic literary scholars have long been calling for a shift in how we engage with literary theory—to think beyond using Arabic always and necessarily as a test case.

[1] Shaden Tageldin, “Untranslatability,” ACLA website, 3 March 2014,

[2] Samah Selim. “Toward a New Literary History,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43 (2011): 735.

[3] Ibid.