The Spanish Singularity

In Spain, translation from Arabic is not a recent phenomenon. From the Middle Ages, contacts across the Mediterranean were frequent, and Arabic was the language of Al-Andalus, the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule (see Sarria 2013). The European scientific and philosophical Renaissance owes much to the numerous works translated from Arabic into Latin and into Romance languages in the Iberian Peninsula from the ninth century onwards (Vernet 2006). However, from the fifteenth century—especially after the conquest of Granada in 1492 followed by the conquest of empires in the Americas—the Arabic language lost its popularity and translations fell into a certain lethargy (Gil-Bardaji 2016).

Relations between the two shores are not restricted to the eight centuries of Al-Andalus. Spanish North African ex-colonies extended through the Rif, the Sahara and so-called Equatorial Guinea. There is also a significant unfinished contemporary episode: the current Spanish Kingdom includes the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla claimed by the Kingdom of Morocco.

As Fernández Parrilla (2018:4) points out, “it is impossible to understand the history of Spain without the Arab Muslim counterpoint, and without its conflictual presence or absence”. However, conservative sectors interpret this Arab-Islamic interruption in Spanish history as a mistake, an excess of Africanness (versus a lack of Europeanness), and the main reason for Spain’s problems in becoming a modern state:

The imperative study of Al-Andalus, undoubtedly a disruption for establishing the national history of Spain, became something of a paradox: it was not undertaken to explore an Islamic society, but rather a Spanish phenomenon, as if it had been a deeply Hispanic society incarnated again in a culture and a religion apparently different, but highly coincident ... Consequently, this essentialist Al-Andalus was converted into Spain’s “domestic Orient”, and this primary focus led to what has been termed as ensimismamiento andalust (Andalusi self-absorption) of the field.

(Fernández Parrilla 2018:5)

This perceived Spanish singularity not only encouraged Spanish colonisation of Morocco, but continues to justify it in certain political and academic discourses (Fernández Parrilla and Cañete 2019).

Madrid and Barcelona are notable as the main cities related to Arabic translation. As the capital, Madrid is the centre of many cultural and diplomatic institutions related to public policies of translation. The Hispano-Arabic Institute for Culture (IHAC) is an important patron of translations from Arabic to Spanish. Created in 1954 to promote relations between Spain and the Arab countries, the institution was transformed in 1988 into the Institute for Cooperation with the Arab World (ICMA), which in turn became part of the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI). In addition to IHAC, the Egyptian Institute of Islamic Studies is another driving force behind translations from Arabic.

In 1955, one of the most important Spanish translators and the first director of IHAC, Emilio García Gómez (1905-1995), started a Collection of contemporary Arab authors and a bilingual Collection of Hispano-Arabic classics. These influenced the Spanish publishing scene significantly, where until then Arab literature (especially contemporary literature) was frankly unknown. After García Gómez left, a new generation of academics and translators took over, and the number of translations increased, especially in the 1970s (Hernando de Larramendi et al. 2015:164). Nevertheless, a political guideline prevented the IHAC from studying or translating Moroccan works, which became the domain of the so-called Africanistas (Africanists) (Cruz Hernández 1996:21).

Barcelona has traditionally been the headquarters of numerous publishing houses, resulting in a significant number of translations not only into Spanish but also into Catalan. Other publishing initiatives have been more widely distributed, such as those of the Grupo Alcalá, which has promoted a collection of contemporary Arabic literature (Arabia), including translations of Leila Abouzeid (b. 1955). Additionally, small independent publishers such as Cantarabia or Ediciones del Oriente y del Mediterráneo have emerged in Spain and play an important role. Moreover, although the number of translations still remains relatively small, there now exists a solid body of academic research dealing with translation from Arabic to Spanish (see, for example, Fernández Parrilla and Montoro Murillo 1999; Fernández Parrilla and Feria García 2000).

Finally, in addition to Spain’s cultural policies, whether of a diplomatic nature or the result of public support for research projects, EU policies to promote intercultural dialogue between the shores of the Mediterranean have also been instrumental in disseminating Arabic literature. The project Memorias del Mediterráneo (Memories of the Mediterranean), promoted by the European Cultural Foundation, together with the Toledo School of Translators, is a combination of both policies. This project has translated emblematic Arab authors such as Mahmoud Darwish (1941— 2008), Abderrahman Mounif (1933-2004), Alia Mamdouh (b. 1944) and May Telmissany (b. 1965) into European languages. The project’s aims eventually to move from “the translation of cultures” (“Memories”) to “translators of culture” (“Mediators”), which, as Stephan Riidiger (in Van Beugen and Fernández Parrilla 2005:68) notes, means that it focuses on the translation of autobiographies. This leads to some anomalies: for example, Latifa al-Zayyat’s (1992) autobiography was translated into Spanish and Catalan, whereas her most important novel Al-bab al-maftuh (Al-Zayyat 1960) was not.

 
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