Translating to Glimpse the World
Hala Salah El-din Hussein, interviewed by Elisa Pierandrei 30 August 2011

How did you pick up the name Albawtaka, and what does this mean?

Albawtaka is an Arabic word meaning “The Crucible.” The Albawtaka Review and Albawtaka Publishing House both use this name. The publishing house is the company’s “profitable wing,” meant to print translations of contemporary English fiction into Arabic, in addition to anthologies of Albawtaka Review‘s short fiction.  The publishing house and the review are actually inseparable, as they work with the same mission: introducing Arabic readers to contemporary English short fiction, both online and in print.

When I first embarked on establishing Albawtaka Review, I thought for a couple of hours about a resonant name that would sound gloriously literary! The word Albawtaka hovered over my teenage days. I remember back in school I wanted to make a club named Albawtaka. The teacher thought it was too weird. This incident came to my mind as I brainstorming names, and I felt as if I were fulfilling a long-awaited wish. The act of translating is much like putting precious metals into one pot and melting them to reach a new form of rareness.

Why did you focus in the first place on American short stories?

Novels can’t be our only window to fiction. Missing out on the beauty of brevity, we are in ignorance of how American short fiction has taken wide steps toward fresh techniques and tools. Talking about American stories, we are actually talking about so many cultures it can quite possibly include the whole world. The American culture is a “crucible.”

As the youngest female publisher in Egypt, what are the main challenges of running a publishing house for you?

I’ve got to tell you that lack of funds, censorship and distribution dilemmas are generally the biggest obstacles in the field of publishing. Female or male, the challenges are the same. Of course you will find some workers in the printing office giving me looks, but they only last a few minutes, then I will be treated only as a publisher regardless of my gender. I have serious reservations about seeing my profession from a feminist point of view.

How can fiction help us in a time of political unrest?

Should I stay in my office finishing this marvelous piece by Susan Straight or should I just go out with my fellow countrymen, six hours or more daily in the Square? Sometimes it seems that translating political articles would be of more use to the revolution, but for the time being I maintain the belief that a day translating Lorrie Moore or Edward P. Jones will teach me how to be a better human being, and I’ll get to see the world in its true colors and learn about myself, others and humanity.

What kind of changes do you expect to face in your sector in the coming months?

Owing to the agitation of the past 6 months in Egypt, some small publishing houses have gone bankrupt. It’s hard for small businesses to go for a long time with little revenue. They are, by nature, fragile. Publishers still surviving will happily bend with the current wave of fresh developments. They have already engrossed in printing political books about the revolution, former regime scandals and civil rule versus military rule issues. Stacks of literary books go higher and higher in warehouses, so literature will, unfortunately, retreat, for a while at least. After six or seven years of a prosperous literary landscape, it seems fiction is no longer the hero of the period, and this also applies to best selling books. I believe it’s an expected repercussion of the revolution. Politics and economics are candidates to lead the scene now. Still I do believe that no nation can thrive without literature as the backbone of its boom. I do think that, in a year from now, Egyptians will read and write literature like never before, as their sense of liberty will bear its fruits.