In “Embargoed Literature,” an essay written twenty-five years ago, Edward W. Said noted that “of all the major world literatures, Arabic remains relatively unknown and unread in the West.” How is it that one of the world’s great literary corpuses, as rich as those of classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese, has so little echo in English? Is Arabic literature untranslatable? The obstacles in this case are political as much as they are linguistic. Taking its cue from Said’s notion of a “perfect inequality” between the two languages, this essay argues for a situational—rather than literal—approach to translation, emphasizing the intellectual gains (and risks) to be had from thinking of translation as an act of cultural interpretation rather than verbal substitution.

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