Translating Arab Stereotypes in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia

Oran University


More often than not, mystery novels rely on stereotypes to introduce and differentiate their characters, considering that the genre itself requires a number of characters which serve as suspects. These culturally loaded, pre-fabricated depictions serve the purpose of defining a character in a minimal amount of words, allowing the reader to focus on the action instead. A character’s personality is thus efficiently defined, using different kinds of stereotypes: socio-cultural, class, caste, or gender roles. British author, Agatha Christie, is one of the most influential mystery novel writers, whose work greatly shaped the codes of the genre, introducing some of the stereotypical characters synonymous with this kind of work (the amateur detective, the sympathetic culprit, the benevolent doctor, the religious figure, the retired military man…) Although translating stereotypes can sometimes be tricky, seeing as they are profoundly attached to the genre and the writer, on one hand, and to the source language and culture, on the other hand, when it comes to racial stereotypes, the translator has to deal with a different set of challenges, especially if the target reader is the subject of these stereotypes.

Agatha Christie spent an extensive amount of time in the Arab world, on archaeological expeditions, which she wrote about in length, setting some of her novels in Arab countries (Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad in Iraq, Death on the Nile in Egypt, and Appointment with Death in Jordan.) But if the geographical setting of the novel is Arab, the literary setting is very much British, as the characters seem to exist in a bubble, forming a microcosm, which is another feature of the mystery novel, and serves the purpose of restricting the number of suspects. This microcosm recreates the characters’ Occidental homeland, which only views, and therefore deals with, the Orient in a limited and stereotypical fashion, which can be offensive to the Arab reader. This paper aims to study how that might affect the Arabic translation of Murder in Mesopotamia and whether the translator’s background influences his choices, by comparing it to different non-Arabic translations.

KEYWORDS: Literary translation, Self and Otherness, Ehnic/racial stereotypes, East and West, Agatha Christie, Mystery novels, Murder in Mesopotamia, Orientalism.