November 26, 2010
Obstacles to reading
Arab world struggles to do Arabic translations.
BENJAMIN PEIM THE MEDIA LINE
While the Arab world was busy translating the Greek philosopher Aristotle into Arabic 1,000 years ago, Europe was trudging through the Dark Ages. But today, according to a United Nations study, it seems that the number of books translated annually into Arabic in all Arab countries combined is one-fifth the number translated into Greek in Greece. In fact, it found that, in the past 1,000 years, only about 10,000 books have been translated into Arabic – equivalent to the number of books translated in Spain each year.
In 2003, the last year in which a survey was taken, the UN found that just 330 books had been translated into Arabic in Arab countries that year. Now, Arabic publishers are attempting to improve the situation and turn the tide by translating more books.
“The overall goal is to make the Arabic reader aware of what other cultures write,” said Nagwa Abdelmottaleb, owner of Egypt’s Kalimat Arabia publishing house. “This, over a long period of time, will make people better citizens, because they will be more informed of the world and so have the chance for a better society,” she said. Abdelmottaleb founded the house in 2007.
It appears to be a monumental challenge. The Arab world suffers from under-development and a variety of social ills: repressive dictatorships, stratospheric unemploy- ment and increasingly violent religious fundamentalism. Compounding this is the dearth of translated works, which limits the extent to which the global conversation seeps into the Arab world, hindering intellectual curiosity, access to knowledge and development.
Others are taking steps to counter the trend, as well. The United Arab Emirates, for its part, hosts an annual international book fair, which happened this year, Oct. 26-Nov. 6. In 2008, Dubai launched its Tarjem initiative, which means “translate” in Arabic. Its stated goal is to translate 365 books a year into Arabic, more than doubling the amount of books translated in all of 2003. There is also Kalima, a nonprofit funded by the Abu Dhabi government, which, since 2007, has published translations of works not previously translated into Arabic.
It recently published a translation of a work by Galileo, the Italian Renaissance scientist.
The Cairo-based Kalimat Arabia publishes 24 titles a year, everything from books on applied economics, to biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Mahatma Gandhi, to children’s books. But non-religious books are not in high-demand in the Arab world. A 2007 study by the Next Page Foundation, a Bulgaria-based nongovernmental organization, showed that Egyptian readers mostly read the Koran. Other books are not generally produced in high volume and no uniform distribution network exists.
At first, Kalimat Arabia published 2,000 copies each of its translated titles, Abdelmottaleb said. But the publishing house quickly realized the number was too high. It now prints its books solely at the request of booksellers, with 500 books as the minimum. U.S. President Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father is its highest-selling title to date, selling 10,000 copies.
Egypt’s government-run National Centre for Translation has translated 1,700 books into Arabic, said an official at the centre.
“There are no obstacles to translation except finding good translators,” said Hani Tulba, the centre’s deputy director.
Abdelmottaleb said that while censorship did not impede Kalimat Arabia from publishing the books it wanted, religion and high costs remained challenges. “If you are religious, you’re not going to translate other books because you feel that you don’t need them,” she said.
As well, many people in the Middle East do not have the disposable income to buy books, according to Abdelmottaleb. Translated books sell at a slightly higher price than books originally written in Arabic. The publishing house sells most of its books in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where readers have more disposable income to spend on books.
Despite this, Kalimat Arabia will soldier on, said Abdelmottaled. “We have a saying in Arabic: ‘Lighting a candle is better than complaining all the time.’ ”