Neglecting translation stunts Arab intercultural outreach
Data released by the French Publishers Association indicate that the number of Arabic books translated and distributed in France in 2018 did not exceed 90, while the number of French books whose translation rights were sold to Arab publishing houses was 220. In other words, Arab countries take the lead in acquiring translation rights, surpassing many other parts of the world.
There is no denying that translating foreign texts into Arabic is a good thing because it opens a window on the world and its cultures but the process will be fair only if there is the same concern and effort to translate Arab thought and literature to other languages.
It seems most of the major Arab translation projects, despite their importance, are limited to translation of international thought and creativity into Arabic. During the 1950s, the Cultural Department of the Egyptian Ministry of Education introduced the “One Thousand Books” project. A new version of the project came about in the 1980 by the Egyptian General Book Authority. A national project of translation was begun by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture. And so on and so forth of similar projects whose media effect was greater than its real cultural outcome.
What is striking is that nobody really paid attention to major projects of translating Arabic literary and cultural production into other languages.
Many translation projects, despite their importance, were riddled with shortcomings. Four years ago, former Egyptian Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi, presenting a paper about government publishing in Egypt, stated that there had been a needless inflation in publications by the many sectors of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.
The General Book Authority was no longer the sole publisher of the Ministry of Culture, he said. Abu Ghazi counted 13 other bodies belonging to the ministry that were involved in publishing. The lack of coordination between those agencies often resulted in having the same book being translated by more than one body.
Official groups are not the only culprits in the affair and one should not always use them as scapegoats for the world’s problems. In the case of translation projects in the Arab world, private publishers shoulder a major share of the responsibility because they are key actors in the book industry.
To be convinced of that, note the limited presence of Arab publishers at major venues for selling translation rights, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, undoubtedly the largest space for trading translation rights.
The result is that the situation in the Arab world is a far cry from that of the gilded age of translation centuries ago. What is being translated in the Arab world does not exceed 1% of the total volume of translated material. This statistic is not compatible with the importance of Arabic considering the hundreds of millions of Arabic speakers.
If many in the Arab world believe and promote the fallacy by which Arab literature has conquered the world through a couple of translations published here or there or because of international festivals and a few cultural weeks where half of the attendees belong to intelligence services of the hosting country, the truth is otherwise.
Dozens of translations of Arabic works are published in small national publishing markets and, therefore, do not reach the foreign reader.
Similarly, inviting a few Arab celebrities to this festival or another is not sufficient to give a clear picture of the dynamics of intellectual creativity in the Arab world, especially when the foreign audience has no obligation to look for Arabs amid the intense competition between traditional and new cultural geographies.
Through my conversations with more than 30 foreign poets from around the world, I fathomed the depth of the ignorance of many of them about Arab intellectuals. On more than one occasion, it was just the book of “One Thousand and One Nights” that came up in their answers to my inquiries about their supposed knowledge of Arab culture.
They seem to still imagine the Orient, a metaphor for the Arab world, as if it were part of a legend that is not yet over. What is surprising is that the number of translations of “One Thousand and One Nights” into the languages of the world far exceeds the translations of the works of Egyptian Nobel Literature Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.