Why translation matters for the Arab world

Exposing our young people to the world, to complex thinking will encourage many to stay away from dogma.
Sunday 17/03/2019
Faisal Saeed al-Mutar, founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, a US-based translation initiative. (Courtesy of Faisal Saeed al-Mutar)
Faisal Saeed al-Mutar, founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, a US-based translation initiative. (Courtesy of Faisal Saeed al-Mutar)

Faisal Saeed al-Mutar was born in the Iraqi city of Hillah in 1991. He was 8 years old when the internet was allowed in the country. The internet captured his curiosity about science, philosophy, the cosmos, comparative religion, civil liberties and human rights.

In 2017, he founded Ideas Beyond Borders, a US-based knowledge translation initiative to make otherwise inaccessible ideas available to Arabs. The initiative has translated 1.5 million words — whether in articles or books — through its translators in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Mutar received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2015 from US President Barack Obama for his outstanding commitment to education.

In a conversation via Skype with The Arab Weekly, he discussed the power of the Arabic language.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): What is actually at stake with Arabic content, humanly speaking?

Faisal Saeed al-Mutar (FSM): “By removing the language barrier to knowledge, more young people in the Arabic-speaking world will be empowered and hopeful. Losing hope and perspective is (a) reason why many young people get drawn into extremist and violent organisations.

“Arabic content that doesn’t tell people what to think but how to think [is important]; content that makes people question more and ask why they believe what they believe to be true. Exposing our young people to the world, to opportunity, to complex thinking will drive constant curiosity and encourage many to stay away from dogma.

“It’s not easy to know which ideas motivate people to think more because humans are different and that’s why we translate and create a diverse set of ideas.

“We can prove such a theory of change through the personal story of one of our translators, Yasmine Mohamad. She grew up in a fundamentalist household and had an arranged marriage to a member of al-Qaeda. When she was exposed to lectures of comparative religion and books, it completely changed her world view and now she is an advocate and a public speaker for women’s rights in the Arab and Muslim world.”

TAW: Are there any translation demands for particular fields of knowledge?

FSM: “The demand is for knowledge for the subjects that are now neglected and suppressed, such as economics, psychology, evolutionary science, analysis of religion, knowledge about pluralism, human rights, civil and women’s rights movements. Many of these topics are banned in some Arab countries.

“There is an Arabic proverb that says forbidden fruit is sweet. Censorship produces counter effects whereby Arab youth resist being told what to see and what to think and makes them want to see the banned books even more.

“We regularly run surveys to our 65,000 followers on Facebook asking them what they want to see translated and act accordingly.

“In the Bayt Al-Hekma 2.0 project, we have focused so far on translating Wikipedia articles into Arabic. Our readers come from search engines because these tend to show Wikipedia results at the beginning of the search page. We have added more than 750 articles to the Arabic Wikipedia and translated 12 books.

“Our articles are the most visited in the Arabic Wikipedia because they focus on very important topics. Articles that debunk conspiracy theories were among the most visited.”

TAW: How do you deal with the fact that you have deliberately chosen to translate content that may be seen as very provocative by many citizens in the Arab world?

FSM: “‘Controversial’ and ‘provocative’ are subjective terms. Some of our content regarding secularism, religion, women and minorities’ rights have generated some controversy from some segments of our audience.

“We are not a political or anti-religion organisation but we embrace some of these controversial books and content because we believe Arab youth should be allowed to make up their own minds about how they want to live their lives.

“We are focused on empowering the youth with hope and education and preventing extremism before it takes root. If there would be any political implications, it would be for people to reject the censorship and binary thinking of extremists and authoritarian regimes after people have been exposed to a different set of ideas.

“Considering that we are still a new organisation, I expect us to get negative feedback but we welcome all forms of constructive criticism. However, from what I am reading and hearing, the response has been overwhelmingly positive so far.”

TAW: Digital Arabic content has grown exponentially over the past decade. Would you like to share with us concrete example of such growth?

FSM: “I founded the organisation in mid-2017. We have translated more than 1.5 million words, whether in articles or in books. The demand has grown so much that about 200 articles per month are translated in Arabic. We lifted the ranking of the Arabic language to the 17th language in Wikipedia from the 19th.

“We are focusing on bringing diverse ideas outside the education systems but we potentially plan to work on designing a curriculum that advances diversity of ideas and critical thinking.

“Today, we are a partner of the Wikimedia Foundation in the Levant. We are also a partner of WordPress.org, which is designing both our website and our digital library that should launch in less than a month.”

TAW: What kind of conversation is missing in the field of Arabic content?

FSM: “Advancing our scientific and spiritual vocabulary is one of the issues that we face when we translate science content. That’s because many of the words and scientific terminologies do not exist yet in Arabic due to lack of scientific research. The same applies when translating texts from eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. While many words have an equivalent in English or French, Arab linguists need to create these words and popularise them.

“Perhaps another conversation we need to have is on how the Arab youth see themselves, how to stimulate their minds and encourage them to think for themselves and make their own decisions about their future.”