One of the most significant means through which different cultures communicate is translation. Yet according to the latest United Nations development report, Arab countries have ceased to be reliant on or even interested in translation. In the Arab world, the ratio of translated books to the population is 1 to 4.4 million, against 1 to 450 people in Israel.Extremism and antagonism
English literature professor Maher Shafiq Farid cites two aspects related to the translation crisis in the region: the quantity of translated books, and their quality. The number of translated books in Egypt is low compared with such countries as Spain, India or Israel. As for translation standards, there is no question of comparison between the translations of the past made by such pundits as Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz or Edward al-Kharrat and books translated by current university graduates, whose skills are at best modest.
“Translation suffers from a major problem related to marketing translated books.” Dr Farid says. Not only that, but a host of bureaucratic procedures hinders the signing of translation contracts and the distribution of translated books among foreign and Egyptian publishing houses. “The dominance of extremism and antagonistic tendencies vis-à-vis Western values further aggravates the problem. Translation requires an atmosphere of openness and tolerance in order to flourish,” he says.Dr Farid applauds the national project for translation sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. “A thousand books have been translated from and into Arabic since 1995,” he says. Translated twice
Emad Ghazi, the former supervisor of the project, says that four Egyptian government authorities are involved in the translation process: the Ministry of Culture, the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), the Cultural Palaces Organisation and the Academy of Arts. “It’s a shame that the level of coordination between these authorities is non-existent. Dr Ghazi said. In practice two authorities or more could translate the same book.”
The chairman of the African and Asian Book Organisation, Mohamed Magdi Morgan, believes that unfortunately the world is no longer acquainted with Arab literature because most of it is not translated into other languages. “Orientalists once manipulated Arab literature and used it to emphasise their stereotyped ideas about the East for purposes of Western hegemony,” he says. “Yet today financial allocations for translation in the Arab World are extremely limited.”Outright failure
“Among the fatal mistakes, Dr Morgan says, is the use of computer translation programmes to translate texts from Arabic into English.” These have proved an outright failure because sentence structures in Arabic and English are so different. “Such methods are useful in translating between English and Japanese because there are similarities in this respect, but not so in Arabic and English” he says.
German literature professor Nahed al-Deeb says that low rates of pay discourage the upgrading of translation standards in Egypt, especially when taking into account that translation needs a massive amount of effort and time. By the same token Mustafa Labib, a professor of Islamic philosophy, warns that if a new generation of qualified translators is not trained, there will be a vacuum in the field of translation after the coming two decades. He stresses the role of business in encouraging and sponsoring translation.Centre of the market
One organisation that does stress the importance of flawless translation is the American University in Cairo Press. Atef al-Khatib of the press’s translation department says the university has a comprehensive programme for translating works by Arab novelists and writers. “ AUC grants an award in the name of Naguib Mahfouz to outstanding translators,” he says. “The press hopes to be translating 100 books a year.”
According to GEBO director Nasser al-Anssari, Cairo could serve as a centre for translation, binding Arab countries to the outside world.
“Cairo might play a significant role in the future in terms of cooperation among Arab and foreign countries,” Dr Anssari says. He suggests that the respect by Arab nations of the rules of intellectual property would boost translation projects and encourage cultural interaction and the dialogue among civilisations.
The Union of Arab Publishers chairman, Mohamed Abdel-Latif points to the fact that that the current Western interest in Arab literature began with the award of the Nobel prize for literature to Naguib Mahfouz. Before that, translating Arabic texts to a great extent was restricted to books on Arabic heritage. He says the publishing industry accounts for 1.3 per cent of the industry sector in the Arab World, while in Egypt the ratio is 8 per cent. “The publishing industry faces many problems, including the disrespect of the rules of intellectual property, low rates of literacy and low standards of living conditions. All these have a negative effect on the marketing of books,” he says.