Who’s Not Translating Whom? The State of Arabic-Language Translation Six Years Later

By Hosam Aboul-Ela

Many readers of WWB will probably still remember the exchange between historian Paul Kennedy and translator Esther Allen in the letters section of Harper's Magazine in fall of 2002. In his letter, Kennedy cited the critical assessment of the Arab world in the UN's recent Arab Human Development Report. The report had mentioned among other things, the region's poor record in translating books into Arabic. Allen rightly countered in her response that a minuscule percentage of the books published and distributed in the US are translations, and that of these, data from the American Literary Translators Association showed that ía grand total of thirteen books [had been] translated from Arabic in the last four years.ë

I think Allen's is an amazing letter. I've quoted it in public forums and private conversations. But as I revisit the letters from here in Cairo six years later, I find myself noticing that the entire exchange leaves intact the UNDR's claim that Arabs aren't doing enough translation. I've confronted a great deal of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. I run into translators everywhere. Just last weekend, I sat next to a novelist, Ibtihal Salem, who translates work from French into Arabic, one night, and hitched a ride the next night with a young man named Rabie Wahba, who has published translations into Arabic of Chomsky and other English language authors and is currently working on finding a local publisher for an Arabic translation of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae.

I've learned a great deal during my stays in Cairo over the past twenty years from Professor Gaber Asfour, an Emeritus Professor at Cairo University and Egypt's leading literary critic. Asfour recently retired from his position as the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Culture to devote himself full-time to directing a massive translation project, which he started while at the SCC. It's interesting and telling in itself that the country's leading literary critic would devote himself full-time to promoting translation. The National Center for Translation, which he now directs, translated 1000 books from thirty different languages into Arabic in its first eleven years (1995-2006). This included over 500 books translated from English and texts in such rarely accessed languages as Pashto, Swahili, and Armenian. The Center's brochure breaks the translations down into ten fields, with literary texts the largest group, but no discipline making up a majority. The Center has also organized three international conferences around various topics within translation studies.

The publicly funded National Center for Translation is one of several translation initiatives burgeoning in the region at the moment. There's also Kelima, a privately funded translation enterprise, based in the United Arab Emirates. I hope to learn more about it while in the UAE at the end of the month.

In the meantime, all this activity begs the UNAHDR's original question: is there enough translation into Arabic going on in the region? Kennedy's letter is emphatic on this point, and Allen gives it a pass, simply noting that we should, in fact, be willing to look at ínumber of translations [as] a key indicator of a region's cultural vibrancy.ë Can't translators and publishers always be doing more? Let's put it this way: on this point, the Arab countries have a speck in their eye; we should be worried about the log in our own.


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