Why Arabs translate a small fraction of publications relative to other languages?
Mary Mourad, Sunday 13 May 2012
Translators and publishers speak on the challenges along the way to getting Arab translations up to speed with other languages, concluding that a one-man solution is impossible

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Despite being the fifth most spoken language globally, with some 280 million native speakers, Arabic translation lags well behind most of the lesser-spoken languages. Translation to and from Arabic has been so low to the extent that, according to the UNESCO Index Translation, out of top50languages it is the 17th language being translated to other languages,and 29th target language (translations to Arabic), falling well behind Russian - and even Greek, Polish and Czech!

The reasons behind this huge gap were the main topic of the one-day workshop organised by the faculty of Al-Alsson (languages) in cooperation with the EU Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) organisation. The translators, publishers and supporting organisations at the forum discussed the challenges facing the trade and brainstormed for solutions to move forward with the translations into and from Arabic.

The event was attended by Ali Abdel-Aziz, head of Ain-Shams University, as well as a host of professors at Al-Alsson, students from various language schools and a number of prominent Egyptian publishers, together with representatives from LAF.

Main reasons given behind the poor conditions in the translation field into Arabic, as described by the panelists, were translators' lack of proficiency in the language, the poor quality of contracts, which lead to unfair renumeration and, therefore, discourages many talented young people from making this their life career.

Of course, publishers say that funding and difficult copyright conditions were problems, as espoused by Balsam from Al-Balsam publishing and Heba Salama from Salama Publishing.

Young Al-Alsson students had great difficulty starting their career in the first place; most were unsure how to contact publishers and were weary of not being paid after their hard work.

The conversation revealed publishers’ lack of ability to access the best international literature and a formula or indicators that will allow them to foresee which books will be successful on the international market.

The last session for the day was a presentation on the funding dedicated to improving translation by the European Union through LAF, a platform of literary exchange through a network of organisations, initiatives and activities, aiming to increase the flow of translation between the Arab world and Europe. To this aim there is a cooperation between the University and LAF.

Alexandra Buchler represented LAF and spoke on support for Egypt’s translation sector through organisations such as the French Cultural Centre, Geothe (German) Institute, Cervantes (Spanish) Institute, the National Centre for Translation, foreign culture ministries, among others.

A good example, cited Buchler, are the Turkish ministries of culture and tourism, who offer a bi-annual event where they secure funds (nearly half a million Euros) to translate works and hold a book fair for the works that the ministries sponsored. These initiatives also provide information and/or financial support for both publishers and translators.

Finally, Buchler shared some websites with information about books and translations. "Regarding translation grants, covering costs of translation and sometimes production costs and promotion costs, the rules expected are related to quality, copyright holding, marketing and distribution plan and contracts, plus proof of payment, for the translator," Buchler concluded.

The failure to promote and publish translation from the publishing side is more complex.

Mohamed Hashim, owner of Merit Publishing, complained that the official publishing houses owned by the state are no longer properly funded, i.e. the National Centre for Translation.

Mostafa El-Tanany, owner of Tanany publishing house, worried that costs of translation are becoming too high, thus raising the prices of books beyond capacity of the reader's budget.

Sherif Bakr from Al-Arabi publishing explained that the funds described by the LAF representative are lengthy in process and sometimes don't succeed as planned.

By the end of the conference it was obvious to the audience and panelists that in order for Arabic to reach a higher stage in translation, much more work and funding is required.

The average publisher or translator cannot be expected to handle this all on their own, but rather more public support and effort is needed to get it up to standard; starting from education and resources, up to business expertise and market knowledge.