The Arab world in translation

I wrote this story recently for the Al Fanar site (a new site dedicated to covering higher education and academic and intellectual issues in the Middle East) : an overview of interesting developments and ventures in translation to and from Arabic. The article has an optimistic title, and certainly the interest in Arabic literature in translation -- which I have seen grow in the 10 years I've lived in Cairo -- is heartening to those of us who know how much great writing there is in Arabic, and who believe that a greater familiarity with it might nuance Western views of this part of the world. That said translation of other fields of knowledge, to and from Arabic, remains dispiritingly low. We included a list of references at the end of the article -- do write in to signal any others you think should be featured. 

Today's Arabic

I wrote a piece recently for Al Fanar -- a new English-Arabic portal about higher education in the Arab world -- about concerns over the "loss" of classical Arabic, supposedly threatened by the spread of foreign language schools, the Westernization of young Arabs, and the historical phenomenon of diglossia

Is the Arabic that young people speak today — grammatically “incorrect,” full of dialect, foreign words and neologisms — a threat to linguistic heritage and cultural identity? Or is it the natural development of a vital, globalized vernacular?

During the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, there were two slogans: الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام ("The People Want the Fall of the Regime") was in Fosha, or classical Arabic and -- as that language does -- it traveled across borders, from one Arab country to the other. But in Egypt there was also another slog: ارحل يعني امشي ("'Depart' means get out!") which "translated" the Fosha word for "leave" into the Aameya one. The revolution spread alongside a classical slogan, but they also saw an eruption of colloquial Arabic, indispensible to satire and subversion, to "telling it how it is," into the stultified public discourse, and I think that will remain the case (look at Bassem Youssef, look at mahraganaat music). 

That said Arabic-speakers don't want to lose contact with Fosha -- the language of the Koran and of literary heritage -- and there are very strong religious, political, cultural arguments against doing so. Ideally, young Arabs could master the entire colloquial-classical spectrum, plus a foreign language or two, and be all the richer for it. The fundamental challenge is not linguistic but has to do rather with low literacy and low-quality education. 

New numbers on translations into Arabic

The eminent translator Richard Jacquemond spoke last night at the American University in Cairo's downtown campus (as part of the consistently interesting "In Translation" lecture series). Jacquemond has translated many prominent Arab writers, and most notably most of the works of Sonallah Ibrahim, into French. He also ran a French-government-sponsored translation program (from French into Arabic and vice versa) in Cairo in the 1980s. I went to see him speak mostly because I had so appreciated his translations of  شرف ("Charaf ou L'Honneur") and التلصص ("Le Petit Voyeur"). 

It turns out Jacquemond, who has already written a book on cultural politics in Egypt, is writing a new book on "the politics and poetics of translation" into Arabic. 

Jacquemond started out his talk by criticizing the well-known 2002 Arab Human Development Report claim that:

 The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.

The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa'moun's [sic] time (theninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year. (AHDR 2002, p. 78)

These claim have been disputed, by Jacquemond and others. Critics have also pointed to the way they have been simplistically used to make the argument that if only Arabs had access to Western knowledge and values, they could solve their development problems. 

I agree with this point--there is something condescending, perhaps not in the report itself, but in the ways its claims have been parroted (no one laments the absence of translation from Arabic); and that comparison to Spain has been tiresomely repeated. On the other hand it's impossible to deny that there is a crisis in the creation, access and dissemination of knowledge in the Arab world; that translation (like many forms of cultural production) often requires state support and that all states have agendas. Personally, regardless of the state policies behind it or the media discourse surrounding it, I consider every (decent) translation a gift to someone, somewhere. 

In any case, Jacquemond estimates the number of books that have been translated into Arabic with the funding of foreign governments (mostly the US, Russia and France) and of national initiatives at 10,000 and the number of books translated by the market at 30,000. He estimates that today somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 books are translated into Arabic every year (that number is a big increase over the past, and over the Arab Human Development Report's estimate of 330). 

Links for 09.14.09

Unsettled - Resolve of West Bank Settlers May Have Limits - Series - NYTimes.com | NYT describes Israeli settlers as "the nation's moral core." For once I agree. ✪ Islamists and the Grave Bell | Greg Gause: "So a revival of democracy promotion in Washington requires the underlying assumption that Islamists will not win Middle Eastern election." Well in that case let's put the whole democracy promotion idea to sleep, and instead develop a concept of autocracy obstruction. ✪ Political storm clouds form over Turkey | The Smirking Chimp | Interesting post on deep state anti-Islamist group in Turkey. ✪ الصفحة الرئيسية | Arabic ebooks. ✪ Egyptian chronicles: Welcome To The Egyptian Publishing Hell | Good post on the problems with copyright, literary publishing and censorship in Egypt.
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Links for 09.12.09 to 09.13.09

صحيفة عكاظ - موسوعة الأفلام.. تكرار أسماء واقتباسات صريحة | On a new Encyclopedia of Arab Cinema, categorizing 4350 films. [h/t: Lina] ✪ The Arabic Student | Blog on learning Arabic, with vocab lessons and more. ✪ US in raptures over Arab film - The National Newspaper | Regarding the new film on the Arab-American experience, "Amreeka". ✪ YouTube - Al Jazeera: Debate between a liberal and an islamist in Egypt. | MEMRI video of a debate by the Egyptian secularist intellectual Sayyid Qemani on Jazeera, debating Islamists and the host. ✪ Muslims Widely Seen As Facing Discrimination - Pew Research Center | "Eight years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans see Muslims as facing more discrimination inside the U.S. than other major religious groups. Nearly six-in-ten adults (58%) say that Muslims are subject to a lot of discrimination, far more than say the same about Jews, evangelical Christians, atheists or Mormons. In fact, of all the groups asked about, only gays and lesbians are seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims, with nearly two-thirds (64%) of the public saying there is a lot of discrimination against homosexuals."
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Links for 09.10.09 to 09.11.09

Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | Made to measure | Interesting Amira Howeidy article on Egyptian television, notably Naguib Sawiris' face-off with Ibrahim Eissa on the former's new TV show! ✪ Khaleej Times Online - Egypt school start delayed week in swine flu fear | While swine flu infections are spreading, this decision may be as much as leaving school until after Ramadan than a medical threat, IMHO. ✪ Reuters AlertNet - Egypt: Stop Killing Migrants in Sinai | HRW Statement on shootings at the border with Israel, referencing recent al-Masri al-Youm article with killer quotes on issue. ✪ Democracy, Tunisian style | Brian Whitaker | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | Brian Whitaker engages in my favorite sport, Tunisia-bashing, pointing that Tunisia's much-vaunted stability comes at the price of a presidency for life. ✪ Dennis Ross, Bill Burns, Berman talk Iran with Jewish leaders conference (UPDATED) - Laura Rozen - POLITICO.com | For big push on Iran sanctions (and more?) by Jewish-American orgs. ✪ Last gasp for global Islam « Prospect Magazine | Review of a "woe-is-us" book by former Iraqi PM Ayad Allawi on Islam. ✪ aktub | Free Arabic typing tutor.
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Links for 08.09.09 to 08.13.09

Moises Naim -- A New Recipe for Autocrats Around The World - washingtonpost.com | Some good stuff there, but he goes to easy on Mossad and the CIA - they would not be scapegoats if it wasn't sometimes true! The Groping Elephant in the Room: Sexual Harassment in the Arab World « the long slumber | More from The Long Slumber on sexual harassment in the Arab word - recommended, thought-provoking reading. شارك - حوار مفتوح لشباب مصر مع جمال مبارك | Tell me this man is not running for president... Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle | Mother Jones | Nothing to do with the Middle East, but outrageous. BBC NEWS | Middle East | Frustrated dreams of young Egyptians | Living in the City of the Dead: "I dream of leaving this place. One day we will buy a new home and pretend we have lived there all our lives." Get Good at Arabic « MediaShack | Good tips on picking up the lingo - this method really works although it means you must be disciplined and dedicated (and have no other job, ideally). Even if it might seem a tiny bit exploitative. 'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: Agha, Malley, and some other ideas | Helena Cobban's critique of the Malley/Agha op-ed, saying it's quite banal. Well yes and no: it's banal because experts and many Israelis and Palestinians have known it for a long time (that it's about 1948), but it's still important to reiterate the point because politicians (in Israel/Palestine, among the two diasporas and among foreigners) still pretend otherwise. Op-Ed Contributors - The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything - NYTimes.com | Malley and Agha say it's all about 1948: "For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel." Les ministres israéliens divisés sur la libération de Marwan Barghouti - Proche-Orient - Le Monde.fr | Israelis pols split about whether or not to free Marwan Barghouti. Dar Al Hayat - Ayoon Wa Azan (Why Are Men Allowed to Wear Dresses?) | Jihad al-Khazen suggests (jokingly?) that Gulf Arabs buy up the Observer, which is shutting down (alas, although perhaps they shouldn't have spent so much money on stupid lifestyle supplements and Nigella Lawson pageantry.) Will the leader of Lebanon's Druze really form an alliance with Hezbollah? - By Lee Smith - Slate Magazine | Weird Slate story in whcih Walid Jumblatt is celebrated as hero, disowns his old friends, and they react: "His former American friends are not amused. "I don't believe for a minute that he's sorry he met with the dreaded neocons, and I'm sorry he feels somehow compelled to say that," said Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. "I just hope he keeps sending all of us that nice wine from the Bekaa."" Three soldiers, Al-Qaeda leader killed in Yemeni clashes - AL SHORFA | Note that this site is funded by US Central Command. I don't know much about Yemen, but isn't it rather odd to refer to the insurgents in Yemen to al-Qaeda (as opposed to people motivated by local grievances, as a recent International Crisis Group report argued)? Le Figaro - International : Mauritanie : attentat suicidedevant l'ambassade de France | Suicide bombing outside French embassy in Mauritania.
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Links for 07.02.09 to 07.04.09

ANALYSIS / Loud-mouthed rabbi reflects IDF's religious bent - Haaretz - Israel News | Article on Brigadier General Avichai Ronski, the Israeli Army's chief rabbi. Interesting tidbits on how he brought the influence of settlers and religious right, was recruited by Dan Halutz to "bring the IDF closer to the sectors of the public that opposed the Gaza disengadgement." Egypt: See no strikes, hear no strikes, report no strikes | Menassat | Joe Mayton on how journalists are prevented from covering strikes in Egypt. What's the point of learning to type in Arabic | Bint Battuta of Bahrain on Microsoft's new Maren software, which allows you to type Arabic in Roman characters and have them converted on the fly (like Yamli but as part of OS.) She takes issue with the assumption that Arab users don't want to learn how to type with an Arabic keyboard. Daily News Egypt - On The Inheritance Of Power In Egypt | Osama El-Ghazali Harb, prominent Egyptian political scientist and former Gamal recruit to Policies Committee before he left in a huff, on inheritance of power and Gamal's schemes won't work. Amos Elon (1926–2009) - The New York Review of Books | Tony Judt on the Israeli writer. OPT: Gaza-Egypt crossing to open three days a month | Hamas, PA and Egypt agree to allow 3 days a month and move towards 2005 AMA; article details continuing difficulties for those making the crossing.
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Links for 06.30.09 to 07.01.09

Arab Techies in Business | More Arab geekery. Arab Techies | Cool Arabic tech/web projects. Love in KSA « Saudiwoman’s Weblog | On the importance of women's reputation in Saudi. "Politics, culture, and dissident:" New study maps out trends in Arab blogosphere | Menassat | Cool map of the Arab blogosphere, divided by country, language, and political trends. Saudia Arabia leads Arab regimes in internet censorship | World news | guardian.co.uk | Saudi, UAE, Syria and Tunisia top the list. Syria Comment » Archives » Apologies to Howard Schweber and Barak’s Settlement Shuffle | Josh Landis has some good links on the US-Israel settlements face-off here. As well as on the question of the impact of Iran's political crisis on Syria.
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Links for 06.28.09

MEI Editor's Blog: "She was a Splendid Beast": The Arabic Transliteration Problem | Michael Dunn on transliteration. I say, don't worry about it too much, spell it like it sounds even if that changes dialect to dialect, and use fuzzy query software for information retrieval. Arab world mourns Michael Jackson | There's a bizarre number of stories and blog posts about Michael Jackson's popularity in the Arab world. Yes of course he is popular in the Arab world. As if he wasn't popular everywhere. Perhaps his popularity is magnified in developing countries because he was one of few truly international artists (like Madonna). So what you say about Jackson in the Arab world is probably applicable to Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. World Bank approves Dead Sea canal plan: Israel | Linking Red and Dead seas and powering a desalinisation plan. I remember Egypt opposed this, but not sure why. Maybe it wants to be the only one with a canal. Supreme Iranian Leader | Angry Arabon Khameini:
If there is one area of the Iranian political-clerical system that is more at odds with the tradition of Shi`ite theology it is the position of Supreme Leader: or the Guardian Cleric, as the translation should be. In Shi`ite tradition, the Grand Ayatullahs are never appointed or officially designated: they simply rise by reputation, just like a village or rural physician. Khumayni (the mentor of Mr. Moussavi in Iran) reversed that by deciding to first appoint himself (on behalf of the missing 12th Imam), and then to appoint his own successor without regard to clercical seniority. Khamenei is not senior at all among the clerics, and his Ayatullah treatise was rushed AFTER his designation, when Khumayni reversed his decision to designate Mountazari. I would expect that part of the Iranian republic to be the weakest link.
How Arabic is Like Parseltongue | Harry Potter joke.
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Links for January 22nd

Automatically posted links for January 22nd:

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