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.
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.
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).
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.
Automatically posted links for January 22nd:
- Defusing the Gaza Time Bomb - Rob Malley op-ed on Gaza
- L'Iran soupçonné de traficde matière radioactive - Uzbek catch shipment of Cesium 137 on train, Iran suspected
- THE ANNAPOLIS OPENING HAS CLOSED - Former Israel negotiator with Syria explains why another opportunity for new peace track has gone
- BibliOdyssey: Arabic Machine Manuscript - Beautiful images of ancient books on science
- La base de l?Africom sera installée au Maroc - Algeria's Liberte says AFRICOM base will be in southern Morocco
- Internal Memo Takes on Obama?s Approach to Middle East - Jewish organizations uneasy about Obama?
- Guys, I'm afraid we haven't got a clue ... - The first of three extracts from Jonathan Steele's new book on how Britain went to war in Iraq utterly unprepared
- ei: Where does it end? - Abunimah on the siege of Gaza