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Egyptian Translation Center’s New Guidelines Could Stifle Freedom of Thought

CAIRO—A translation house affiliated with the Egyptian government has set off new fears about freedom of thought and expression in Egypt by setting strict new guidelines for the books it will accept for translation into Arabic.

The National Center for Translation, a nonprofit state-run organization, announced the new conditions last month, stating that books proposed for translation “should not oppose religion, social values, morals and customs.”

The guidelines apply only to what the center itself will accept for translation, but they are expected to have a broader effect, both in the number and scope of translated books and in the decisions of private, for-profit publishers.

The new guidelines come as a result of “the center’s getting proposals to translate books that insult religious symbols and institutions,” as well as works “that promote homosexuality, perversion and atheism,” the center said in a statement that was posted on its Facebook page but later removed.

The center announced numerous other conditions on works it will accept for translation. Among them: Books must be recent publications no more than five years old, must be translated from the original language and not from an intermediate language, and must range from 60 to 500 pages in length, though heritage books, encyclopedias or dictionaries may be excluded from this condition.

The center said it created the guidelines with the aim of “presenting what is new and urging the proposers to follow the cultural scene and select valuable works.” 

Removing the statement from Facebook does not represent a reversal of the new guidelines, said Engy Al-Anwar, a media official at the National Center for Translation, who explained in a phone call that the post was deleted because of the many critical comments it drew and out of “decency” to followers of the center’s page.

Al-Anwar described the criticism as a “strange and unjustified attack.” 

The head of the center declined to comment beyond what the statement said.

Created for Sharing Knowledge 

The National Center for Translation was established in 2006 as a nonprofit government agency whose aim is to open windows for Arabic readers to knowledge in all languages and cultures, and to fill the knowledge gaps. Within years, it became one of the most famous translation houses in the Arab world due to the diversity of translations it provides, in terms of topics and languages it translated from. 

During the last session of Cairo’s Book Fair at the beginning of this year, the center presented 600 translated titles for the first time at a discount of 70 percent for all purchasers, in addition to the 50 percent discount it offers throughout the year for students, teachers, researchers, police officers, military personnel and media professionals. 

“False pretexts, false claims, and moral pronouncements should not be a wall that blocks any ideas that some believe are not appropriate for our culture.”

Gaber Asfour  
A former minister of culture and founder of the National Center for Translation

Many people in Egyptian cultural circles and the translation sector now worry that the center’s new guidelines do not support the development of cultural mobility and the spread of knowledge, and also interfere with freedom of thought and choice.

In a phone call, Gaber Asfour, a former minister of culture and founder of the National Center for Translation, said the center’s new conditions are “words non-worthy to respond to.” 

He stressed that the main goal of establishing the center was to place Egyptian readers and Arabs in general among the global knowledge community, and to give them the freedom to choose what they read.

The center could reinforce that freedom of choice while also protecting itself, according to Asfour, by acknowledging that the opinions expressed in translated books reflect the author’s point of view, not those of the center or the translator. 

Blocking Ideas Deemed Inappropriate

Asfour believes in the importance of interacting with all ideas in the world’s culture without controls. “False pretexts, false claims, and moral pronouncements should not be a wall that blocks any ideas that some believe are not appropriate for our culture,” he said. 

Mohammed al-Baali, director of Sefsafa Publishing House and one of the collaborators with the National Center in previous projects, voiced similar concerns. The main objective of establishing the National Center for Translation, he said, was to translate “books from all genres of sciences, especially those that private publishing houses cannot translate for economic reasons.”

He stressed that choosing a book is linked to its importance in the cultural context in which it was issued, and the importance of examining it in the Arab culture. This cannot be applied under guidelines that define what is permissible and what is not permissible, he said.

“The new guidelines will limit, for example, the translation of deep philosophical books dealing with complex human issues, some of which we like to discuss and others we do not,” al-Baali said.  “The translator has no right to interfere in the text he works on at the pretext that it conflicts with the values and morals of the society to which it is transmitted,” he added, explaining that translators need to leave aside their personal, religious and societal convictions while working.

The restrictions at the National Center for Translation started becoming apparent four years ago, after it translated a book issued by a French publishing house titled Al-Tahrir’s Egypt: The Birth of the Revolution, with a preface by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany. Later, a decision was made to stop the book’s sale, according to a source from the center, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The translator has no right to interfere in the text he works on at the pretext that it conflicts with the values and morals of the society to which it is transmitted.”

Mohammed al-Baali  
Director of Sefsafa Publishing House

The source said that a TV presenter had attacked the book as a “threat to national security,” which caused sharp criticism of the center and resulted in the ouster of a former director. 

In addition, self-censorship by those in charge of the center has increased in all book choices, even those far from political writings, the source said.

Alternative Spaces for Translation

The past five years have witnessed individual initiatives launched by young translators to create translation platforms that are not subject to government agencies’ restrictions or the standards of private publishing houses seeking profit.

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Amir Zaki, a young Egyptian translator, is one of them. He and a colleague launched the Boring Books blog in the second half of 2018, to translate and talk about texts and books “full of knowledge and fun.” The idea was to give readers an option to Arabic online content that he says has become too limited, often with the excuse that it’s what readers ask. 

Zaki, the winner of the fifth edition of the Rifa’a Al-Tahtawi Award for Translation’s youth category, which the National Center for Translation announces annually, believes it is a serious matter for the center to move from informal, internal guidelines to an official decision that its management brags about as being a way to “protect against immorality.”

At the same time, he says, limiting the number of translated books will lead to lost opportunities to translate many important books that private publishers cannot take up for economic reasons.

“We need laws that support the translation and publishing movement in a way that supports the cultural movement in the region instead of imposing restrictions on moral pretexts that plunge us into useless discussions,” Zaki added. 

Zaki began his initiative as a personal blog in 2010, publishing translated texts and reviews of books, before redesigning it as a new website with the participation of another colleague in 2018. The website expanded its scope by publishing translated texts and intellectual articles from people interested in translation issues, setting some standards and conditions for the published materials, and publishing on a daily basis.

“The financial problem remains the biggest obstacle to the continuation of the website, because most of us are volunteers,” said Zaki. The site depends on contributions, he said, and organizers have spent their own money on technical matters.

However, a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) helped Zaki and his colleague to develop the website’s technical capacities, and to publish texts as recorded material on the SoundCloud. The most important feature of the grant, he said, is that it does not set conditions related to the website’s content.

Readings by Ahmed Shafei is another blog that attempts to offer translations away from the influence of official institutions. Launched by the poet, novelist and translator Ahmed Al-Shafei in November 2007, it has gained momentum in recent years, due to the diversity of texts it publishes.

Al-Shafei, who has translated more than 20 books, views his blog as a personal space that archives many of his translations and makes them available for reading, as he publishes excerpts of writing he deems important, beautiful or interesting from his translations.

Still, Al-Shafei believes that this blog and others like it are no substitute for the enriching role that official institutions can play in spreading culture and knowledge through translation. 

“Translation is to read others, is to search for the new, the different and the shocking,” he said. “It is to introduce other voices; it is the start of an argument.” 

“So, if we turn it into translating what is consistent with our convictions, ideas and vision of the world, then what will be translated—if anything—is of less importance.”


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