A translation project sponsored by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities is winding down after contributing 50 new titles to the store of knowledge translated from English, French and Italian into Arabic.
The “Knowledge Transfer Project” was launched in mid-2014 with the aim of transferring knowledge to the kingdom and to the Arab world through accurate and faithful translations that would provide reliable references for scholars, students and readers, and at the same time contribute to the development of the Arabic language and its terminology.
“We sought, through the project, to contribute to the exchange of knowledge experiences, especially among young Arab and European researchers, in the fields of social sciences and the arts, to promote intercultural dialogue through translation, said Elsy Nassif, the project’s executive director.
The Bahrain project is not the only initiative in the region seeking to advance the transfer and sharing of knowledge in Arabic. Other efforts in the Gulf include the Translation Grant Fund of the Sharjah Book Authority, the Abu Dhabi International Translation Conference, the Kalima Project of the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi, and Dar Rewayat, a publishing company specialized in publishing novels both in Arabic and in translation.
Elsewhere, the Iraqi Translation Project is working to increase the number of academic articles in Arabic available online. (See a related article, “An Online Movement Translates Academic Articles Into Arabic.”)
Raising Awareness of the Need for Translation
The 50 titles chosen for the Bahrain project were based on proposals of an Arab-European advisory committee, across five topics: rational thinking, social sciences, artistic creativity, discourse analysis and communication theories. The books were issued in 2,000 copies each and distributed in all Arab countries, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Although the first editions of many of these translations have run out, the project will not be renewed, especially in light of the financial pressures imposed by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the publishing process will end early next year. (See a related article, “Arab Publishers Take a Hit From the Covid-19 Crisis.”)
“Alone, we cannot fill the severe general knowledge and translation deficiency the Arab world suffers from,” said Nassif. “However, we have worked hard to contribute to raising awareness of the Arab need for translation.”
She explained that the project worked on building an advanced model for carrying out translation through a large work team that included translators, reviewers and editors.
“Alone, we cannot fill the severe general knowledge and translation deficiency the Arab world suffers from, However, we have worked hard to contribute to raising awareness of the Arab need for translation.”Elsy Nassif
Executive director of the Knowledge Transfer Project
The project focused on what stimulates objective and rational thinking about intellectual issues, historical and social phenomena, and what helps to understand and appreciate the arts. The list of translated books included important reference works such as The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which was first published in 1950 and is now in its sixteenth edition.
Hungry Market, Growing Challenges
Despite the fact that Arabic is one of the six languages accredited by the United Nations, which attests to its importance and spread, translation to and from Arabic is still relatively weak. A 2018 report titled “Current Data on Translation Movements in the Euro-Mediterranean Region,” by Transeuropéennes and the Anna Lindh Foundation, points to a general lack of translation and a wide disparity between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean.
Figures in the report indicate that English and French are the dominant languages of books translated to Arabic, and that the total number of books translated to Arabic between 1985 and 2010 came to about 35,000. These accounted for about 6 percent of all books issued in the Arab world.
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On the other hand, only about one of every 1,000 books published in Arabic between 1985 and 2010 was translated to a European language, the report found. Books translated to French represented a total of 1,065 books. The numbers were much lower for translations to Spanish and Italian, and lowest for the languages of Central and Eastern European countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Bosnia and Herzogovina.
The report attributes this to “cultural, political and social relations between dominant and dependent languages.”
Youssef Seddik, a Tunisian translator who participated in the Knowledge Transfer Project, says the reasons behind the weakness of the translation movement to and from Arabic include “subjective reasons” related to the translators themselves, such as linguistic knowledge and level of mastery, as well as considerations related to “the conditions of the Classical Arabic today in the region and the world.” These are “far from being good, in terms of collection, communication, writing and translation,” he said.
“Getting the translator to receive the moral and material appreciation he deserves allows him to turn into a scholar, rather than a mere carrier of knowledge, adding to the translation what helps the reader better understand the tex.”Randa Baath
A Syrian translator
Nassif, for her part, noted a lack of official support for translation projects at private and government publishing houses, in addition to a shortage of translators and schools that specialize in translation.
“We need to unite efforts and inject more financial support to improve the state of Arabic and develop its dictionaries in line with the tremendous changes we are experiencing today,” she said. Translation in the Arab world cannot keep up with the varied and accelerating volume of knowledge without institutional and political support, she said. Unfortunately, she added, this “seems unlikely.”
Rewards for Readers and Translators
Randa Baath, a Syrian translator who also participated in the Knowledge Transfer Project, believes that having translation projects funded by government institutions and scientific bodies would expand the range of translated books beyond those preferred by private publishing houses, which in turn would offer greater cognitive repertoire to the Arab reader.
Translators would also benefit, said Baath, who holds a master’s degree in translation from Damascus University and a diploma in translation studies from Lyon II University. The lack of material return, she said, now forms the most important obstacle in the face of Arab interpreters, who are forced to accept low pay and time contraints imposed by publishers.
“Getting the translator to receive the moral and material appreciation he deserves allows him to turn into a scholar, rather than a mere carrier of knowledge, adding to the translation what helps the reader better understand the text,” she said.
Baath noted that her own experience with the Knowledge Transfer Project was a rewarding one.
“Perhaps the most important thing that my contribution to the Knowledge Transfer Project has added is to provide the Arab reader with translations of valuable books that combine knowledge with pleasure,” she said, “Especially since I choose from what is presented to me, so that I only translated what I think it adds qualitatively to the Arab library.” (See a related article, “Resource List: Arabic Literature and Translation.”)
Nassif added that while she considered the project a tremendous success, much remains to be done to improve the status of translation in the region. “All we wish,” she said, “is that efforts will continue to transfer and share knowledge.”