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New Translation Project Brings Western Books to Arabic Readers

The estimated 250 million Arabic speakers in the world enjoy a growing number of news and entertainment media today. But this wealth of new information includes very little non-Arab literature. A UN study found that for every one million Arabs in the world, only one foreign language book is translated into Arabic each year. In a bid to ease this cultural drought, an initiative launched last month (11/21) by the government of the United Arab Emirates is funding the translation and distribution throughout the Arab world of both classic and contemporary works by English and foreign-language writers. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi has more.

The translation project is called, simply, Kalima, Arabic for word. The non-profit initiative by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage has a basic mission, according to executive director Karim Nagy. "Kalima was the recognition that it is time that someone takes a serious initiative to reduce the gap of knowledge and make more translated books available in the Arab world."

Nagy says the project is also a recognition that the majority of Arab readers prefer to read in their native language, and that there is a hunger among Arab readers for a wider variety of works of fiction and non-fiction than is currently available in Arabic. This deficit in translated literature, he says, stretches back a millenium.

"It has been quoted in several reports that in the last 1000 years, the number of books translated into Arabic is equal to what is translated into Spanish in a single year," says Nagy. He says no single reason can be pinpointed for that "shocking statistic."

Nagy focuses on the future, saying the objective of Kalima "is to contribute to reviving translation in the Arab world."

Kalima and its partner publishers have selected 100 titles in 16 languages as candidates for translation in the first year of the project. The list ranges from ancient Greek and Roman philosophies to classic Chinese poetry and seminal 20th century scientific writings. More than half were originally written in English.

Titles already translated include The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World by Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; the late economist Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom; British physicist Stephen Hawking's A Briefer History of Time; and Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco's The Sign.

Nagy believes translating books from the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, China and other countries into Arabic will help to bridge the gap between Arab and western cultures. "We hope that our title selection and our balanced approach to making knowledge from all over the world available to the Arab readers, would build a better understanding of different cultures and different forms of knowledge," he says.

Nagy recently visited the United States to promote the translation initiative. In Washington he met with officials at the Library of Congress, who have shared with Kalima their wealth of experience on translation projects. Dr. Mary Jane Deeb, the chief of the Library's Africa and Middle East Division, agrees that translating foreign books into Arabic is an excellent and powerful way to connect different cultures. Not only does it "[lead] to understanding on both sides of each other's culture and ideas," she says, "but it leads to new ideas, universal ideas and the creation of new works which are a product of this interchange of ideas."

Deeb says the translation initiative eventually will give tens of millions of Arabic speakers the opportunity to read and enjoy — for the first time in their mother tongue — some of the literary pillars of western culture. At a time when the world's attention seems fixed on the widening gulf between the Arab and western worlds, Deeb is confident the translation project can open new doors of understanding, and bring those worlds closer together.