This is a fine, fine thing for which to give thanks:
Books by Stephen Hawking, Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami and other star writers past and present have been chosen as the first works to be translated into Arabic, in a major initiative to widen access to foreign literature.
The Abu Dhabi-based project, Kalima (“word” in Arabic), aims to publish 100 books in its first year and 500 titles a year by 2010, it announced yesterday.
The first 100 are from 16 languages, including Greek, Japanese, Swedish, Czech, Russian, Chinese, Yiddish, Italian, Norwegian, Latin and ancient Greek. Half the candidate titles are English.
Four years ago the UN’s Arab human development report identified a lack of translated foreign works as an issue restricting Arab intellectual life. The UN report noted that Spain translates in one year the number of books that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years.
“The rest of the world enjoys a wealth of domestic and translated writing, why should the Arab world be any different?” Karim Nagy, Kalima’s Egyptian chief executive, said as the first titles were announced. “We can start putting Arabic readers back in touch with great works of world literature and academia, and begin filling the gaps in the Arabic library.”
The selection process is designed to strike a balance between different genres, juxtaposing the works of classic authors with contemporary writers. Academic, business and educational material is also being translated.
The organisers point out that in Europe’s “dark ages” and until the end of the first millennium Arab scholars and libraries led the world in producing and preserving knowledge in science, medicine, philosophy and the arts. Since then, however, very few foreign works have found their way into Arabic.
“In past centuries Arabic learning was a source of great riches for the western intellectual tradition,” said the British author Ian McEwan. “It is a cause for celebration that this major translation initiative is able to offer riches in return.”**
Other titles due out in Arabic this year are by Nadine Gordimer, Khaled Hosseini, Albert Camus, George Eliot, Albert Einstein, Jacques Lacan and Spinoza.
Muhammad al-Mazrouei, of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which is financing the translation and publishing project, said: “We want to give Arabic readers the opportunity to read and enjoy a breadth of quality writing from around the world in their mother tongue. Arabic is a beautifully expressive language, and one that should be more widely celebrated and valued.”
**Arabic learning? Well, Greek learning, Syriac translations, then creative Arabic learning. That process of acquisition of foreign knowledge all stopped a LONG time ago, as the article makes clear with the comparison with Spain. Arabic readers never seemed much interested in post-Hellenistic non-Arabic knowledge. One also wishes things were being translated into Arabic because of demand, rather than this supply-side approach. Of course, an English reader should talk about that problem of disinterest in other language traditions – we’re pretty poor at that. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that much of the best work available in English is “anything translated from a foreign language,” because so little makes it past the filter that almost all of it is good.
Further: I’m reminded by a comment to ask “Into what kind of Arabic will these be rendered?” I blogged about the interesting question of modern Arabic this summer.