From one word to another
Is translation put to its best use in the Arab world? Ahmed Abu Ghazala attends a symposium that suggests language could go further in bridging cultural gaps
Ever since our remote ancestors began to travel and trade the breadth of the known world, translation and education have gone hand in hand. However Richard Jacquemond, professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Aix-Marseille in France and a translator who has worked in Egypt since the 1980s, says this correlation is currently showing signs of collapse.
Jacquemond believes that while the translation business is flourishing in the Arab World, general performances in education is continuing to decline.
Jacquemond's presentation was one among several various topics discussed in a recent symposium attended by some 100 Egyptian and foreign translators and others involved in the business.
Jacquemond spoke of his experience of working in translating Arabic and French books. "The most interesting thing I have learnt is that there are two different worlds," Jacquemond said. "Things change completely when you work on translating a French book from working on translating an Arabic one." He added that the criteria for choosing books to translate varied and the linguistic, political, and economic dimensions were different.
The conference, held by the Centre for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, discussed the broad role of translation in the Arab world according to the policies and practices adopted since the 1950s.
Jacquemond refuted the existence of censorship in the Arab World translation business. He said that the translator chose what to translate, and the market decided what books it needed. He added that the translators' knowledge of the cultural, political, and economic aspects of the society of the original book was important in delivering this background to the Arab reader.
He rebutted the 2003 Arab Human Development Report which projected Arabic translations as weak, and described the report as "based on antiquated and incomplete data." He explained that up to now more than 30,000 books had been translated.
There are two branches of translation in the Arab World, the foreign and Arabic programmes. According to Jacquemond, translation in the Arab World got off to a vigorous start in the 1950s as an effort to encourage reading and education. There are two different approaches to this process: a humanistic one through translating the global masterpieces of literature; and a developmental approach that seeks to transmit the latest scientific knowledge. The latter approach involves modernising the Arabic language.
The most powerful foreign translation programmes are the American, which established a regional office in 1953; the Soviet programme, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the French, which is supported by the French Ministry of Culture and began in the mid-1980s.
Foreign translation programmes consistently yield good results, but on the other hand Arabic programmes vary in efficiency. Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have had powerful programmes. The Gulf nations have exerted a good deal of effort, especially Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, where strides taken in 1970s and 1980s were unfortunately set back by involvement in multiple wars. Western Arab countries have jumped on the bandwagon more recently. Algeria translated some 100 books as part of the Algiers' festival as the Arab Capital of Culture in 2007 -- 2008.
Jacquemond stressed, however, that translation had lately expanded in the Arab world. He reminded his audience that in the 1980s few Egyptian libraries contained translated works , but now most libraries held several shelves of books translated from foreign languages.
Nevertheless, education levels were declining in many parts of the Arab World. Jacquemond said there was a major problem in translating sciences. "There is apathy in the educational policies promoting educational skills in society," he said. "This deepens the division between those who have the language and learn these sciences, and those who only know Arabic. I think it is a political problem, not a cultural or social one." He gave the example of Syria, which translates the sciences into Arabic and teaches science subjects in its schools.
Weak education leads to other complications. Jacquemond blamed low educational levels on the poor readability of translated books. The standard of translated books should not be very different from the original, he said.
Although the main target of the symposium was to discuss the general policies and practices of translation programmes in the Arab World, those attending preferred to ask technical questions such as the use of English and French as intermediary languages for translating other languages.
"The Arab World has long concentrated on English and French works because of their long history of occupation in the region," Jacquemond said. He added that translations through other languages such as German and Russian were becoming more common, but such translations were limited by the translators' capabilities. As a consequence of the popularity of Persian studies in the region, translations of works in Farsi were flourishing, but translations from Turkish were still unsatisfactory.
Jacquemond sees the scope of colloquial language in translation as very limiting. "Colloquial is satisfactory when you are composing certain kinds of literature that reflect your society, but it is difficult when you are translating works that reflect another society," he said.
However, he would like to see the hard-line restrictions of standard Arabic crapped, and added: "Translation usually wipes the linguistic and cultural dimensions off the original works, which is a great loss."
He ascribed the poor distribution of translated books in some Arab nations to technical causes. "Syria has had a very powerful programme since the 1960s and has published some 1,400 books, but they have not been popular because of the limited distribution programme adopted by the Ministry of Culture," he said.