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Why Arabic must be brought to book

Scholars say more works, especially scientific and academic literature, urgently need to be translated into Arabic.

ABU DHABI // Scholars say more works, especially scientific and academic literature, urgently need to be translated into Arabic to ensure the relevancy and survival of the language and culture. With schoolchildren and students increasingly using English rather than their mother tongue, the federal Government and NGOs in various emirates have launched initiatives to promote Arabic as an integral part of the national identity.

But several academics said that if the Arab world was to make real progress it needed more - and better - translation and translators and the involvement of high office holders.They have also urged the creation of a national body to oversee translation and implement translation programmes. Prof Ahmed Ankit, the vice president of external relations and cultural affairs at Ajman University, said giving people the chance to read in their own language was essential for progress in the global village.

"Translating books, journals and other vehicles of information is indispensable for the wide dissemination of knowledge," he said. "The need for translation in the Arab world is now more urgent than ever. To keep up with the ever increasing scientific progress, which is largely made in the West, the Arab countries are required to promote translation and support learning foreign languages." But translation in the Arab world was declining in both quality and quantity, he said, because of a lack of funding for professional training.

Dr Ankit's argument is bolstered by figures from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showing that European countries translate many more books every year than Arab ones. Spain, for instance, translates in one year about the same number of books that have been translated into Arabic over the past thousand years. Greece, with a population of 11 million, translates five times more books annually than the whole Arab world, which has a population of more than 300 million.

However, Dr Ankit believes GCC countries currently have a golden opportunity to lead the way to the revival of translation "thanks to favourable political will and financial resources". Dr Aboudi Hassan, a professor of translation at Ajman University and the American University of Sharjah, said two factors were contributing to the problem of too little translation: people reading less; and a lack of specialised professionals in the field.

"People no longer have enough time to spend on reading, therefore the so-called industry of book translating is not profitable. "In other societies, book writing and translating are flourishing industries. This is because there is a large sector of the society in those countries still interested in reading and discovering," he said. Translators need have a sophisticated understanding of the language - and culture - they are working with, added Dr Hassan Mustapha, a social sciences professor at Alhosn University in the capital.

"One problem in the field is lack of extended grounding in the art and techniques of translation. There is also some confusion in the perception of commercial day-to-day translation as something similar to the hard graft required for serious goal-directed translation. "And there is the question of sponsoring translation and translators. At the moment we have a few bodies that take on such a responsibility."

The problem, he admitted, could require a real effort: "We should translate what is useful in practice as well as in theory, all at appropriate levels and for different age groups. All that must be carried out according to a plan and a vision and be part of a general and declared will to guide and lead and enlighten." Dr Said Faiq, a professor of translation and cultural studies at the American University of Sharjah, said translation in the Arab world today was an "ad hoc activity".

"Translation in the Arab world remains largely an individual task with no clear national or pan-Arab criteria for the choice of works for translation, the setting up of competent agencies or monitoring bodies to follow up translation activity and translations." But he added: "The recently established translation agencies in the Gulf region, particularly the UAE, are good beacons for a renaissance of translation in the Arab world.

"Such agencies should be encouraged and copied in other Arab countries with a view to establishing networks of translation that can be linked together for the benefits of the Arab world." In the UAE, two major projects have been launched to promote translation into and from Arabic. The Tarjem programme is aiming to translate key cultural works to foster understanding, such as Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

Kalima, an initiative of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, funds the translation and distribution of classic and contemporary writing from other languages into Arabic. It recently rendered both Jurgen Habermas's The Future of Human Nature and Stephen Hawkin's A Briefer History of Time into Arabic, for instance. hhassan@thenational.ae

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