What Arabia lost in translation
When the Muslim armies were on the move, defeating their enemies in battle and giving birth to a glorious and widespread empire, it was the translator who brought home the greatest prize. As warriors overran foreign cities, he entered the libraries of earlier civilisations and redrafted in Arabic the wisdom found there, allowing Islamic scholars to absorb the knowledge of thinkers who had gone before. His work laid the foundation for a golden age, strengthening the Islamic empire and making Arabic the global language of the time. In this medieval period, the activity of translation had two clear objectives: to enrich the Arab world with what the rest of the world had to offer; and to enrich the rest of the world with what the Arab world had to offer. Consequently, centres of learning and splendour, unrivalled in their time, were created in Baghdad in the east and in Cordoba in the west. Today this tradition of translation has faltered. Modern Arabic translation fails to fulfil either of those early objectives in any comprehensive way. For historical reasons, both colonial and postcolonial, there exist difficulties that are hard to reconcile. Today there is a lack of social awareness about the importance of translation, while trained and competent translators are few and far between. In addition there appears to be little political will to promote translation across the Arab world. Arabic translation receives neither the same attention nor encouragement as it does in Europe and America, nor does it enjoy the prestige bestowed upon its medieval ancestor. The reason appears to be that translation is viewed as having no independent identity. Rather it is assigned a secondary status within language departments and seen as auxiliary to allied curricula. There is very little documentation about training or the books translated. Available data show the meek state and status of Arabic translation. Shahada al Khouri reports in Translation: Past and Present (published in Arabic), for example, that between 1970 and 1980 the Arab states together translated only 2,840 books into Arabic. That such a small number of books should be translated over a decade for a population of some 200 million people demonstrates the low esteem in which the discipline is held. Furthermore, the great majority of these books were for university students and most, if not all, were reworked by university teachers not properly trained as translators but chosen because of their expertise in their field. Often this approach sacrifices quality for a quick return. University teachers and publishers profit because students are required to buy textbooks, but those who carry out the translations have little training, knowledge or appreciation of the discipline's ethics or its mission as a bridging activity between cultures and as a catalyst of progress. During Al-Mamoun's Caliphate (813-833), some 386 books on philosophy, mathematics and medicine were translated into Arabic. This was achieved despite the fact that acquisition of these books and the production of the translations were hugely laborious and time-consuming activities. One might wonder why some 22 Arab nations with all the advantages of modern technology at their disposal could only manage 2,840 translations between them. This compares with Spain, which translates some 10,000 books a year into Spanish, and Brazil, which translates the same number into Portuguese every four years or so. Translation, involving as it does processing, decision-making, problem-solving, and other creative activities, falls outside the mainstream practice of education in most Arab countries. The problems facing translation and the training of people to carry out the work cannot, therefore, be effectively resolved until the problems of education in general are addressed and clear policies for Arabicisation and the social realities of the Arab world are drawn up with sense and sensibility. What steps have been taken over the years to train translators are the results of ad hoc political decisions and the endeavours of well-intentioned individuals. But these measures have no pan-Arab ramifications. If the situation regarding general translation is poor, when it comes to children's literature it is absolutely dire. In the Arab world the translation of children's books is almost non-existent. Yasir Suleiman, a professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and a trustee of the Abu Dhabi International Prize for Arab Fiction, known as the Arab Booker, comments on translation for Arab children in Translation, Representation and Identity in Intercultural Translation (which I edited). He says: "Even the most basic information is lacking on which empirically to base research, including a list of translated works into Arabic which would provide the necessary data for describing existing selection practice, and whether this practice is accidental, or fits into a rational policy or set of coherent policies." Translation for Arab children, like its adult counterpart, urgently requires a clear pan-Arab decision to extend the diversification of sources, which are currently mostly English or French. Programmes are also required to train translators in the nuances of children's literature. One solution could be to establish a body, perhaps under the auspices of the Arab League, to oversee such translations. In general terms, modern Arabic translation suffers from serious ailments. For it to regain some state and status, the following points need to be addressed seriously and urgently: ? The state of education, in general, and of Arabic and foreign languages, in particular, needs to be overhauled. ? The social status of translation needs to be improved. ? A large-scale and sustained push to publish and distribute native and translated books needs to be undertaken. ? An organised, state-sponsored and pan-Arab co-ordinated translation movement needs to be launched that can "imitate" medieval Arabic translation. ? Truly competent-cum-expert translators need to be trained and an open "shopping list" of source texts drawn up that covers all areas of knowledge. ? Clear policies need to be established for translation as a project of national importance and pride. ? Collective efforts and clear strategies need to be devised to deal with and hopefully solve the problems of terminology as well as other issues relating to machine translation, translation memory and language engineering systems. ? A strategic plan should be drawn up for the choice of texts for translation and pan-Arab shared databases of translation activities. ? And, of course, the provision of generous funding needs to be forthcoming. The recently established translation organisations in the Gulf region, notably in the Emirates, are encouraging beacons for a renaissance of translation in the Arab world. Such organisations 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. The great cultural shifts of history have been made possible because of translation. Medieval Arabic translation is a clear case in point and today's Arab world needs to re-enact that movement. Translation as a socio-cultural enterprise cannot be left to ad hocness. It should rather be at the centre of priorities as it remains the sure means of benefiting from and being contributing partners to knowledge in a rapidly globalised world. Dr Said Faiq is a professor of Translation & Intercultural Studies at the American University of Sharjah. He is a Visiting Professor at Exeter University in Britain.
Updated: March 7, 2009 04:00 AM