Thursday, January 31, 2008

Words, but not translators

http://www.kalima.ae/eng.php

Not surprisingly, our team has been eyeing this from the moment of its inception. Not any longer.

We have slowly come to the conclusion that the project, as many other projects done with petro-dollars and in petro-culture, is overfunded and totally disorganized. The CEO is a sleek, young Egyptian. The money is Al Nahiyan's. One of my German friends asked me "Is this some kind of PR exercise to make us europeans feel that the ME is after all not backward and does have an intellectual side other than finding 1001 means of killing each other?".

If it is a PR stunt, then it is rather useless because making translated works available does not mean that they will be read. A far better PR stunt, and one that would have longterm positive consequences, is to have programs in place which encourage kids in the ME to read. The reading should be encouraged with appropriate incentives. This would at least create a generation of readers and thinkers.

Even if we do not mention the fact that Talal Assad and George Saliba wrote their originals in Arabic, some of the books on the Kalima list have been translated in Lebanon and Cairo many years ago (granted, before copyright law, but why not just purchase the copyright, then?) and almost ALL of them are of zilch interest to the Arab reader. Missing big time are books by women writers of Arab origins who wrote in languages other than Arabic - such as Ahdaf Suweif or Fadia Faqir, not to mention Mernissi, Yvonne Haddad, or Sabbagh. Actually, I can't see a single female writer on the list!! Missing also are vital books on Arabic culture/history etc. by such prominent writers as Ira Lapidus, Keppel, Fisk, Esposito, Tariq Ali, Zia Sardar, or even Tariq Ramadan. Missing also, very clearly, are any books on non-Arab, or non-Muslim, minorities in the ME: the Kurds, the Christians, and of course the Arab Jews.

When we look at the proposed titles, one can only marvel at the number of copies of Umberto Eco's The Sign that will sell in Arabic. It is a history of semiotics, very old by the standards of this fast-advancing world (1971) - that is Eco minus 36 years of knowledge, so why not translate his newer books on semiotics? Why not translate something more accessible to the masses? Who is this aimed at? Not me, who will read the English version. The same applies to such specialized titles as "In Search of Schrodinger's Cat" which is hellishly difficult to read unless you have a postgrad in physics, or SJ Gould's "Punctuated Equilibrium" out of the 20 very readable and delightful books he wrote, but which will not be translated because the guy is poetically Darwinian. Amazingly too, there are no books by Paul Davis - do I need to explain why :-D ? To make things even more obscure, in the same year Kalima will translate two books on Quantum Mechanics, one by Dirac and one by Heisenberg - is that because Quantum Mechanics is going to solve the problems of the Middle East, or because most of the guys that join Al-Qaeda are graduates of exact sciences, and we need to educate them more???

Then there is the first batch of "classics" - my God, I read the Aneid in Arabic in the 70s!! So why not translate, say, the history of Flavius Josephus? Why not Rabelais? Why not Augustine, or John Chrysostom? Because they are Christian Fathers? Well, then there is not need to translate Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" either. Or is Harold going to be censored? It would be interesting, as I have the book in original English, and guess what - he makes no mention of the debt owned by Europe to the Arab/Jewish centers of learning in Spain.

And what about censorship? As a Syrian colleague of mine wrote, "If our Mufti says that such and such book is Haram, and reading it is Kufr, how many people will actually be motivated to read it? And how many teachers will even dare to ask why is it Haram, how did it insult our religion? How many teachers will inspire their students to read and find out why? None I daresay. Most of us have been conditioned into fear and obedience; we do not even dare to question authority. Like many other people, I see that the emperor has no clothes, yet when I go home I toe the party line, and shrug my shoulders. Why shock the rest of these people when they are secure in their ignorance? I have no similar security to give them in return, once you start questioning, it does not end. You cannot go back to the comfortable cushion of blind conviction."

The fact is, as a 70-year old colleague from Egypt wrote is that there was a flurry of great translations in the 1960s in Cairo and Beirut, and as time passed by they diminished and were swept aside by an incredible amount of radical, unlearned and fundamentally unenlightened writing spawned by what another Egyptian translator called "The Imam who used to be a plumber in Saudi Arabia". Precisely the guys who are giving Arab culture a bad name (and breath). This led in turn to the atrophy of vocabulary in Arabic in humanities and social sciences, as well as more advanced natural sciences such as genetics, biotechnology, etc.

But there is blame on the West as well, who has been studiously refusing to translate the real thinkers of the Arab world, such as Hussain Murwah, Salama Musa, Dr. Louis Awad, and many others. Instead, it translate post-modernist drivel in literature or books that affirm its orientalist vision of the Arab as the "Other From Behind the Camel". Understanding goes both ways, mates.

So I came up with a few titles each that we would like to see translated, dividing them by subject like the Kalima list. Writing (and translating) are highly subversive activities, and I am highly subversive.. both the list of Kalima and mine can be obtained on request. Maybe some far-seeing politician (is there such a thing?)somewhere in the US or UK will be willing to sponsor a venture? Kalima refuses to engage translators and want to work through publishing houses - obviously they will be paid peanuts and so get monkeys to do the job. Good luck, ugh, ugh, ugh, Tarzan.

6 comments:

Deano said...

You may be interested to know that the latest novel by Fadia Faqir - My name is Salma - is being translated into Arabic (as well as many other languages)and should be available quite soon.

Linguanerd said...

That is very good news. I'd be interested to learn who is going to publish the book and who is translating the text.

Deano said...

The publisher will be Al-Saqi books and it will come out later this year.
Don't know the translator as yet.
I was impressed by the views on your blog.

Deano said...

The publisher will be Al-Saqi and it will come out later this year. I don't know as yet who the translator will be. I was impressed by the views in your blog.

Deano said...

The publisher will be Al-Saqi books and it will come out later this year.
Don't know the translator as yet.
I was impressed by the views on your blog.

Linguanerd said...

Thank you for your kind words. I welcome discussions, so feel free to post here anytime you want.

If I may ask.. what is your involvement in language/translation/literature?