Lost without translation
For $12,000 a book, few works are translated into Arabic and Kurdish
SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ - Hundreds of books lie on the sidewalk in Suleimaniya's central square, a city in Iraq's Kurdistan Region. As in many other Middle Eastern cities, sidewalks substitute for bookstores and the crowd is free to gaze at the colorful bindings and leaf through the text, unencumbered by swift interference from a peddler who rises to shove them aside. Most of the books are written in Kurdish - only a few are in Persian.
"Novels do well," says the merchant, as he lifts several titles from the pile. "So do sex books.
"Everything is translated. We still don't have authors for this sort of literature. Here's Homer's, 'Iliad,'" he said. "We have a book about Freud, too."
Few shoppers examine the books during the relatively cool morning. Newsstands are more popular. They draw a young crowd anxious to learn what occurred in the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq in the last day.
"We lack books in university, as well. All that is left is remnants from Saddam's period," says the director of the culture center that adjoins Salah a-Din University, in Arbil, the region's capital city.
Foreign language books are tough to find in Suleimaniya's large public library. A single copy of Yehezkel Kujman's "Hebrew-Arab Dictionary," published in 1970, rests on the shelf next to other dictionaries, but the librarian does not know if anyone is learning Hebrew or how long the dictionary has been in the library.
"We study from lectures here. Only a few students bother to read reference books." Several students passed through the hall next to the library, reciting material from hand-written notes in preparation for final exams. A group of 20 students I met with said they would love to study abroad but lack the funds to travel.
"They also lack the English to study abroad," added one professor.
Their command of Arabic is limited also. Arabic has become a loathsome symbol of Saddam's regime. Moreover, without significant assistance from foreign institutions, it may take years before newly written books, in Kurdish, appear in libraries and universities in Kurdistan. The situation does not merely derive from a lack of funds but from a lack of professional personnel who can competently translate foreign literature or academic texts into the local tongue.
But Kurdistan may take solace in the fact that circumstances are no better in other Arab nations. Only 1,000 books were translated in Egypt during the last 10 years, and, according to 2002 U.N. statistics. Only 330 books a year are translated in Arab nations, a fifth of the number translated in Greece alone.
Four months ago, Dr. Jaber Asfour was appointed director of the National Center for Translation in Egypt - an institution which achieved independent status, thanks to the intervention of President Hosni Mubarak. In newspaper interviews, Dr. Asfour expressed his hopes to facilitate translation of 1,000 books each year in Egypt. That goal was quickly slashed in half due to funding, but the remaining sum is also unrealistic. The annual budget of the National Center for Translation is $5 million, a sum sufficient to maintain offices, pay workers and print limited editions, according to Asfour. Translation alone costs about $12,000 per book and Asfour requires at least $12 million to fund his goals.
The problem is not limited to fiscal considerations - it also involves quality of translation. Syria is a nation lauded for superb translators, employed by many publishers not only because of their skill but because of the meager payment they exact: $400-600 per book. It is hard to find Egyptian translators who would agree to work for such sums.
Publishers also claim they cannot pay translators more because of the minimal numbers of books that they sell. For example, an Arabic translation of "My Name is Red," by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk sold only 2,000 copies in Syria, as opposed to 70,000 copies in South Korea. Translated plays and poetry books are rare because of the limited number of readers.
It appears that in Arab nations, as in Kurdistan, pornography, software and self-help are the only genres that will continue to occupy translators.