Translating books into Arabic

Bloomberg News

While Abu Dhabi pours $27 billion into building five museums, including a Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry and a Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel, another planned project will help expand Arabic libraries.

As part of efforts to transform the emirate into the cultural lodestone of the Middle East, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, or Adach, has chosen 100 books to be translated into Arabic.

Among them are Alan Greenspan’s memoir, “The Age of Turbulence,” John Maynard Keynes’ “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” and Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.” The goal is to translate 100 titles every year.

Adach has formed a nonprofit organization called Kalima (Arabic for “word”) to undertake the translations and expand Arabic-language publishing in the United Arab Emirates.


About 10,000 books have been translated into Arabic in the past millennium, according to a 2003 study by the U.N. Development Program.

The demand has been small, partly owing to the historical tendency to focus most reading on religious texts and classical poetry. About 300 new translations appear each year, so Kalima’s further 100 titles represents a substantial addition.

Kalima will buy rights, pay translators and enlist established Arabic-language publishers in the Persian Gulf region and North Africa to print and distribute the books.

Karim Nagy, Kalima’s chief executive, acknowledges the hurdles. The Arabic-speaking world comprises about 300 million people in more than 20 countries. Censorship laws vary, and often there is no strong bookselling community or distribution channel.


“First, we will worry about getting the books translated,” Nagy says. “Then we will work to optimize their distribution.”

The typical print run for a book in the Arab world is often no more than 2,000 copies; Kalima plans to fund a minimum of 5,000 copies for each of its titles, with some earmarked for donation to schools and libraries.

Jumaa Abdulla Alqubaisi, director of the Abu Dhabi National Library and an adviser to Kalima, suggests that ultimately the project is as pragmatic as it is idealistic.

“Good books are like penicillin,” he says. “They fight against hate, segregation and misunderstanding.”


Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts -- which itself is funding translations from Arabic into English -- agrees that such a project is “political in the best sense of the word. A great novel or poem from another culture allows you to look into the common humanity of people you might have otherwise thought foreign. The important thing is that we broaden these literary and human exchanges.”

The first 100 titles draw from history, science and fiction; Kalima is still securing the rights to most of them. More than half are originally in English, with 26 coming from the U.S. Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the origins of al-Qaeda, “The Looming Tower,” and Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel “The Kite Runner” made the list, as did a variety of classics -- Milton’s “Paradise Regained” is one.

There are some eccentric choices, including Michael Lewis’ 2006 book “The Blind Side,” about a family that adopts a homeless African American football player, and Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 cult novel “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

A number of works by Jewish writers are on the list, including Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Collected Stories.” Abu Dhabi has been pursuing other literary projects too. Last year Adach formed a partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair to promote publishing and reading in the U.A.E. and the Arab world in general. The joint venture, officially announced this month, has been named Kitab (Arabic for “the book”).


Kitab’s stated mission is “professionalizing publishing” in the region, in part by establishing a kind of safe haven for Arabic-language publishing houses in Abu Dhabi and developing a distribution system for books to reach stores and libraries.

The partnership’s first project was to transform the annual Abu Dhabi Book Fair. This year the fair moved from a dusty public square into the city’s shiny new National Exhibition Center and morphed from a book bazaar for shoppers into a trade show for publishing professionals.

In addition, it featured the first winners of the inaugural Sheikh Zayed Book Awards. Named for the late founder of the U.A.E., the awards in nine categories provided 7 million dirham ($1.9 million) to otherwise cash-strapped Arabic-language publishers and authors.

Translation was already a priority, with the prize for Personality of the Year, worth 1 million dirham ($272,230), going to Denys Johnson-Davis, a highly regarded Arabic-to-English translator.