Despite constant efforts by Arabic publishing houses to translate foreign novels into Arabic, the Arab world is still way behind other countries in this field.
Figures show that the share of translated books per capita in our Arab world is among the lowest globally, with one book for every one million Arabic one per year, compared to other smaller countries, such as Hungary with 519 books, and Spain with 920 books.
However, Arabic publishing houses show a great interest in translated works, mostly literary novels for many reasons, according to the owner of a prominent publishing house in Saudi Arabia. He said: “Dealing with foreign sources is much easier than dealing with local authors (Arabs),” which he attributed to “the professional and easy style of foreign authors.” The publisher here wasn’t referring to the costs or profits that are usually cited as reasons pushing Arabic publishers towards foreign books.
The publisher called on local authors to work with a literary agent who would represent them, introduce their works to publishers, mediate between them and publishing houses, and introduce their works to cinema producers. This connection would provide the authors with a formal mean that protects their rights, protects their interests during the publishing process, and contributes to a more professional publishing industry in the Kingdom. The publishing industry should include all those working in creative professions and content creation, such as writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, distributors, sellers, which could save much time and effort.
The Gulf region has seen many translation initiatives that have provided hundreds of books annually, through Jarir and Obeikan bookstores in Saudi Arabia, and the Kalima Project launched by the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi. The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation (MBRF) launched the project Tarjim in 2007 aimed at supporting and boosting translation efforts in the Arab world, and publishing 1,000 translated books.
In Kuwait, the Abdulaziz Saud Albabtain Cultural Foundation opened the Al-Babtain Translation Center; Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Public Library also launched an international award for translation, and the King Saud University has its own national translation center, in addition to the Global Arabic Encyclopedia project involving around 1,000 researchers, writers, translators, artists, consultants, and Arabic foundations, as well as 3,000 researchers and writers who wrote in English and have their works translated into Arabic. The Encyclopedia was published in 1996, comprising 30 volumes and 17,000 pages.
According to the Saudi Observatory on Translated Publications, 4,700 books have been translated from English into Arabic in the Kingdom between 1995 and 2015. The three top sources with the most translated works are: Jarir Bookstore (41 percent), Obeikan Bookstore (15 percent), and King Saud University (11 percent).
Abdul Wahab Abu Zaid, Saudi poet and translator, says “contrary to all assumptions and expectations, the new generation didn’t abandon reading. We have noticed a remarkable turnout (it could be described as significant) on new books, bookstores, and the growing number of books selling platforms competing to lure the largest number of readers.”
“The new generation is passionate about reading, and remarkably favors translated books in all fields, mostly those related to thought and philosophy, as well as novels to explore foreign literature and cultures. This passion is comparable to the youth thirst for modern cinema,” he believes.
However, this interest in foreign literature has pushed publishing houses to dumping markets with mediocre or even bad translations, or reprinting old translations, so publishers can acquire the largest share of the translated books market.