Publishers admit that Arabic readers favor translated books. Every publisher has his own explanation of this phenomenon and the reasons behind it, but they all agree it’s not healthy. According to Rana Idris, owner of Dar Al Adab Publishing, people in the Gulf region are the top buyers of translated books, followed by Egyptians, Maghrebis, and Iraqis.
Waiting for a change of taste, publishers have nothing to do but fulfill the readers’ desire by providing the best-translated publications, especially that selling translated books is the only means to keep the Arabic book alive today.
“We are preparing to publish nine new Arabic novels with losses that we cannot compensate for without selling translated novels, which are costly compared to Arabic books because we have to pay for copyrights and translation,” says Rana Idris.
It's not true that translated books are published without copyrights. “This happened in the past, but the situation has changed today,” says Hassan Yaghi, founder of Dar Al Tanweer Publishing, Beirut. “The chaos in this field is gone, and the market is now controlled. We face a lot of pressure, as publishing houses are forced to buy copyrights of foreign books for the sake of the book and the publishing process. This helps prevent chaos, and the spread of bad translations we used to see,” he adds.
“Copyrights of foreign books don’t cost the same; some cost $1,000 or $2,000, and some can cost up to $10,000. Some books are regular, some are highly demanded, and others are popular, best sellers, and competitive. Therefore, a publisher must pay to publish them; we are in a global market, and it’s better for the publisher not to steal copyrights because this could affect the writing process. Writers work for years to compose books, then someone comes and steal their efforts. This is a major reason behind the recession in this field,” Yaghi explains.
Publishing companies deal with different countries and regulators, and each have its own rules and work system. Rana Idris, who publishes novels translated from several languages, says the transfer is very costly.
“When I get an important new title, I pay $15,000-$20,000 in advance, and around $5,000 prepayment for the translator, in addition to the costs of editing, rereading, and review. Let’s say I got the copyrights to translate a novel by Murakami, I should pay $10,000-$15,000 to the publishing house, and another sum to the translator, in addition to the costs of editing, printing, and cover design…” she said.
For his part, Bassam Chebaro, owner of the Arabic Scientific Publishers, notes that some countries motivate the translation of books written in their languages, and pay for publishing houses for this purpose, which facilitates the mission of publishers and helps them save some costs.
Turkish, Russian, and Korean governments, for example, contribute to the translation costs of their publications. Relying on the sales, according to Chebaro, is useless because they are worthless and insufficient. “I worked in this field for 35 years. We used to print 5,000 copies of the book as a trial. However, today, we try with 1,000 copies, and some houses print only 500. Over 350,000 million people live in the Arab world, but we can’t print more than that, and sometimes these few prints remain unsold. Because of videos, mobile devices, and social media, our Arab people have abandoned reading and books, and the publishing industry is suffering,” he says.
Does the high demand for translated books in the Arabic market mean that the Arabic novel has degraded, and has been replaced with translated novels?
“The Arabic novel didn’t degrade, because it didn't advance in the first place. It has never reached an important level, and never been represented by names who can compete globally,” Yaghi said.
“Writing in the Arab world has remarkably weakened especially in the intellectual field since the works of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Abdallah Laroui, and Mohammed Arkoun. The academic level has degraded, so did education in general, as well as scientific productivity. The mood of the readers has changed, they don’t favor the complex, intellectual books anymore, and prefer the easy, light philosophic books and entertaining novels,” he added.
But the publishers’ numbers are concerning. In the Arabic Scientific Publishers, over half of the published books are translated. “The house publishes over 6,000 books, half of them translated from foreign languages,” says Chebaro.
In Dar Al Adab, 65 percent of the novels published annually are translated, while only 35 percent publications are Arabic. In 2010, the numbers were reversed, Arab readers favored the Arabic novel at the time. However, the demand changed gradually, and the situation has been stable since 2017.
“I often take advantage of selling translated novels during bookfairs to remind the readers of great Arabic novels that are worth their attention. For example I tell the reader: Why don’t you read a book by this writer, her writing style is similar to Isabel Allende’s, or she discusses topics similar to those tackled by Elif Şafak,” Idris says.
The situation in Dar Al Tanweer is more significant, as 70 percent of its annual publications are translated. It’s a concerning number indeed. Does this mean that the Arabic book has become extinct, or about to?
We asked Founder Hassan Yaghi. “Yes, the Arabic book might be on the path of extinction. Our society is no more able to write, read, criticize, and promote books. Most readers resort to Amazon, instead of an Arabic reference, to explore the best and most popular books. Amazon has proved itself as a credible source worldwide, its reviews and feedback are trustworthy for buyers. This is what readers look for, a trusty reference,” he answers.
Rana Idris attributes the rejection of Arabic publications to many reasons, including “the lack of trust in the standard of Arabic writers. But this is unfair for novelists whose works are being read in the entire world, and neglected by their compatriots who don’t appreciate their talent.
“We live in a distrust phase. We don’t trust our civilization, culture, or writers. We don’t trust the Arabic language itself and its ability to fulfill its duty. In addition, there is a lack of serious criticism in newspapers and media which are usually the mediator between the reader and books. Most of today’s critics are fawners,” she adds.
Rana Idris sadly believes that there is a real difference between the serious criticism we read in The New Yorker for example, and what we read in some Arabic outlets. This contributes to a lower quality of Arabic books, and helps promote some local, non-talented writers.
Bassam Chebaro believes that piracy affects the Arabic productivity in this industry as well. When we search for ‘Arabic Books’ on Google, we find tens of thousands of results offered for free download. This doesn’t exist in other parts of the world, as many countries addressed this challenge with Google and regulated electronic publishing to put an end to such practices. “In fact, we don’t have a clear idea of our sales because the market of counterfeit publications is stronger than publishers, and our publications are being constantly violated. Our books are hacked in no time, we barely sell 3,000 to 4,000 copies before the book becomes available for free online. That’s why we say the Arabic books are violated, and that’s what the Arab Publishers Association (APA) seeks to address, and we hope they succeed.”
However, Chebaro insists that he will never be reluctant to translate and publish a foreign book that sold 700 million copies just because he’s concerned about piracy.
“Piracy isn’t the only concern for Arabic publishers. We are part of the writing and publishing industry in the world, but we are not major players. The lack of credible criticism, and the shrinking trust in Arabic books have affected the publishing industry. We are part of a huge market, but the Arabic presence in it is very slim.”