Does the Arab World Have a Translation Problem?

During the Islamic Golden Age, from the 8th century to the 13th century AD, the Arab world was a center of learning and philosophy. It was also a center of translation. In Baghdad, scholars worked furiously to translate Greek, Persian and Indian texts into Arabic for the library of the House of Wisdom, preserving knowledge that would have otherwise been lost to time.

But now, according to, the Arab world may have a translation problem. Medialine quotes a study by the UN that found that only 10,000 books have been translated from other languages into Arabic in the past 1,000 years. That’s an average of about 10 books a year, although in 2003, which is when the most recent data is from, there were about 330 books translated.

Arabic publishers and governments alike are taking steps to try and change this. For example, the UAE just wound up a government-sponsored international book fair, and both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have funded government initiatives to increase the amount of translated material available.

Meanwhile, Egyptian publishing house Kalimat Arabia has made a point to translate foreign titles, generally 24 books annually.

However, obstacles remain. For one thing, religious fundamentalism that keeps people from seeking knowledge outside of the Koran.   For another, in many Arab countries people simply don’t have enough money to buy books.

To cope with low demand, Kalimat Arabia prints its translated titles by request only, 500 books at a time.

Nagwa Abdelmottaleb, the publishing house’s owner, told MediaLine:

“The overall goal is to make the Arabic reader aware of what other cultures write. This, over a long period of time, will make people better citizens, because they will be more informed of the world and so have the chance for a better society.”

1 reply
  1. Laurent
    Laurent says:

    Thank you for this short piece, but as a young scholar who has worked over a decade on (and in) the Arab World, I can tell you that even the most fundamentalists of Muslims have never said they just want to learn only from the Koran/Quran. Probably because this book itself invites to reading (chapter 96 for instance), often in general terms and does not prohibit the reading of other books. On top of that, it has to be paired with the ‘Sunnah’. These ‘Prophetic traditions’ highly encourage Muslims to read and learn much beyond the Quran/Koran. So I think that this point of fundamentalism is not relevant in this context. The economic issue on the other hand, seems much more pertinent to explain the modest size of the Arab book market, and hence the weakness of the translated book market. (Laurent Lambert, StAntony’sCollege, Oxford University)


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