If Hillary can make it in Arabic, will Rousseau?
Nouri Bookstore, one of the main book dealers in Damascus, bulges and buckles with Arabic translations of Western texts - mostly books on computers, medicine, and cooking. On prominent display: a book by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke with the very loosely translated title "My Awakening, the Jewish Control over USA"; a copy of Hillary Clinton's autobiography, and other works on Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.Skip to next paragraph
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But writers like Rousseau and Descartes are relegated to a small corner in the back - symbolic of the Arab world's lack of access to the West's great thinkers and philosophers. According to a United Nations report last fall, Spain translates in a single year as much as the Arab world has translated in the past millennium.
Syrian author and publisher Ammar Abdulhamid hopes to change all that. If he has his way, comparisons between nomads and cowboys, Arab thinkers and French philosophers, Islamic art and modern art, will become common chatter in Damascene restaurants and cabs. The key, he says, is a translation movement that will put ordinary Arabs in closer touch with Western literary and philosophical traditions.
Last year, he gathered a staff of five and launched a nonprofit publishing group and website, Dar Emar.
Despite more pressing concerns in this part of the world - illiteracy, poverty, and peace - a few Arab publishers and academics are determined to kindle cerebral passions. Stacking shelves with more foreign books is central to their goal. Moreover, they say, such efforts are not merely a playground for a small clique of intellectuals but an urgent matter for the region's future.
"We are definitely in a chaotic moment that will certainly crystallize," says Dimitri Avghérinos, editor of Maaber, a highbrow Syrian webzine that covers everything from nonviolent resistance to ecology. "Translation should play a crucial role in that - especially translation of classics."
Last fall's UN report - the second annual Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), a critique of Arab countries by Arab intellectuals - calls on the Arab world to "regain its historical prowess in translation," referring to early Islamic history when translators were the heroes of an intellectual flowering.
The translation movement is taking hold slowly. In Beirut, a regional publishing center, the Arab Organization for Translation was formed last year with a goal to produce high-quality translations of academic texts. Only 10 percent of all Arabic translations meet academic standards, the director says.
In downtown Damascus, Cadmus, a small publishing outfit, offers Arabic translations of political, historical, and philosophical works free of charge online. And Dar Al Mada, a Damascus-based publisher, struck a deal last year with newspapers in seven Arab countries: With each subscription, customers get a free copy every month of world classics such as Aesop's Fables.
Syria's ambitious Abdulhamid hops in conversation among the US Civil War, the French Revolution, and ancient Greece with the ease and swiftness of a channel surfer. Abdulhamid's interest in Western philosophy goes at least as far back as his undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin. When he came back to Syria in 1994, he translated a book on American film for the National Foundation for Cinema here. Although the work was commissioned, officials deemed the finished translation "too American" for the Syrian public.