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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Required reading - Brian Whitaker

Visit an Arab bookshop and there's a fair chance you'll find more than a few copies of Shifra Dafinshi and the tales of Hari Butor. In case you haven't guessed, I'm talking here about Arabic translations of The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter.

While titles such as these find a ready market in the Middle East, just as they do elsewhere, people often lament the poor state of home-grown Arabic publishing and the dearth of worthwhile books translated into Arabic from other languages.

The Bush administration made much of this back in 2004 when it announced ambitious (but now mostly forgotten) plans to build a "knowledge society" in the Middle East. The nature of the problem is a good deal more complex - and its solution more difficult - than the US appreciated at the time, but a new Arab initiative due to be launched in November could be an important step forward.

The project, known as Kalima ("Word" in Arabic), aims "to fund the translation, publication, and distribution of high-quality works of classic and contemporary writing from other languages into Arabic" - starting with 100 titles in the first year.

"Currently in most Arab countries, 'great works' of world literature or academia are only available in the original language, limiting access to a select group of society," Kalima says. "The rest of the world has enjoyed a wealth of both domestic and translated writing, why should the Arab world be any different? Arabic is also a beautiful, expressive language, and one that should be celebrated and valued more by giving readers a greater choice of quality titles in translation."

Kalima is working in collaboration with existing publishers (more than 20 of them so far) - in effect carrying the financial risk on the books it selects for translation. Money shouldn't be too much of a problem since it's backed by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. [click on the heading for more]


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