In Other Words: When Translation Stifles Local Talent

Meanwhile, in Al Masry Al Youm this week, I argue that translation isn’t always a good thing. Even the semi-awake reader will notice that I just called for more translation of children’s books (out of Arabic). But what about into Arabic? Yes, of course, there are some wonderful translations that fill real gaps in the literature. I applaud publishing houses that use well-chosen translations in their lists. But:

In the US and UK, the word “translation” is often an instant buzz-kill for publishers. Most consider translation synonymous with “challenging,” and thus a turn-off for the average reader. Only 2-3 percent of all English books published every year are translated from other languages. The percentage of children’s books is certainly much smaller.

In the Arabic-reading world, however, the opposite is true. Most Arabic children’s books are translations. And yet “translation” can still be a dirty word. In Egypt, translation is often synonymous with the overwhelming mass of Mickey Mouse, Barney, and Dora books on the market.

Rehab Bassem, of leading children’s-book publisher Dar al-Shorouk, estimates that only 20 percent of their children’s fiction is translated from other languages. But closer to 75 or 80 percent of their nonfiction is translation. Balsam Saad, who founded Dar al-Balsam and Egypt’s first children’s bookstore, publishes primarily translations. In the store, she estimates that she carries a 50-50 split between original Arabic work and work in translation.

If we include Disney and other character-driven books published in Egypt, the percentage of works in translation is probably much higher. Indeed, children’s book authors and publishers often complain that translations are so numerous that they stifle local production. Go on; keep reading.

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