Two cultures, one language: Arabic translation of great works aims to bridge divide

The greatest Yiddish-language writer of the 20th century features on a list of 100 books chosen to inaugurate a daring, long-term project to bring landmark foreign works to Arabic-speaking readers.

The Collected Stories Of Isaac Bashevis Singer, by an author who was raised in Poland but for decades dominated Yiddish writing in New York, will join titles ranging from Sophocles and Chaucer to Stephen Hawking and Haruki Murakami among the first selections of the Kalima translation programme.

The Kalima (meaning "word" in Arabic) project aims to revive the art of translation across the Arab world and reverse the long decline in Arabic readers' access to major works of global literature, philosophy, science and history.

"The choices reflect what we consider are the real gaps in the Arab library," said Karim Nagy, the founder and chief executive of the project, which was launched yesterday in Abu Dhabi. "We shy away as far as possible from best-sellers."

The initial list does include Khaled Hosseini's blockbuster about Taliban-era in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner. But far more typical of its scope and focus are canonical classics such as George Eliot's Middlemarch and Baruch Spinoza's Ethics, or influential modern texts like Eric Hobsbawm's The Age Of Extremes and JM Keynes's General Theory Of Employment. There are also scientific masterpieces from the likes of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman. Recent books on the launch list include Lawrence Wright's history of al-Qa'ida and "the road to 9/11", The Looming Tower, and the memoirs of the retired US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan.

Inspired by Mr Nagy, a literature-loving Egyptian entrepreneur and former McKinsey management consultant now based in Abu Dhabi, Kalima has become an official venture of the Abu Dhabi government. One of the triggers which led to its creation was a widely-circulated statistic from the 2003 UN report into human development in the Arab world. It estimated that more books (about 10,000) were translated into Spanish every year than had been translated into Arabic over the past millennium.

Kalima is endorsed by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, and backed financially by the emirate's authority for culture and heritage. The authority's director-general, Mohammed Khalaf al Mazrouei, said the Crown Prince saw the UN figures and "commissioned us to work to revive translation".

"Funding is the least of our concerns," said Mr Nagy, who plans to arrange and distribute expanding batches of Kalima translations year by year. "It's the quality of the translation that counts."

In contrast to the shop-till-you-drop glitz and glamour of its neighbour Dubai, Abu Dhabi has begun to promote a series of high-profile cultural initiatives which will mark it out as a different kind of destination from the footballers' wives paradise just along the Gulf coast.

The Kalima project forms part of this vision, which also includes a $27bn scheme to develop the barren Saadiyat Island, near the capital, into a global hub of art galleries, museums and performance venues designed by architects such as Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry.

Although oil production is scheduled to increase, services now account for 42 per cent of the economy of the United Arab Emirates and the oil sector for only a third. Abu Dhabi's commitment to culture and education epitomises this push towards diversification.

However, as Mr Nagy admits, Kalima has deep-rooted obstacles to overcome. During the "golden age" of medieval Islamic civilisation, Moorish cities such as Córdoba and Toledo in Spain hosted an Arabic-based culture of exchange and translation that played a crucial part in preserving the Greek legacy of science and thought for western Europe. Following the Renaissance, which Arabic learning did so much to foment, colonial conflict and a breakdown of relations led to a sense of exclusion and estrangement from the West which fuelled Arab nationalism in the modern era.

With the help of literary figures from Isaac Newton to Albert Camus, Thomas Hobbes to Umberto Eco, Kalima aims to bridge this historical gap. Mr Nagy said he wanted to balance "catching up" with classics as yet unreadable in Arabic and "keeping up" with current trends and movements – 70 per cent of the inaugural list consists of books published since 1945.

He also faces local challenges, including the "two kinds of censorship – official and informal" – found in the 20 or so Arab states in which Kalima books will be distributed. Earlier this month, for example, 230 titles due for exhibition at the Kuwait Book Fair were banned by a state censorship committee. "We don't intend to be deliberately controversial," said Mr Nagy. "We have no political or religious agenda."

It remains to be seen how Kalima's eclectic opening selection will go down across a politically diverse region of 300 million people stretching from Rabat to Riyadh and from Baghdad to Khartoum. In economic philosophy alone, the Kalima picks include both the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser and the free-market guru Milton Friedman.

Kalima also has to confront the endemic weakness of Arab publishing and distribution networks. It operates in partnership with publishing houses with a proven record of quality and probity, and will shun the copyright-busting habits all too common in the region. "We have a zero-tolerance policy towards piracy," Mr Nagy added.

The project will set out to build new connections between books and readers in places where they have been tenuous at best. "There is no distribution value-chain in the Arab world," Mr Nagy explained. "Traditionally, the majority of Arab publishers are family-based, and very focused on one city or one country."

In the absence of significant bookshop chains, Kalima will donate books to libraries and universities, sell via dedicated websites and post the complete texts of non-copyright classics online. "Wherever we are allowed to make a book available digitally, we will," Mr Nagy pledged.

If foreign literature and thought has disappeared from Arabic over the centuries, other languages – especially English – have an extremely patchy record of translating major Arabic works. Eventually, Kalima plans to open up a "two-way street" and translate from, as well as into, Arabic.

For the moment, the task of introducing British readers to modern Arabic literature falls elsewhere, to specialist prizes such as the Saif Ghobash/Banipal Award and the new connections with Arab publishers now being forged by the Arts Council and British Council. In March, the Arab world will be the "market focus" of the London Book Fair. Elsewhere, an eagerly awaited pan-Arab "Booker Prize" for fiction, funded by the Emirates Foundation, will be presented for the first time during the same month.

The Kalima project's first translations

The Acharnians/The Knights, Aristophanes

The Aeneid, Virgil

A Briefer History of Time, Hawking

The Complete Odes and Epodes, Horace

Greek Anthology, Archilochus, Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Simonides

Helen/Cyclops, Euripides

Poems, Du Fu (Tu Fu)

The Progeny, Sophocles

Galeni Opera Omnia/Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, Galen

Palimpsest, Archimedes

Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragment at Diels, Various

Film Form, Eisenstein

In Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno, Horkheimer

The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes

Canzoniere, Petrarch

The Complete Essays of Montaigne Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Montaigne

Kokoro, Natsume Soseki

Middlemarch, George Eliot

The New Life, Dante Alighieri

Paradise Regained, Milton

Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke

Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer

Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton

Sidereus Nuncius; Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems; Two New Sciences, Galileo Galilei

The Ethics Of Spinoza: The Road to Inner Freedom, Spinoza

Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, Bruno

Leviathan, Hobbes

Logic, Hegel

Logical Investigations, Husserl

Art History: vol. 1, Stokstad

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, Lewis

Inside Music, Haas

Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier

A History of Architectural Theory, Kruft

Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, Næss

The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics, Penrose

Godel, Escher, Bach (20th Anniversary Ed), Hofstader

The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, Greenspan

The Birth of Europe, Le Goff

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Watson

The Films in My Life, Truffaut

Freud: A Life for Our Times, Gay

Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Saliba

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Wright

The Struggle for Master of Europe, A J P Taylor

The Anatomy of Revolution, Brinton

Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition, Friedman

Competitive Strategy, Porter

Kafka on the Shore, Murakami

The Executive in Action: Managing for Results, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Effective Executive, Drucker

The Halo Effect and Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers, Rosenzweig

Making Globalization Work, Stiglitz

The Middle East (Sociology of Developing Societies), Asad

Reading Capital, Althusser, Rancière

Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, Von Neumann, Morgenstern

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Hoffer

What is Globalization, Beck

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: vol. 1, M T Anderson

The Case for Literature, Gao Xingjian

Collected Stories, Singer

The First Man, Camus

The Higher Power of Lucky, Patron

The Inheritance of Loss, Desai

The Kite Runner, Hosseini

The Pickup, Gordimer

Pipi Longstocking, Lindgren

Selected Poems, Milosz

Something to Answer For, P H Newby

The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner

Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein

The Western Canon, Bloom

The Word, The Text, and The Critic, Edward Said

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Kurzweil

Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature; Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Physics, Niels Bohr

Cellular Automata and Complexity, Wolfram

The Chemical Bond: Structure and Dynamics, Zewail

Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA, Davies

Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature, Weinberg

The Eighth Day of Creation, Judson

Engines of Creation, Drexler

Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, Buss

The Feynman Lectures on Physics including Feynman's Tips on Physics: The Definitive and Extended Edition, Feynman

In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, Gribbin

On the Meaning of Relativity, Einstein

Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory, Planck

Punctuated Equilibrium, Gould

Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory, Heisenberg

The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, Dirac

The Scientist as Rebel, Dyson

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 25th Anniversary Edition, Wilson

Uncertainty: Uncertainty, Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, Lindley

Difference and Repetition, Deleuze

The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan

The Future of Human Nature, Habermas

Il Segno, Eco

Margins of Philosophy, Derrida

Charlemagne and Mohammed: The Arab Roots of Capitalism, Heck

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