Translation and the transformation of societies

Countries of the Arab world have played an important role in geo-politics in the past century or so. Sadly, the current situation is one of turmoil rather than the orderly progression of society.

It was not always so. From the 7C to the 13C, Arab learning dominated world civilisation, whilst European nations were still struggling to create their own distinct identities. Arab (Moorish) science made significant advances in mathematics and medicine. Arab astronomers gave names to the stars in the sky – names which are still used today. Latin and Greek learning and literature were carefully preserved by Arabic scholars. Arabic doctors made significant advances in surgery. Their architecture is still admired to this day.

So it was something of a surprise to read the words of noted Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy. In a sentence that has been widely quoted he stated that “there are more books translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic over the past 1000 years.”

The Arab Human Development Report put it even more starkly: “Greece — with a population of fewer than 11 million — translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic.”

On the economic front, there is further critical comment. Dr A.B. Zahlan, a Palestinian physicist, has noted: “A regressive political culture is at the root of the Arab world’s failure to fund scientific research or to sustain a vibrant, innovative community of scientists.” He further asserted that “Egypt, in 1950, had more engineers than all of China.” That is hardly the case today.

And so it goes on. How few patents are applied for by Arabic nations. The low literacy rate for women.

What has translation got to do with this? In the days before the web, knowledge and scientific advances were disseminated by books. Scientists corresponded with other scientists world-wide to learn of the latest theories and developments. To do this, they needed books such as the Principia Mathematica, or Origin of Species (for example) to be translated. On a more mundane level, what about developments in medicine and surgery or advances in manufacturing? If the relevant literature on such topics has not been translated how can any civilisation progress?

It is noticeable at our modest level as a translation company offering all the world’s major languages, yet the call for Arabic is relatively rare. Why is this and should something be done about it?

Meanwhile an article in the Sunday Times business pages (October 4 2015) demonstrated the other side of the coin. Luke Johnson used his regular column to highlight the success of Israeli entrepreneurs (“Israel and its tribe of risk-taking entrepreneurs”).

In the article, Johnson heaped praise on the energy and talent he found during a recent visit to Israel. He singled out the fact that Israel’s spending on R & D is the second highest in the world. It has more scientists and engineers per head than anywhere else. There are specialist institutes researching new technologies, and all this in a small country surrounded by hostile neighbours.

Why the stark contrast between Israel and its neighbours? Many factors obviously play a role but one of the most important is that Israel is an open society where information is freely exchanged. That means that news about the latest advances in any sector can be easily circulated, studied, ideas exchanged, contacts made and maintained.

But it all starts with translation.

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