October 6, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 548

Debate in Egypt over the Egyptian Cultural Ministry's Project to Translate Israeli Literature into Arabic

October 6, 2009 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 548

The Egyptian Cultural Ministry has recently decided to renew the project of translating Israeli literature into Arabic. This decision sparked criticism among Egyptian educated circles, who saw it as an attempt to placate Israel, and thereby to secure its support for Egyptian Cultural Minister Farouq Hosni's candidacy for UNESCO secretary general. The Egyptian Cultural Ministry denied the allegation, explaining that the translation of Israeli books had never been part of normalization with Israel, but rather a way to help Egyptian readers know their enemy. It is noteworthy that the plan is to translate the books not from their original Hebrew editions but from their translated editions in European languages, so as to avoid direct contact with Israeli writers and publishers.

Some Egyptian intellectuals approved of the project, believing that Arabic translations of Israeli books would prove useful to Egyptian intelligence and contribute to the readers' general knowledge. Others objected, fearing that cultural normalization with Israel would lead to its acceptance as an integral part of the Arab region.

Following are excerpts from the Egyptian press on the issue:

Translation of Israeli Literature into Arabic under the Auspices of the Egyptian Cultural Ministry

On June 11, 2009, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture announced that it was about to sign a contract with a European publishing house for translating into Arabic books by Israeli authors David Grossman and Amos Oz. The director of Egypt's National Center for Translation, Dr. Gaber Asfour, stated that by July 2009, such a contract would be signed with French and British publishers, but not with Israeli publishers. Asfour explained: "We cannot have direct contact with Israeli publishers, since this would create a wave of protest in Egypt and in the Arab world as a whole. Therefore, we have decided to negotiate with European publishers."

Asfour said that the translation project had started in the 1960s, with the aim of "know your enemy," but had been cancelled in 2000 after the translation of several Israeli books, because Egypt signed an international charter under which it had to obtain permission from both the author and the publisher before translating books into Arabic. [1] Asfour said that the project of translating Israeli books into Arabic directly from the Hebrew originals had been cancelled so as to avoid contact with Israeli elements, but added that the Center's policy regarding translating world literature into Arabic remained unchanged. Thus, since 2005, Israeli works have been translated into Arabic from their translated editions in other languages. [2] Asfour stated: "We are against normalization, and so we thought of an alternative way - namely, translating Israeli books from their English translations…" [3]

Opinions in Favor of the Project

Director of Egypt's NationalCenter for Translation: It's Not Normalization - It’s a Way To "Know Your Enemy"

Asfour explained that the books slated for translation are works by Oz and Grossman, as well as some writings by the "new historians," who, he maintains, are known as supporters of the peace process. [4] He stated: "It is important that the Arab audience read the works of Israeli historians in order to familiarize themselves with the culture of their enemy. We even translate [works] by enemies of Islam, and ask experts to comment on them." He added that it is important that Egyptian Arab citizens know that there are Israeli writers who are against the Zionist philosophy.

According to Asfour, the translation project was authorized by Egyptian Cultural Minister Farouq Hosni, who is a candidate for UNESCO secretary general. [5] It should be noted that Hosni had stated previously that he would burn any Jewish book found in the Alexandria Library. He later apologized; [6] this was viewed by some as an attempt to placate Israel in order to secure its support for his candidacy.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did in fact withdraw Israel's objection to Hosni's candidacy -fostering the view that the Egyptian Cultural Ministry's decision to translate Grossman's and Oz's works was another of Hosni's attempts to placate Israel. Asfour, however, denied any connection between the Cultural Ministry's decision and Hosni's UNESCO aspirations. [7]

The Egyptian Cultural Ministry's plan triggered various responses from Egyptian intellectuals. Some supported the project, claiming that the translation of literary works was a praiseworthy endeavor in its own right, and that it had nothing to do with cultural normalization. Others criticized the Cultural Ministry's decision on the grounds that translating Hebrew literature would be perceived as pandering to Israel so that its minister could become UNESCO secretary-general.

Translating Israeli Literature Is Not Cultural Normalization

Editor of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly 'Assem Al-Qirresh stated: "Relations between Israel vs. Egypt and the Arabs as a whole are oil and water... but everyone is entitled to education, regardless of the timing or of the agenda of the decision makers." He said that the important question is which books are to be translated, and what the selection criterion are, and added: "The real challenge is translating the works of writers who embody authentic Jewish thought [rather than only of those who espouse left-wing ideology]." Egyptian poet Sha'ban Yousef also supported the translation project, saying: "Translating literature - [whether] Israeli, Brazilian, American [or any other] - is not in itself tantamount to cultural normalization." [8]

Egyptian writer, journalist, and screenwriter Bilal Fadhel called the ministry's decision to translate Israeli literature "more than commendable" and "long overdue." He added: "There is no difference between literary works and political writings which are translated and widely [distributed] in the Arab world in order to familiarize [the public] with Israel's political position." In his opinion, there is no risk that anyone reading Israeli literature would begin to love Israel or support normalization with it.

Editor of the Egyptian Cultural Ministry's weekly Al-Qahira Salah 'Issa likewise backed the Cultural Ministry's plans, and criticized those who objected to them: "It is like burying your head in the sand. I cannot conceive how one can understand the Israelis without understanding their literature, culture, and art - as the Israelis did when they translated all the works of [renowned Egyptian author] Naguib Mahfouz." [9]

Opinions Against the Project

The Translation Project Is Designed to Make the Cultural Minister UNESCO Secretary General

Egyptian publicist Muhammad 'Aboud posted an article calling to cancel the project because it was a waste of public funds: "Personally, I have much respect for the group that opposes the translation of Hebrew books into Arabic under the auspices of the Cultural Ministry… I understand why the ministry is in such a rush to translate Hebrew literature, and I do not believe that they made this important move as part of the national endeavor to recognize Israel… It seems to stem not from a thirst for knowledge, but rather for a position in an international [organization], which may or may not materialize…

"Translating Hebrew literature from English or French, or more accurately, translating an English or French translator's rendition of a Hebrew text, would strip the original of nearly all artistic, conceptual, and literary value. Therefore, this plan must be opposed, since it would waste public funds…

"I appeal to our father at the Ministry of Culture [Farouq Hosni]: Please, let the translation of Hebrew literature into Arabic be executed by private individuals [rather than the Cultural Ministry], so it will not be tainted by the slime of normalization and of direct or indirect cooperation with Israel. After all, the decision on the appointment to the high [UNESCO] office will be decided in a couple of days. Then you will leave, but the unjustified objections to translating Hebrew literature will remain - despite the importance of this project for building a knowledge base regarding aspects of Israeli reality." [10]

The Translation of Books Will Remove the Psychological Barrier Between Arabs and Israelis, And Promote Normalization

Egyptian columnist Dr. 'Ammar 'Ali Hassan also criticized the translation project, calling it a crime. He wrote: "These translations will significantly further cultural normalization [with Israel]. They are a step towards the destruction of a psychological barrier between Arabs and Israelis… If this barrier is broken once by the translation of Israeli stories, it will be broken repeatedly, hundreds of times. Their literature, poetry, and stories will gradually find their way into the region, which will help the Arabs know them better, which will lead to acceptance of their existence in the region, which will lead to accepting them as a fundamental and integral part of the region."

Hassan added that the mission of knowing one's enemy must be carried out only in the framework of political and strategic research by researchers at universities. [11]

*L. Azuri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] Al-Shorouq (Egypt), June 15, 2009.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2009.

[3] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), June 17, 2009.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2009.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2009.

[6] Le Monde (France); Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 28, 2009.

[7] Al-Shorouq (Egypt), June 15, 2009.

[8] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 17, 2009.

[9], June 17, 2009.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 17, 2009.

[11], June 17, 2009.

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