Wednesday, June 17

Economic performance of the Arabic book translation industry in Arab countries

One of the quotes that caught my eye while reading the Arab Human Development Report back in 2003 was:

  • Spain translates in one year the number of books that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1000 years and
  • For every one million Arabs only one book is translated into Arabic each year

While the latter is difficult to compare and contrast, but then the first one is particularly poignant. The Arab world being what it is, getting them out of the rut of ignorance and misery is important. As before, education is a vital component in getting these people out of their current state and for what, they need books. And if the books haven't been translated into Arabic, then you have an issue. See here for a good step in fixing this issue.

Then I saw this paper (the abstract is at the bottom). Pretty good detailed research with some good recommendations. There are serious points to be raised here which the Abstract talks about so I am not going to belabour the point. I quote some important bits that the abstract missed out:

Next Page Foundation conducted the first readership survey in five Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) in 2005. The main conclusions of this survey can be summarised as follows:

  • With the exception of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a share larger than expected of the literates in the other countries surveyed does not read.
  • Among those who read the share of infrequent (up to 30 minutes per day) and low readers (31-60 minutes per day) makes up the majority.
  • Reading is something children learn at school; there is almost no reading support by family members.
  • Reading is stopped at ages 15-19; it is closely linked to leaving school or other institutions of education.
  • Most who decrease or stop reading do not return to reading at all.
  • School does not initiate reading for life but limits this to school only; deficits must be seen in school manuals and in the absence of young adult literature.
  • Arabic is the preferred language of reading.
  • More books in this language on topics of interest would make a considerable part of readers read more.
  • There is a high religious-mindedness in terms of content and topics of reading.
  • Interests professed for certain topics do not necessarily translate into the reading of such topics. (From Next Page Foundation Home Page:

And these Arab Countries can be considered to be the top of the list of Arab countries. If this is the level at the top, then you can well imagine the situation lower down the list. But the authors missed out on the biggest factor (the religious establishment) and was very light on the second biggest factor (the government sector). The first bit relates to the second last aspect in the previous list. If most if not all what you read is religious pap, then knowledge generation will be challenging. After all, blind faith sits very uneasily with ever questioning knowledge generation. And the religious establishment is extremely tight in all these countries.

To let the common man be educated and questioning will directly hit them. Secondly, none of these countries are exactly free. Their method of control of their population is to keep them ignorant or in the bit of the somnolent daze. An example is their tight control over the media. If your media isn't free, how on earth do you expect your book publication and translation industry to be free and break its bounds? You cannot simultaneously have a free and open reading society while your political system, your educational and your religious establishment is under chains.

That said, the recommendations that the authors give can only do good. I quote:

The first such role is that of improving the quality and availability of the generalised inputs that publishing companies draw on, such as educated human resources (qualified translators and other specialized personal), physical and technological infrastructure (hardware and software for information communication technology) and capital.

Second, government should encourage upgrading and innovation with the aid of rules, regulations, and incentives. Through regulations, tax policies, the enforcement of IPR, antitrust laws, and many other measures, governments influence the climate in which publishing companies compete. That influence should be used to encourage investment, innovations, and other determinants of economic performance.

Third, government should leverage its investment in skills, research capabilities and infrastructure to facilitate the process by which all local clusters form and develop. Such investment feeds whole groups of firms and industries. Thinking in terms of clusters rather than industries also encourages publishing companies to work closely with suppliers and customers.

Fourth, and perhaps most subtly, government leaders should challenge local companies and people in their regions to raise their sights and strive for greater competitiveness. The ability of government to signal the future fosters economic upgrading.

Policies affecting production factor conditions:

  • Improve the documentation of Arabic translation needs. This can be achieved by creating a regional Internet-based database that would constitute an information base on what has been translated, what is being translated, and what will be translated from foreign languages into Arabic.
  • Design and implement translation support programs on a sustainable basis. This would create and maintain a critical mass of translators and publishing companies. The supply side of the translation industry would be strengthened.
  • Invest in human resources by building a strong basic education system for all citizens, thus eradicating illiteracy; by setting high educational standards; by supporting institutions that develop specialised skills (such as specialised professional translators); and last, but not least, by creating incentives for company investment in training.
  • Support science and technology by creating incentives for private research and development (for example, in the area of electronic publishing, e-commerce, machine translation software development, and so forth) and for promoting wide dissemination of basic scientific knowledge in areas that affect the development of the Arabic translation industry.
  • Invest in physical infrastructure; the special needs of the Arabic translation industry should also be taken into consideration.
  • Create some sort of accreditation body for translators to control for good quality and to lessen the costs of asymmetric information in the Arabic translation industry.

Policies affecting demand conditions:

  • Support readership surveys. This would help to identify the real needs of the reading public, as well as to monitor whether reading promotion policies in general and translation support programs in particular have a measurable impact, especially on young people.
  • Stimulate early demand for translated books in Arabic; for instance, for public schools, universities, and public administration.
  • Act as a sophisticated buyer in purchasing (ask for high quality of translated books).
  • Promote translation quality assessment programs. To enhance demand for translated books, programs for translation quality control are needed.

Policies affecting related and supporting industries:

  • Facilitate cluster development along the lines of the value chain of the book industry.
  • Promote training programs among professional of the Arabic translation industry in the fields of marketing and distribution.
  • Improve distribution outlets.
  • Promote the role of nongovernmental professional publishing and translation associations in disseminating knowledge and mobilising resources, thus creating positive externalities in the Arabic translation industry.

Policies affecting strategy, structure and rivalry:

  • Promote local competition by deregulating the structure of industry and strictly enforcing antitrust policy and IPRs.
  • Expand interregional and international trade and investment by opening book markets, promoting exports, and attracting appropriate foreign investment in those markets.

My only objection is, these recommendations are effectively asking for a complete rejig of how their societies work. If one doesnt do that, then it would be like providing a pan of makeup to a person suffering skin cancer.

Knowledge has always been at the heart of economic growth and development. It is disseminated chiefly through the different stages of education, R&D, the mass media and the translation industry. In Arab countries there has been a widespread impression that there is a low level of translation activities, which in turn has led to a low output of the translation industry in those countries. This paper addresses this issue; its overall objectives are: (1) to describe the economic performance of the Arabic book translation industry in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Syria; (2) to understand empirically the economic performance of that industry, the focus here being on qualitatively analysing the major determinants (positive and negative factors) affecting the growth process of that industry; and (3) to provide policy makers and business leaders in the Arab region with theoretically sound and evidence-based advice on the issues analysed in the project.
To provide an empirical base for answering those questions, both published data and fresh new data have been used. For the latter purpose, a questionnaire-based survey was conducted in the year 2005 among 190 experts, covering firm representatives and experts in industry and government. The Porter (Diamond) model has been used as a theoretical background. The empirical results were incorporated in five national case studies. This paper synthesises the results of the national reports, giving a comparative account of the performance of the Arabic book translation industry in the five Arab countries.
The overall results suggest that the Arabic book translation industry in these Arab countries has not yet achieved the level of development of other developing and developed countries. Underperformance of the Arabic book translation industry is attributable to (among other factors) severe coordination failures. This is a state of affairs in which the inability of the different agents (translators, book publishers, suppliers, customers, and supporting organisations, state, and so forth) to coordinate their behaviour (choices) leads to suboptimal outcomes. Since the economic performance of the translation industry often involves complementary investments whose return depends on other investments being made by other agents, coordination is crucial. Obviously, neither market forces nor the state have undertaken this coordination activity sufficiently. The Arabic book translation industry seems to suffer from both market failure and government failure.
In light of these results the Arabic book translation industry offers great economic potential that should be mobilised systematically in the future. This paper discusses how this can be achieved, based on a well-designed and implemented process of upgrading and innovation in companies, industries, and clusters related to translation activities. Public policy, properly understood and adequately implemented, can play an important role in this process.

Keywords: Economics of translation; Arabic translation; Arab World; translation industry; Morocco; Egypt; Saudi Arabia; Lebanon; Syria

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