A Conversation With the Head of the Higher Arab Institute of Translation
LONDON—Over the decades, the Arabic language has been considered sacred because it is the language of the Koran. Many Arab linguists consider it the expression of perfection, never to be touched. Arabic was also associated with the idea of Arabism and Arab identity in a way that any attempt to modernize it has been risky. At the same time, many universities in the Arab region either already teach in foreign languages, particularly English or French, or are considering doing so, potentially diminishing Arabic as a language of education.
Recently this language debate flared up in London at a session of the Gulf Education Conference, when Inam Bioud, the general director of the Higher Arab institute of Translation, in Algiers, suggested a new solution to the language debate brewing around Arab education. She called for modernizing Arabic by simplifying its grammar, restoring its ability to express scientific concepts, and removing the “shackles of priestly auras” around it.
Inam Bioud, a warm, friendly person with a ready smile, is also an Algerian professor, translator, poet and artist. She is the founding director of the translation institute, an affiliate of the League of Arab States. She taught translation studies at the universities of Algiers and Oran. Bioud has a set of poems published in the Algerian press, than collected and edited in a bilingual edition under the title of “Unsent Letters”. Her first novel “Assamek la tubali” (2004, the Fish Don’t Care) was awarded the Prix Malek Haddad (for French-Algerian poets and novelists). The Algerian newspaper “l’Express” named her as one of the 100 most dynamic national personalities in 2002. Her passion for Arabic has not kept her from learning English, French, German, and Spanish. This interview was conducted in Arabic.
Your call to modernize the Arabic language raises a lot of controversy, why do you think it is important to do this?
Our students are taught in Arabic at the primary and secondary level and get a “linguistic shock” at university, as they are compelled to pursue their studies in a foreign language for which they are ill equipped. The widespread use of English and French is a blight on universities across the Arab world because it forces students to study in a foreign language. The excuse is that the Arabic language does not keep pace with the developments we are witnessing today. But language is not a rigid template. Language is a tool and it must be developed all the time. Therefore, I call to embrace the Arabic language as the solution to our problem rather than continue to view it as a problem. The presence of university elites who communicate in a foreign language creates a divide between these elites and the societies in which they evolve.
But don’t you think that teaching in Arabic would only reduce the chances of expressing Western science and culture and reduce the chances of good communication?
I do not call to stop teaching other languages. I just call to unify the language of instruction by adopting Arabic—the language of the man in the street—to avoid creating gaps in the community. We also do not have to forget that an estimated 300 million people speak Arabic It’s the third most common official language in the world, after English and French. Bilingualism can be good for a society, but not at the expense of ignoring the native language. On the other hand, we have to pay more attention to translation. Translation is very important issue. It is not only helps us in understanding the others and communicating with them. It also helps us in understanding ourselves by seeing ourselves in other’s culture.
How would you describe the situation of translation in the Arab region, especially as you are the head of the Higher Arab Institute of Translation?
Unfortunately, the translation movement is very weak in the region today. Translation cannot just be a casual phenomenon. It should be an ongoing institutional process. What we are witnessing today is just sporadic translations of literary or scientific works, which have wide commercial reputation. We are lacking serious continuous efforts to translate scientific, philosophical and literary texts.
In this context, what is the role of the Higher Institute for Translation?
The Higher Arab Institute of Translation was officially founded in April 2004. It is affiliated with the Secretariat General of the League of Arab States. The institute was established to offer postgraduate studies and to be primarily an educational institution through preparing and training Arab translators and providing them with the necessary skills to carry out various kinds of professional translation. Also, we are a research and production institute as we do a lot of research in linguistics, comparative studies and language sciences.
The institute was founded for more than ten years ago, but we do not hear a lot about its role and achievements. Why is that?
The Institute was founded by the will of all Arab countries, but we suffer from weak financial support. Our budget is barely enough to pay operational expenses. There are many rich Arab countries that support foreign sports teams with millions of dollars, but unfortunately they do not think of supporting the institute or any other cultural projects in the region due to political calculations. Even when we address cultural and academic bodies to carry out joint projects we have not seen a real positive response.
How could we support the translation movement in the region today?
We just need to unify our efforts. There are more than 300 universities in the region. If every university has at least 10 bilingual professors who could be involved in the translation process by translating books in their field of study that would help. We could have more than 3,000 scientific translated books per year. All that we need is serious interest and simple financial support to encourage professors. And the institute could play a coordinating role in this initiative.
What is the main concern of the institute today?
Our main concern is to keep improving our staff and students’ skills. We are very interested now in adopting modern technology applications in the translation. Today, we train our students and translators to use electronic dictionaries and new applications, no more glossaries, so they become more editors instead of just being translators.
What kind of resources do we need to translate to Arabic? And what should we translate from Arabic for the Western audience?
We need to translate to Arabic a lot of science and philosophy books. Of course, translating literature is important, but the priority should be for science and philosophy. Now, before translating from Arabic to Western languages I do believe that we need first to reconsider all of our written religious heritage. I don’t mean divine books but all what were written later to interpret them. By doing this we are going to rediscover our heritage and culture to present them later to the whole world as they are in reality not as others interpret them.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.