An Online Movement Translates Academic Articles Into Arabic
Four years ago, when he was a second-year medical student at the University of Babylon, Omar Akram al-Mahdi co-founded the Iraqi Translation Project, a website that publishes translations of academic articles into Arabic.
His inspiration was the legendary Bayt al-Hikma—the House of Wisdom—of eighth-century Baghdad, where scholars of different ethnicities and religions translated Greek, Syriac and Indian texts into Arabic.
The Iraqi Translation Project is a lively mixture of academic articles, science journalism and videos. It is one among many independent, samizdat-like online translation and education initiatives established throughout the Middle East and North Africa since 2011. Their aim is to promote science and discuss topics that higher education institutions in the region often ignore, like evolution, technology and sexuality.
“We aim to publish source-based knowledge to decrease the high rates of ignorance in our societies,” al-Mahdi said.
A study of these projects published in 2016 by the Jusoor Center, a Syrian think tank based in Turkey, noted the popularity of the sites among Arab readers, and suggested that the initiatives have been continuously improving the quality and quantity of the material they publish.
“The ability of these initiatives to continue without funding has enabled them to stay independent. Their work is simple and not complicated, which is one of its points of strength,” the report said.
The most popular of these projects have impressive numbers of followers on their Facebook pages.
Among the most popular is Syrian Researchers, an initiative founded by Mouhannad Malek, a Syrian biologist based in Britain. Nearly 2.3 million people follow his Facebook page, where he posts articles in 20 fields that include research in medicine, philosophy and economics. He has about 450 contributors who write, translate and review academic articles. (See related article: Bringing Science To The Arabic-Speaking Masses.)
Another much-read website is I Believe in Science, a website launched in 2011 that translates scientific articles and documents in a wide range of fields and produces infographics. Founded by Ahmed al-Rayyis, an Iraqi geologist based in Lebanon, the site’s Facebook page has 2 million followers. His other project, launched in May 2017, The Theory of Evolution, translates papers on natural selection published by the University of California at Berkeley with the approval of the school’s administrators. Its Facebook page has 189,000 followers.
Similar sites include the Science News initiative, an effort created in 2015 to publish science journalism whose Facebook page has 500,000 followers; and NASA in Arabic, a project founded in France in 2013 that has 600,000 followers. NASA in Arabic presents space science in a popular, non-academic form.
Founders of the groups say the Internet is a perfect medium for their work because it allows people to talk openly in a safe virtual space, often in countries where they couldn’t discuss their interests in public, especially because some of their articles indirectly criticize religious orthodoxy and official interpretations of history.
They also see room to grow. Around 156 million active Facebook users live in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the 7th Arab Social Media Report, published by the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai.
“Working on the ground would be harmful rather than beneficial for us,” said Ahmed al-Rayyis, the founder of I Believe in Science, who now works full time on his website. “The real change can be made online. In 2017, a person learns a thousand times more from an article he reads in bed to what he gets from attending a boring lecture at a university.”
Religious zealots often troll the groups on social media, compelling editors to explain that they don’t always agree with views presented on their Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, websites and other platforms.
“Our translations don’t necessarily represent the opinion of the project or the translators,” said al-Mahdi. “They are merely a sincere transfer of knowledge.”
Such conflicts are a consequence of the groups’ defense of intellectual freedom, said Mahmoud Ibrahim, a chemist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia who in 2015 founded Lebanese Researchers, a Beirut-based project that provides simplified, translated science news.
The initiatives have also sought to enrich the intellectual environments of their communities. For example, the Lebanese Researchers project has collaborated with the Astronomy Club at the Lebanese American University in organizing a visit from NASA astronaut Donald Thomas in April of 2017. And the I Believe in Science project has interviewed Lawrence Krauss, an American physicist and cosmologist, as well as other scientists, and has held seminars on science for lay people and students in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.
Most of the projects are self-funded, non-profit organizations that depend on volunteers.
“We get no financial support apart from symbolic donations from time to time,” said al-Rayyis, who financed I Believe in Science personally with his co-founder. He said he spends around $2,500 a month on the site, with online advertising generating around the same amount to cover their expenses.
It’s worth it, he said.
“We get dozens of messages every day thanking us for helping people to get rid of superstitions and ignorance,” al-Rayyis said. “There is a lovely story to tell. A person that we blocked for harshly criticizing us said, ‘Please remove the block. I am quite ashamed. I used to believe in superstitions, and in fighting and cursing you. I have changed now and have started to think out of the box.’ We removed the block.”
Al-Rayyis acknowledges that he and his colleagues are not producing peer-reviewed journals. It would be unfair, he says, to expect him or others to attain the standard of internationally-recognized journals.
Al-Rayyis says he is working toward the goal of starting Kurdish, Persian and Turkish-language websites. “We are doing our best to promote science and a logical way of thinking,” he said.
“There are young people eager to cooperate with us.”
Here is a guide to many of the new translation websites:
- Syrian Researchers, established in 2011 with the slogan “Science is the Solution” by Mouhannad Malek and other academics. 450 volunteers, mostly Syrians in Syria and the exile, work for it now. It is followed by 2.3 million readers and has published 11, 589 materials so far.
- I Believe in Science, established by Ahmed al-Rayyis in 2011 and joined by 1,000 volunteers since then, 300 of whom are working with them now. It is followed by 1.97 million readers and has published 10,000 items.
- NASA in Arabic, established by Humam Bitar in 2013. It has 250 volunteers and is followed by 600,000 readers. It has published about 4,000 items.
- The Iraqi Translation Project, established by Raad Talib, Hassan Mazin, Reyam Issa, Mustafa Shahbaz, Mohammed Abdulredha, and Omar al-Mahdi in 2013. It is followed by 131,000 readers and has published 5,000 items so far. Its slogan is: “For Decades of Intellectual darkness to end, we should explore the other, the successful. We should translate.”
- Egyptian Researchers, established by Islam Sami and Mahmoud Tawfeeq in 2014 in Egypt. It has 280 members and 366,000 readers.
- The Aliens, established by Yassin Bajdouin 2015 in Morocco. Its slogan is: “We look at science from a scientific angle.” It has 40 members, mostly from Syria and Egypt, and is followed by 421,000 readers.
- Lebanese Researchers, established by Mahmoud Ibrahim in Lebanon in 2015. It has 50 members, mostly university students from various countries, and 304,000 followers. So far, it has published 4,500 items.
- Scientific Morocco, established in 2012 in Morocco with the slogan of “Scientific Knowledge for All.” It is followed by 198,000 fans. It received a prize for the best Moroccan website in 2013.
- Libyan Sci Club, established in 2014 with the slogan “By Science We Rise.” It has 71,000 followers.
- Scientific Saudi, established in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. It publishes an evolving curriculum and is followed by 534,000 readers.
- Future, an Arabic version established by Hashem al-Ghaili, a Yemeni scholar based in Germany. It concentrates on technology news. It has 4.37 million followers.
- The Theory of Evolution, established by Ahmed al-Rayyis in 2011. It upgraded its website in 2017. Its aim is to “spread awareness and shed light on this important issue. The theory of evolution must be taught in schools. There must be no room for superstition in our educational institutions.” It is followed by 189,000.
- Real Sciences, established in 2012 in Iraq to “fight false science and superstition.” It publishes a monthly e-magazine and includes articles on Iraqi higher education. It is followed by 140,000.
- Science News launched its website in 2017 after it was founded in 2015 on Facebook. Followed by 513,000 fans.
The author volunteers as a translator in the Iraqi Translation Project.