By Wells, Rhona
The Middle East , No. 438
WITH SOME 280M NATIVE SPEAKERS, and an estimated 452m speakers overall, Arabic is considered the fifth most widely spoken language by native speakers and has arguably one of the richest literary traditions among the world's major linguistic cultures.
Yet, the exchange between Arabic and the other globally dominant languages, in terms of book production, consumption and translation, does not reflect this status. The Index Translationum, maintained by UNESCO since 1932, lists only one Arab country among its top 50, namely, Egypt, ranked at 49, preceded by Argentina and followed by Indonesia.
Not one Arabic writer is present among the top 50 translated authors. As a target language for translations, Arabic is ranked at 29, preceded by Catalan (26), Croatian (27) and Lithuanian (28), and followed by Turkish (30) and Farsi or Persian (31). As an original language for translations, Arabic is at number 17, behind Chinese (16), and well ahead of Korean (28) or Farsi (34).
Books and publishing in the Arab world
Egypt is generally viewed as the hub of Arab contemporary writing, Lebanon as the workshop for publishing, and Baghdad as the city of readers.
A more pragmatic approach would trace the landscape of books and publishing along lines of commerce and power. The impact of colonial powers is evident on what was printed in the early 20th century, followed more recently and most notably by the global expansion in the reach of British and, in the northwest African Maghreb region, French. In economic terms, markets such as Egypt, Lebanon, the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia have little in common aside from their shared Arabic language.
As scores of pamphlets and a significant number of surveys show, in many Arab countries such as Egypt, literacy is still limited to a minority of the population. Yet, the young nations of the Gulf largely escape this pattern. Recent data released by the Statistics Centre in Abu Dhabi (SCAD) showed a rate of illiteracy among Emiratis of around only 7.5%--compared to some 75% only 40 years ago.
This achievement coincides with huge differences in the per capita GDP between Gulf States and countries such as Egypt. However, bookselling is organised along similar lines in these markets, with local vendors and fairs being central to the trade.
The average retail price of a book released in Egypt or Syria will be about 20% less than a similar title released in Lebanon, and the price of such a printed work would be set at 20% above the Lebanese level in Saudi Arabia. This retail price, as set by the publisher, will then be applied across all the markets where a title is sold. Print runs are relatively low, between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, reflecting the patterns and benchmarks of small markets and not the impressively high number of readers who share the Arabic language.
An Arab Publishers Association was launched in 1995 in Beirut, Lebanon--exactly 100 years after the British Publishers Association, founded in 1895. Thereafter, copyright legislation became part of domestic legislation in many Arab countries.
Arab book production
As no Arab Books-In-Print catalogue exists, and no national Arab library reflects in its collections the entirety of the currently available books in this language, the available catalogue of Arabic titles can only be estimated indirectly. The largest Arab online book store, Neel WaFurat (www.neelwafurat.com) currently has a database of about 400,000 titles. …