The new guidelines released by the Egyptian National Center for Translation will stifle freedom of thought and restrict access to texts that go against Egyptian religious and social values.
In an announcement that has shaken the Egyptian translation community, the National Center for Translation, a nonprofit state-run organization in Egypt, has established a strict new set of guidelines for the books it will accept for translation into Arabic. In the statement, the Center made clear that any books proposed for translation will not be accepted if they oppose religion, social values, morals, and customs.
The announcement has drawn widespread criticism from the translation community, who fear the new rules could severely limit meaningful cultural engagement through literary texts.
“The new guidelines will limit, for example, the translation of deep philosophical books dealing with complex human issues, some of which we like to discuss and others we do not,” said Mohammed al-Baali, director of Sefsafa Publishing House and one of the collaborators with the National Center in previous projects. “The translator has no right to interfere in the text he works on at the pretext that it conflicts with the values and morals of the society to which it is transmitted,” he added, explaining that translators need to leave aside their personal, religious and societal convictions while working.
The restrictions at the National Center for Translation started becoming apparent four years ago, after it translated a book issued by a French publishing house titled Al-Tahrir’s Egypt: The Birth of the Revolution, with a preface by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany.
Later, a decision was made to stop the book’s sale, according to a source from the center, who asked to remain anonymous. The source said that a TV presenter had attacked the book as a “threat to national security,” which caused sharp criticism of the center and resulted in the ouster of a former director.
“We need laws that support the translation and publishing movement in a way that supports the cultural movement in the region instead of imposing restrictions on moral pretexts that plunge us into useless discussions,” said Amir Zaki, winner of the fifth edition of the Rifa’s Al-Tahtawi Award for Translation’s youth category, which the National Center for Translation announces annually. Zaki also runs a blog that publishes translated texts, book reviews, and academic articles related to translation issues.
Along with Zaki, other translators have also created alternative spaces to publish translations without the influence of official institutions.
“Translation is to read others, is to search for the new, the different and the shocking,” said poet, novelist, and translator Ahmed Al-Shafei, who has translated more than 20 books and whose translation blog has gained momentum recently due to the diversity of texts it publishes. “It is to introduce other voices; it is the start of an argument. So, if we turn it into translating what is consistent with our convictions, ideas and vision of the world, then what will be translated — if anything — is of less importance.”