Prepared by: Sarah Ramadan, Researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression’s (AFTE) Research Unit
The National Center for Translation suffers from many crises. These include the fact that the center’s policies are governed by centralization. The center deals with a limited number of translators, and is not interested in reaching out to the public through spatial or digital distribution outlets. This leads to the failure to achieve cultural justice, in contrast to the stated objectives of the Ministry of Culture. If the center adopts a policy of decentralization in contracting with translators, publishers and distributors, it can increase its influence in the cultural field and take concrete steps to achieve cultural justice.
The National Center for Translation experienced a crisis in August 2020, after it developed a new list of translation conditions, which angered translators and intellectuals, due to the censorship it imposed on the content selected for translation and the translation itself. This list triggered talk about the center and its importance in the Egyptian and Arab cultural community.
Since its establishment in 1996 as one of the committees of the Supreme Council of Culture, the center has published numerous translations in various fields, in 35 languages. However, the center’s influence remained linked to its founder Gaber Asfour, whether in Egyptian or Arab cultural circles. The center’s role declined after the January 2011 revolution due to the confusion that dominated state institutions on the one hand, and the fact that Asfour quit on the other hand. Government spending on the center had also been reduced.
The current government believes that culture is of paramount importance and considers it as “a dissemination of national awareness”. Nevertheless, if we look at the government’s spending on the National Center for Translation, we will find a different reality. The center’s budget was reduced in 2017, thus threatening the center’s ability to perform its roles, especially in light of the high prices of printing and publishing.
The Ministry of Culture’s interest in supporting and sponsoring the translation movement with regard to cultural justice has receded. Cultural justice enables individuals to obtain cultural services, and ensures that these services are equitably distributed without discrimination for any political, religious, ethnic or partisan considerations.
The National Center for Translation adopts a highly centralized policy that would entrench bureaucracy and disrupt the publishing movement, which severely affects its work and limits its role as the only government agency responsible for disseminating translated knowledge and reviving the translation movement. This centralized policy is meant to prevent the public, especially the groups most in need and those living in remote areas, from getting access to knowledge.
The ability of independent cultural institutions to operate in Egypt has declined since they were exposed to a security crackdown in 2014. This has severely affected the volume of cultural and knowledge production that grew after the 25 January revolution. So, the importance of the National Center for Translation increases, given the fact that it is a government agency that can operate freely, without being restricted by the work of private publishing houses that translate cultural works according to profit and loss considerations.
This paper discusses the centralized policy adopted by the National Center for Translation in contracting with translators and in publishing and distribution. It also discusses the negative impacts of that policy, most notably the consolidation of the rule that culture is an elitist issue, which the state and its institutions are not keen to reach everyone without discrimination. The paper proposes an alternative, which is to adopt a decentralized policy that makes the cultural production of the National Center for Translation equitably available to the public, based on new initiatives of distribution and use of the internet.
Background: Centralization of the National Center for Translation
The National Center for Translation undertakes the process of publishing translated works, from proposal to publishing. This is done through a number of offices and committees that examine and scrutinize the proposed works in order to determine the feasibility of publishing them. In some cases, it might take up to seven years to process and publish a translated work. This practically disrupts the publication of translated books and complicates the censorship process. Sometimes, the National Center for Translation benefits from the rights granted to it by the foreign publisher, even before the translated book is published in the Egyptian market, thus wasting public money. The provision of getting the publication rights represents the largest part of the center’s expenses, especially as the money is paid to the center in foreign currencies.
The center has seven main departments, which the books to be translated pass through. These are the technical department responsible for approving proposed translation works, the editing department, the intellectual property and copyright department, the legal affairs department, the correction department, and the technical and publishing preparation department. These departments do not have a unified timeframe to produce translated works.
In an interview with Akhbar El-Adab after assuming the management of the center in 2020, Dr. Karma Sami said that communication between the publishing departments was poor. She said there was no clear track for the books to be translated, starting with proposals for translation and ending with the printed version. She also noted that the center’s work mechanism lacked discipline and follow-up, adding that this problem would destroy the greatest project in the world.
The translated works are disrupted at the intellectual property and copyright department. When the department wants to obtain the rights to translate and publish a particular book, it waits for more books to arrive. Then, it sends a consolidated list to the Ministry of Finance to obtain its approval at once, thus disrupting the production process.
This bureaucracy, which has been going on for years, has disrupted the publishing process. The center did not publish new works during 2020, and some of the books that the center promoted during that period had already been finalized earlier. The number of the center’s publications in 2018 and 2019 reached 400, at least 200 to 300 of which were new. Since then, the center has published only 150 books, after reviewing the center’s new publications and their serial numbers. The total number of the center’s publications since its inception until 2019 has reached approximately 3,200, among which 2,000 were published before Asfour quit the center’s chairmanship in 2011.
The Ministry of Culture reduced the center’s budget from 23 million to 20 million pounds in 2017, after the government asked all ministries to reduce their expenses by 15%. This led to a decrease in the number of translated works from 300 to only 120 per year. Asfour said the center’s budget had reached 40 million pounds per year when he quit.
Absent cultural justice
The state’s cultural policy, which is set by the Supreme Council of Culture, allows the availability of cultural materials in various arts and literature fields, disseminating them in every possible way and linking them to spiritual and human values. It also facilitates access to cultural materials for all groups of people without discrimination based on financial capacity, geographical location, or anything else. Nevertheless, the National Center for Translation adopts a different policy that hinders access to cultural production by various groups, especially the groups most in need and those living far from Cairo.
Article 2 of Law No. 138 of 2017 regarding the reorganization of the Supreme Council of Culture states that the council works on several axes, including: bringing culture to the widest sectors of the public, and encouraging translation to and from Arabic, a right guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution amended in 2019. Article 48 of the constitution states: “Culture is a right of every citizen that is guaranteed by the state. The state is committed to support it and provide all types of cultural materials to the different groups of people without discrimination based on financial capacity, geographical location, or anything else. The state gives special attention to remote areas and the groups most in need.”
Since its inception, the National Center for Translation has adopted a highly centralized distribution policy, which is not commensurate with the change of its legal structure in 2006 from a committee affiliated with the Supreme Council of Culture to a governmental body affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. This can be evidenced by the number of printed copies of each book, as well as by the distribution policy adopted by the center.
According to a staff member who has been working for the National Center for Translation since the early 2000s, the center publishes only 1,000 copies of a translated book, which is not commensurate with the center’s goals of distributing books to the public. Usually, the copies of books published by the center run out a few months after their publication. And because of the bureaucracy rampant in the center, the publishing rights are extinguished before the second edition of a book is published, while there is still demand for it in the market.
The center distributes its products mainly in Cairo and Alexandria, through a sales outlet at the Egyptian Opera House and another at the Library of Alexandria. The center’s publications also become available every year at the book fair, which has been moved to the Fifth Settlement in Cairo.
In recent years, the center has made it possible to sell its publications online through the Nile and Euphrates, an online store for Arabic books that includes more than 600,000 print books and 16,000 e-books. However, the publications the center provides through that online store are limited, and most of them have run out.
Of the approximately 3,350 publications of the center, the online store provides only 1,870 books, many of which have been sold out. The center does not have electronic copies of books in the EPUB format, which is compatible with e-readers.
On 22 June 2020, the center announced on Facebook the list of its publications available at the main outlet. The list included only 1,317 books, which is less than half of the books the center has published since its inception. Also, the center does not have an updated bibliography of its publications.
Although the use of the internet has increased since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the official website of the center has been down for more than three years. According to a report issued by the National Communications Authority in 2020, the use of home internet increased by 92% from last year, while the use of mobile internet increased by 12%.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the Ministry of Culture launched a campaign titled “Stay at home.. Culture is in your hands”, in which the ministry made some of its cultural products available on a new website. However, the ministry has so far provided only 27 books and one magazine on the website, while none of the center’s publications has been made available on it, although Minister of Culture Dr. Enas Abdel-Dayem stressed that a selection of the center’s translations was made available on the new website.
Decentralization: An urgent need for both audience and translators
Although the National Center for Translation’s Board of Trustees includes representatives from various ministries, coordination among them is poor and untapped, whether in terms of joint cooperation initiatives or activating the board’s role. The Board of Trustees does not meet periodically. It did not even discuss the recent crisis that occurred in August 2020 when the center set new translation conditions.
The Presidential Decree No. 381 of 2006 regarding the establishment of the National Center for Translation states that the Board of Trustees is the supreme authority within the center and is responsible for setting the general policy for the center’s management and activities. The board is also responsible for laying the foundations for cooperation between the center and other cultural institutions, whether inside or outside Egypt. The Board of Trustees includes, among other ministers, the ministers of Information, Higher Education and the State for Scientific Research. Article 6 of the decree states that the board should convene at least once every three months, and it may convene on an exceptional basis or at the request of its chairperson or at least five board members.
The National Center for Translation can open up more towards adopting availability and access policies, by launching initiatives of cooperation with national educational, cultural and media institutions. It can also use government distribution and sales outlets, including national press outlets, to promote its publications and reach out to a wider segment of the public. Al-Ahram owns most of the Egyptian private sales outlets and has the largest distribution network in Egypt, while the General Egyptian Book Organization owns 27 distribution outlets, 12 of which are in Cairo, in addition to the cultural palaces distributed nationwide. The center can also cooperate with the Ministry of Higher Education by making the center’s publications available at the libraries of Egyptian public universities.
The liberalization of the US dollar exchange rate has caused the price of the center’s books to hike. It also led to a continuous increase in the price of paper and printing, the last of which was in March 2020. The selling price of some books has exceeded 500 pounds, according to the price list the center published on its Facebook page. These prices are very high, especially as the center is a non-profit government entity.
The minimum wage in Egypt has been recently increased to 2,400 pounds only, which seriously threatens the ability of those most in need to access culture and knowledge. The National Center for Translation intends to cancel the discounts previously granted to students, in order to make profits. The center, in its capacity as a body responsible for spreading culture, should not increase the selling price directly without linking it to the average per capita income. Instead, the center can publish low-cost (popular) editions and spread them more widely across the country. It can also cooperate with cultural palaces and universities in several governorates to distribute its publications at reasonable prices.
The Ministry of Culture should review the center’s budget, as it limits the center’s production capacity. It should also take decisions aimed at sponsoring and enhancing the translation movement. For its part, the center needs to further control the mechanism of its work and set a clear timeframe for processing the translation works. It should also allow advertisements for contracting with more translators, to avoid dealing with a limited number of translators.
Given the importance and prestige that the National Center for Translation has in the local and international intellectual circles, as well as the center’s capabilities, AFTE sees that:
- The Ministry of Culture should increase the National Center for Translation’s annual budget to at least 75 million pounds.
- The Ministry of Culture should facilitate the center’s work through coordination between the center and other ministries and government agencies, to conclude distribution protocols and make the translated books available at university libraries and cultural palaces.
- The National Center for Translation should disclose the mechanism of its work, from receiving the proposed works until publication. It should also publish advertisements for translators and provide training courses for them.
- The National Center for Translation should make all its publications available online through appropriate subscriptions for all groups, without discrimination based on financial capacity or geographical location.
Thus, the National Center for Translation needs to review its policies and roles, especially with regard to its relationship with the public. It should ensure that culture – represented in translated books – will reach a wider segment of the public, especially the groups most in need and those living in remote areas. The center can look at parallel Arab translation projects, which in a short time managed to have influential presence in the Arab cultural community. These include the Emirati “Kalima” project established in 2007, and the Kuwaiti “World of Knowledge” established in 1978, which produces a monthly magazine distributed across the Arab world and sold at newspaper outlets in Egypt for a symbolic price (5 pounds).
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