Americana Translation Project
More on the new project I’ve launched, to translate works of American thought, history and culture into Arabic and have them printed, probably in Baghdad, and properly distributed.
Some kind readers are already donating to the project, and I am deeply grateful for their generosity. Someone suggested that if any Michigan lawyer or CPA were willing to donate some time to help me set it up as a 501c charitable foundation, that would be a wonderful gift to the project.
I should explain more why I chose the area of Americana. It is partially because, unlike France and many other countries, the United States has no ministry of culture. There is no agency, except the rump United States Information Agency that limps along inside the State Department, that has such projects as its purview. The USIA has done some nice little translations over the years. But I have never seen any of them in an actual Arabic bookstore and I think they are poorly distributed. What I have in mind really requires a private foundation, since government efforts are often mistrusted in the Middle East.
Another reason is that I lived in the Muslim world for nearly a decade, and it often pained me how few resources my Middle Eastern friends had for understanding the outside world if they did not know English or French. I have devoted my own life to trying to understand Middle Eastern and South Asian culture and history. I’ve done a lot of translating from Arabic and Persian, and have written lots of articles and books about the history of these regions. Most of my academic friends engage in similar pursuits. But I freely acknowledge how lucky I am to be able to spend my time this way. The US has many academic and other institutions that enable Americans to pursue such studies. Even some of my British academic friends complained that they weren’t supported for the language study they really needed for their dissertations.
I read on one chat site that the project struck the reader as imperialist or something. That isn’t my intent, of course, and it hasn’t been my life. I’ve been interested in what I could learn from other cultures. I have benefited enormously from translations done into English of, e.g., the Buddhist canon, Taoism, and so forth. I don’t Know Sanskrit or Chinese. I am grateful for what access I can get. I assume that there are people like me in the Middle East, who would be grateful to have similar opportunities. And, it seems to me in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war that it is really, really important that the US and the Middle East begin understanding each other better. I want to work on both sides of the problem.
Finally, I am influenced in all this by the Japanese model. American studies are ubiquitous in Japanese universities. And, the Japan Foundation promotes study of Japan in the US and elsewhere, without strings (i.e. the research doesn’t have to result in only flattering books). I’d like to see chairs of American studies founded at places like Baghdad university, with money for graduate students. And having translated texts of American classics would be necessary for any such programs to teach undergraduates.
The rule is that a translator should translate into his native language, so I will definitely seek out qualified Arab translators and editors. I am making contact with Baghdad intellectuals about all this.
Some readers have suggested other works besides Thomas Jefferson, including everything from Mark Twain to Gore Vidal. I’d like to see the project eventually do it all. Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King are also candidates. (Twain is actually probably available, since more literature gets translated than political thought or history). But I had to start somewhere, and I think Jefferson would be especially interesting for Iraqis right now.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has supported the principle of one person, one vote, and admitted to having read a translated Western work on democracy, from which he learned to appreciate such principles. If the haphazard and spotty such literature that now exists in Arabic influenced such an important man in such a significant direction, then I’d say doing more of that kind of thing is worthwhile. It doesn’t mean we don’t have things to learn from the Iraqis. Of course we do. Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi’s al-Imta’ wa’-mu’anasa (Enjoyment and Conviviality) is one of my favorite books, and it hasn’t been translated into English.