Valentina Colombo / Sep 04, 2009

I wonder whether Farouq Hosni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture and likely the next head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, knows that the declaration mentioned below is on UNESCO’s official website. I wonder whether he knows that UNESCO in 1956 launched a UNESCO Translations Programme to “contribute to mutual understanding between peoples by making the masterpieces of other literatures available to all”. I wonder whether he knows the Webster’s Dictionary definition of translation, that is “a written communication in a second language having the same meaning as the written communication in a first language”:

 “The undersigned, meeting to consider international co-operation in literature and translation, recognize: that literature in the native language of the reader is essential to the transmission of ideas around the world; that translation is an irreplaceable tool for ensuring cultural diversity; that is through translation that people share their literary culture; that every language is part of humanity’s essential cultural environment and must be sustained; that solidarity between the developed and developing world is essential to the promotion of cultural diversity.”

I am afraid to say that the most likely answer is that Hosni does not.

It is true that in order to pave his way to UNESCO he declared that his Ministry will start translating Israel authors Amos Oz and David Grossman’s literary works into Arabic, but it is also true that he was immediately criticized by Gaber Asfour, the head of Egypt’s National Translation Center, an official institution inside the Ministry of Culture.

Asfour pointed out that there will be no translation of the Israeli authors from Hebrew, but from existing European translations in English and French. Asfour declared: “I hope that we can sign an agreement with French and British publishers without passing through Israeli publishers” and “we cannot co-operate with Israeli publishers since this would stir up a hurricane in Egypt.”

What is worrying is that these words did not find any comment from Hosni who is a minister of a country that in 1979 signed a normalization treaty with Israel. I am deeply convinced that the Ministry of Culture should give the good example. Should not this ministry from this country be the first to start the fight against anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic feeling inside Egypt? Whoever knows Egypt knows that this is far from becoming true.

Hosni probably does not even know that some of Oz’ and Grossmann’s books have already been translated into Arabic by Israeli publishers.  The case of Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is telling. The book was translated into Arabic thanks to the financial aid of the family of George Khoury, a 20-year-old student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was shot in the head, the neck and the stomach by a group of men linked the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

His family decided to answer back with a cultural reaction: the translation of an Israeli author into Arabic. I believe that this brave and wise action should be an example for the Egyptian minister of culture. It should enlighten him that culture and translation can be a good help to solve political and ideological problems.

Change and progress extremely need courage and a strong will to remove ideology and hate. Unfortunately Hosni has neither courage nor will.

The Egyptian minister of culture could bear in mind the Israeli example and remind his countrymen of it, especially to the intellectuals. As far as translating from Hebrew is concerned, he could say that translation is the basis for mutual knowledge and respect. He could explain that he translation process can be logically divided into two steps: the meaning must be decoded from the source language, and this meaning must be re-encoded with the receivinglanguage. For a precise translation, both of these steps often require knowledge of both the semantics of the language and the culture of its speakers. This is the reason why a translation of Israeli books must be directly from Hebrew into Arabic, both Semitic languages, having almost the same structure and born in the same geographical area.  

Further, one of the first rules of translation is that “double translation” should always be avoided.  

Hosni might also recall that during the Abbasid Empire, from about 800 to 1150 A.D.,  Arabs actively sought out and translated Classical Greek texts into Arabic, and translations included the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, and Galen, among many others. The rulers Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Mamun, devoted the empire to the study of sciences, culture, and the arts, while actively seeking knowledge from other cultures. Within fifty years of the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty, Baghdad was the cultural center of the world. Al-Mamun established the Baghdad school called the “House of Wisdom” . Intensely interested in Classical Greek culture and its philosophical writing, al-Mamun enthusiastically promoted the translation of philosophical and scientific texts. During this period of intense knowledge-gathering and cultural openness, Muslims incorporated Greek thought into their Islamic religious tradition and developed Islamic philosophy.

Hosni might also recall that Arabic is one of the two official languages in Israel, that the main law governing language policy is the 82nd paragraph of the “Palestine Order in Council” issued on August 14, 1922, for the British Mandate of Palestine, which reads as follows: “All Ordinances, official notices and official forms of the Government and all official notices of local authorities and municipalities in areas to be prescribed by order of the High Commissioner, shall be published in English, Arabic and Hebrew.” This law, like most other laws of the British Mandate, was adopted in the State of Israel, subject to certain amendments published by the provisional legislative branch on May 19, 1948.

Hosni might also recall that in Israel, a November 2000 supreme court ruling which stated that although second to Hebrew, the use of Arabic should be much more extensive. Since then, all road signs, food labels, and messages published or posted by the government must be translated into Arabic, unless being issued by the local authority of an exclusively Hebrew-speaking community.

Additionally, in March 2007, the Knesset approved a new law calling for the establishment of an Arabic language academy similar to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. This institute was established in 2008, its center is in Haifa, and it is currently headed by Prof. Mahmud Ghanayem.

Hosni might also recall that in Israel there is a small independent publisher, al-Andalus, which has been translating Arabic literature for a long time.  On its website ( we can read: “It is nearly impossible to find translations of narratives that might enable the Hebrew reader to understand Arab societies and the various, complex experiences that shape the lives of the people who comprise them.”  On the same page we can even read a critical stand against Israeli government policies.

What should be clear is that such an experience is possible in democratic Israel, but cannot even be imagined in Egypt.

If Farouq Hosni wants to sound honest in his intentions towards Israel and Israeli culture to show a true change, he can start and fund a small publisher like Andalus, translating books from Hebrew into Arabic. This would be a positive signal and a perfect way to thank the Israeli government, in the person of Binyamin Netanyahu, for its removal of the veto against him at UNESCO. Not the too-late decision to translate books from a second language just to reach his goal. (Hosni has been Minister of culture for 21 years.)

I am concerned that Netanyahu’s decision will turn out to be dangerous and naïve.

Last but not least, we should not forget that alongside Hosni’s “opening” towards Israeli culture, there was his opening towards Saudi Arabia, after its announcement that he was the right candidate to the head of UNESCO. Hosni defined Saudi Arabia a big country with important cultural, religious and historical roots and he expressed his intension to intensify cultural relations between the two countries.

Hosni clearly “forgets” the meaning of Wahhabism and the condition of Saudi women.

Hosni “forgets” that his battle against veil in Egypt is in total conflict with the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

I think that Mr Farouq Hosni is forgetting too many things to qualify him as the head of UNESCO. He  is not suitable for this post, not only because of his ideas about Israel, but most of all for his total lack of knowledge of the meaning of culture and cultural exchange in general, and of the history of Arab and Islamic culture, in particular.

by Valentina Colombo
Research Fellow, IMT Lucca

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