An Exciting New Project To Translate More Stuff Into Arabic

Plus: Another book giveaway

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If you were born in an Arabic-speaking country, and that’s your only language, and you’re a naturally curious person who wants to learn about the world, you’re at a pretty severe disadvantage through no fault of your own: There’s a dire translation and information gap when it comes to Arabic as compared to other languages with similar numbers of speakers.

A United Nations report from 2002 captures things pithily:

The position of Arab countries is also unsatisfactory with respect to cultural heritage and creativity. In the case of heritage, Arab countries lack the means of controlling their old and new information assets, including scripts, documents, films, voice and video recordings, music and songs. Most of these resources have not been digitized. As for new creative content, Arab countries suffer a serious shortage in its production. The rate of film production has dropped from hundreds to scores. Most of the material transmitted on Arab TV channels is imported. Similarly, Arab news agencies with some recent exceptions, import most of their reports from the four major news agencies, almost becoming subagencies. There are no reliable figures on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content. The figures for translated books are also discouraging.

The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year. [emphasis mine]

There are various reasons for this, but many of them, of course, stem from the chaos and political repression that have beset much of the Arabic-speaking world. Arabic-speaking countries are disproportionately likely to be ruled by autocrats of one stripe or another — many supported by the United States or able to seize power as a result of our disastrous missteps in the region — and autocrats, whether religious or secular, tend to discourage the free flow of ideas.

One organization has embarked on an admirable project to try to fix this, and I was impressed enough that I wanted to feature it in Singal-Minded. Ideas Beyond Borders was founded by Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who was “born in 1991 and grew up in Baghdad. He survived the Iraq War and years of civil war, enduring kidnappings and the murder of his brother. Arriving in the United States as a refugee in 2013, he vowed to protect others similarly vulnerable to the destructive forces of authoritarianism and extremism. Faisal created Ideas Beyond Borders to help make the world a safer and better place.”

IBB recently launched Bayt al-Hikma 2.0, a project to greatly ramp up the quantity of intellectually oriented online information available in Arabic. Steven Pinker, for one, is on board, and IBB has secured the rights to his Enlightenment Now as one of its book-translation projects.

A document Melissa Chen, an IBB staffer (and, full disclosure, a Twitter-buddy I’ve met a few times in real life), sent me explains the origin of the name:

Known as Bayt al-Hikma in Arabic, the House of Wisdom was initially founded as a private library in 8th century Baghdad by Caliph Harun al-Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty for personal use. His son, al-Ma'mun, formalized and institutionalized it, inviting scientists and scholars from all over the world to come to study and exchange ideas in the dynamic cultural climate of Baghdad.

The House of Wisdom was not just a library and academy of scholars, but also a translation institute where numerous works from the Greek literary canon were collected and translated. This established an enormous influence on Arab thought. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the libraries in Baghdad (Bayt al-Hikma), Damascus (al-Zahiriyah), Timbuktu (Sankoré), Cordoba (Royal Mosque) and Cairo (Dar al-Hikmah) contained more books, manuscripts and literature than in the entire Greek world. From this melting pot of ideas and cultural vibrancy emerged technological developments such as the production of paper from China, which facilitated the spread of scholarship. Bayt al-Hikma quickly became a symbol of the merging and expansion of intellectual traditions from across different cultures and nations, as it grew to become the flower of the Islamic Golden Age, a period between the 7th and 13th centuries of great intellectual growth and discovery in the Islamic world.

Bayt al-Hitkma 2.0 doesn’t have much of an English web presence, but is apparently already doing a ton of stuff on the Arabic internet, according to IBB

There’s more information on this one-pager, or you can click over to the IBB website if you’d like to learn more about the organization, how to donate or otherwise get involved, and so forth.


Book Giveaway: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution

In college, I flirted with the idea of being an astronomy or a physics major until the math piled up too high and collapsed on me, pinning me against the floor of my dorm room for an excruciating 16-hour nightmare until help arrived and offered to let me major in philosophy instead.

I still have some of that failed-physics-major in me, though, because I got very excited when a copy of Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum came in the mail:

Quantum physics is the golden child of modern science. It is the basis of our understanding of atoms, radiation, and so much else, from elementary particles and basic forces to the behavior of materials. But for a century it has also been the problem child of science: it has been plagued by intense disagreements between its inventors, strange paradoxes, and implications that seem like the stuff of fantasy. Whether it's Schrödinger's cat--a creature that is simultaneously dead and alive--or a belief that the world does not exist independently of our observations of it, quantum theory challenges our fundamental assumptions about reality.

In Einstein's Unfinished Revolution, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin provocatively argues that the problems which have bedeviled quantum physics since its inception are unsolved and unsolvable, for the simple reason that the theory is incomplete. There is more to quantum physics, waiting to be discovered. Our task--if we are to have simple answers to our simple questions about the universe we live in--must be to go beyond quantum mechanics to a description of the world on an atomic scale that makes sense.

YES PLEASE. I’m probably not going to have time to read Einstein's Unfinished Revolution this month, but in the meantime Penguin Press has generously agreed to give away a copy to a Singal-Minded reader. I’m going to do it as a random drawing again — just send an email with the subject ‘Einstein’ and nothing else to singalminded@gmail.com. You gotta be a subscriber to enter.

Three quick things on book giveaways, while we’re on the subject:

1. I want to do them as frequently as possible and am going to see how many publishers I can get on board with the idea.

2. Sometimes I’ll incorporate some sort of more interesting/exciting contest element — “If you want a copy of this book about the history of pillows, write a limerick about a pillow and I’ll pick the best one,” etc. — but I’m also lazy and busy, so much of the time things will just take the form of a random drawing.

3. For transparency’s sake, random drawings work like this: I set up a filter so that all emails with the subject line in question directed to the Singal-Minded account get stuffed in a folder. I click on that folder and see how many emails arrived by the deadline (any that arrived after get deleted, mercilessly, as I chuckle creepily). I use Google’s random-number generator to pick a number between 1 and that total, count down from the top, and voilà, a winner (as long as they are a subscriber). So if you don’t send an email with exactly the correct subject line, you don’t get entered.

Good luck! And if you don’t win, be consoled by the fact that according to certain quantum-mechanical theories, every instant reality is branching off into countless parallel universes, and there are a huge number of them in which you did win a copy of Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution.

If memory serves. Again, this isn’t my strong suit.


Questions? Comments? Shady requests from CIA operatives to translate my tweets into Arabic as a surefire way to sow anger and chaos in the region? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Lead image of the original House of Wisdom via.