Ask any Cairene for books and they will point you to Downtown Cairo. Any bookstore worth its salt is huddled there, within a one or two mile radius of its closest competitor. Egypt’s publishing industry is based in Cairo, and more specifically in this quarter of Cairo. Most publishing houses retain flagship stores while smaller publishers and distribution outlets cater to more niche tastes.
Yet scouring this informal network of bookstores brought me nowhere closer to finding a particular book, a well-known classic of world literature, any where I looked. I had gone with high expectations, wishing to make a gift of it to someone who was an avid reader, and imagined myself comparing different translations; leisurely examining readability, faithfulness and flow.
There were no comparisons because there was only one translation available anywhere in Cairo. “You may be able to find something else in Beirut,” I was told over and over again everywhere I went.
Beirut? Perhaps it was time to rethink my romanticised image of Cairo’s place in Arab publishing.
The book industry in Egypt has been suffering through a crisis for some time now. Higher costs of publishing and translation, lack of state support, high levels of illiteracy and either the desire not to or the inability of the publisher to take risks have meant a decline in the quality of books offered in Cairo’s bookstores.
The quantity of publishers may have increased but the large-scale national cultural project endorsed by the state, part of its 1960s legacy, has mostly disappeared, without leaving a viable alternative in its place.
“The publishing industry and culture in general is reliant on the Ministry of Culture. Whether we like it or not, Egypt was reliant on Suzanne Mubarak and her projects. Now, there is a vacuum and there is a lack of certain books on one hand, such as academic books and children’s books, and an overflow of others like political books, novels and sarcasm literature,” said Nashwa El Hofy, former vice manager of Nahdet Masr.
Publishing in Egypt is reliant on the public sector, in the form of state-supported and subsidised efforts to publish and translate such as the General Egyptian Authority for books and the National Council for translation, as well as private publishing houses, who often cannot take many risks on new writers or commission high-quality translations because of high costs.
“The costs of publishing have gone up substantially. Everything from the paper to labour has gone up and it is generally more difficult to take a risk on a smaller author. Publishers now will only print about 1,000 copies for each author and see how it goes from there”, Madbouly publishing told us.
Authors like Alaa El Aswany, and other big names, get around 5000 copies each print. State-supported publishers often get subsidised, high-quality, even imported paper while the private sector gets few or no incentives from the state.
The high rates of illiteracy present a problem for publishing and translation as the number of people who can read and have purchasing power is relatively low in a big market such as Egypt, one of the reasons cities like Beirut and Amman seemingly have larger publishing houses with a better resource: more readers.
“The average Arab citizen today is no longer a reader. We account for less than 1 per cent of all translations each year, despite the number of Arab speakers,” said Fatma Naoot, one of Egypt’s top translators of English literature.
The big publishing houses enforce strict quality-control measures in order to minimise risks and publish works that add to their catalogue. Every big publishing house in Egypt such as Shorouk, Madbouly, and Meritt, have new writers submit material digitally where a reading committee will review it.
The committee is usually made up of authors, critics, intellectuals, etc. and the committee discusses whether or not the material is worthy of publishing based on different factors such as the book being beneficial to the public, how likely it is to sell and whether it adds something to the publisher’s most likely already extensive catalogue. Authors like Gamal El Ghitany or Alaa El Aswany do not submit their works before a reading committee.
If the work is accepted, then a contract is drawn up. This varies from three to five years, depending on the publisher, and paperwork such as getting an international book number. Archiving ensues. The book then goes into design where the size will be determined by the printing press with different standard sizes such as the 14.5 by 21.5 or the larger 17 by 24.
The book also goes through several rounds of edits and gets special review in terms of its Arabic to ensure that mistakes are ironed out. Finally, a cover is designed and the book is printed, with the number of each batch depending on the author and the book’s likelihood to sell.
Translation is still one of the primary ways knowledge is transferred and not much has changed since the translation of important works was considered the mark of great civilizations. If one can consider publishing in Egypt to be suffering, we may say that translation is in an even worse state; there is simply not enough money to commission high-quality translations.
There can be no lack of translators in a country of 80 million but lack of proper pay and recognition, as well as slipping standards for qualified translators have made this once prestigious occupation a nostalgic memory of a golden age gone by.
The two large scale translation centers that translate into Arabic are the National Council of Translation, established by Gaber Asfour and the General Egyptian Authority for books. There are a number of smaller translation efforts by the General Authority for cultural palaces but whose quality and pay do not match the former two. Translating Arabic to other languages, namely English, is done on a large scale by the AUC Press.
“The golden age of translation in Cairo was in Mohamed Ali’s time when he enacted reforms and sent delegations to Europe and in particular France. We cannot forget Rifaa’ Al Tahtawi’s efforts to which every Egyptian translator is indebted. The Egyptian day for the translator is 15 October, Tahtawi’s birthday,” said Naoot.
“The average Israeli reads as much as 2800 Arabs. We need to have a plan for translation, not have this haphazard translation of whatever comes along. The author who won the Nobel Prize from China, we need to translate people like that. We need a project of translation by the state to have clear vision,” added Naoot.
Naoot said the standard of translation was also slipping because Egypt did not have enough capable translators, or at least, they were not held to high standards, “we need to have proper translation courses and tests to ensure translators can produce a work of high-quality and meet high standards.”
Many of the authoritative translations come from outside of Egypt, namely Beirut. The reason for this, El Hofy and Naoot say is societal differences.
“Lebanon has a much lower illiteracy rate as well as a more cosmopolitan society where more people can read and speak different languages and this has a direct impact on translation. They also have higher living standards as well as cultural exchange and partnerships with the EU and several European countries when it comes to translation and research,” said El Hofy.
The cost of translation is another problem often requiring a big budget to commission a work that would be considered satisfactory to a reputable publishing house, “we often have to go through two or three rounds of heavy editing, sometimes even commission a new translation, which is very costly,” said Ahmed Bedeir, head of publishing in Shorouk, the largest trade publisher in the Middle East.
The cost of a word to be translated has also increased substantially, “the cost of the written word has gone from being in the range of milliemes to almost one Egyptian pound”, said author Gamal El Ghitany.
“Today the only institution that translates Arabic literature with a clear vision is the AUC Press. There are no other institutions with a guided plan that conduct the process efficiently. To translate into Arabic, we have the National Council for Translation and the General Egyptian Authority for books.
The National Council is 15 years old and has translated around 2,000 titles. We also used to have the Taha Hussein project initiated by France to nominate works in Arabic to be translated into French. The project was stopped during Sarkozy’s presidency citing austerity measures and the need to cut down on public expenditure,” El Ghitany added.
Getting intellectual property rights is another problem facing Egyptian translators, “we have a lot of bureaucracy in translation and we run into a lot of trouble just trying to get permission to translate before the actual process has even begun”, said Abdel Rahman El Khamissi, an Egyptian translator of Russian literature.
“Because the private sector has such limited resources, the public sector takes on the task, often with infamous bureaucracy. The National Council for Translation has translated about 1,000 titles in six or seven years and actually celebrated it. This is a small number for a country like Egypt,” said Khamissi.
The process of translation can be so lengthy that a translation can take up as much as two to three years between getting property rights, translating, editing, publishing and distribution, “this is definitely not something that can be done independently.
The only way you can be a translator in Egypt is if you have the luxury of time, meaning that you have another source of income. It can take a translator up to a year and a half to get paid fully for one book and the average price that is considered not too low but not too high either is a quarter of a pound. It is not enough to do it on its own unless there is another steady source of income,” said Khamissi.
The lack of academic books translated into Arabic carries with it a difficulty in translating specific terms in the humanities and social sciences, “there is a problem in terminology and translations have to be decoded in order to be understood. I do not believe there is any specific competition between Cairo and any other city but that there is a crisis in translation and publishing in the whole region,” said author Khaled El Khamissi, brother of Abdel Rahman El Khamissi.
Electronic publishing is a thriving market and ebooks are growing globally all over the world. The internet has offered freedom to cheaply or freely distribute books efficiently with little or non-existent forms of censorship. In Egypt, the market may be nowhere near as big as in Europe and North America but the demand is there, obvious by the piracy that is rampant in the country.
“There are two types of piracy in the book industry; paper and digital. Paper piracy is when a book is copied and reprinted on cheaper paper but digital is when it is scanned and circulated as a digital copy, usually on the internet. Paper publishing’s place is currently contested because of digital or electronic publishing,” said Bedeir.
“Egypt has very strong laws on piracy and intellectual property rights but we have no enforcement. If you go to the public prosecutor and talk about copyright infringement, it is like speaking a different language,” said Bedeir.
Bedeir also maintains that one of the key problems to Egypt participating in what he calls ‘the fastest growing market’ for books is the non-existent support for Arabic on electronic devices and e-readers, “Apple has a list of 14 languages not supported by the iPad and of those only Arabic, Hebrew and Persian would be recognisable to most of us. All the other languages are not even in the same category in terms of speakers.”
The growing number of smaller publishers has meant an increase in what is called “vanity publishing.” The phenomena has risen since the costs publishing have gone up and publishers no longer want or can take the same risks on smaller writers.
For many, this has meant financing their own book using their own money. The quality of books released through this form of publishing can suffer since the author does not go through a reading committee the same way it does if it were selected by a big publishing house.
“Self-publishing means that there are more books in the market at any given time. So what if they are all not of the same quality? None of the books by a big publishing house are all of high-quality anyway,” said El Hofy.
“Self publishing is not a new phenomenon, it has been around for a very long time. There is no problem that the quality suffers because the publishers will always maintain their role,” said Bedeir.
Author Ahmed El Aidy says ‘vanity publishing’ carries with it certain advantages but also some unforeseen risks, “the upside is that we have a lot of authors in Egypt, so it can be used to unearth new talent and give them an opportunity to get published where they otherwise may not. This also encourages smaller publishing houses to operate. The risk is the quality of the product put on the market, as well as a false sense of self-realisation for some because it is every author’s dream to get published.”
Currently, most of the opinions on the future of publishing and translation in Egypt seem to rely in one way or another on the role of the state. Opinions may vary on the exact role and how limited it should be but it is clear that in Egypt the public sector heavily influences where the industry goes, unlike a country like Lebanon where the private sector can have a larger role than the state in many areas.
“We need the state to ‘publish publishing’ or spread what is published. What is the point of these books when no one can find them? In France, my novel was available through public libraries because the state bought it and made it available,” said Khaled El Khamissi.
El Hofy thinks that the private sector is the future of culture in Egypt but is still weary of market values.“I think the future of publishing is safe precisely because of these new, up and coming publishing houses in the country.
They cater to a new demographic and they will cause a spark. I think the private sector, in the absence of a state cultural program, which seems to have culture low on its list of priorities, will be the one to carry the industry forward. We need the private sector and civil society but we also have to stop saying ‘this is what the customer wants.’ We present what is of good quality and that is it.”
Khamissi also thinks that these publishing houses offer something different, “they offer a more dialectical relationship with society and I am optimistic about their future.”
For Bedeir, the state is there to provide protection and encouragement for the private sector, “we need to fight piracy so we can cope with the growing trend that is digital publishing and we need support financially from the state to small publishing houses to encourage more publishing and translation. What we do not need, is the public sector having its own journalism and publishers. The state should have a limited role of regulation, not publishing.”
Currently, Bedeir says the Arabic books outsell English books at Shorouk at a 60-40 or 70-30 per cent ratio, “foreign language books are four times the price so that may be a factor but Arabic books are still what is in demand.”
In 2010, Shorouk teamed up with Penguin, the biggest trade publisher in the world, to produce quality translations. Bedeir believes that the future will be in digital publishing, “I still think the publisher will always be of importance. Books are books, physical or digital,” added Bedeir.
With the heyday of the internet as a platform to self-publish, El Ghitany is concerned that this, coupled with censorship, will provoke an extreme reaction on the part of young authors, “there is no official censorship on books in Egypt, there is only societal censorship. This has prompted many authors to publish and say things that are extremely provocative and offensive. I expect that paper publishing will have to diminish for some time as electronic publishing takes some of its share.”
“We now also have markets that have become very difficult to penetrate such as Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately, the direction seems to be going in the trend of shrinking budgets for culture,” added El Ghitany.