In a much-anticipated event at Manial Palace, Penguin Chairman and Chief Executive John Makinson and Dar El Shorouk Chairman Ibrahim Moallem signed a joint publishing agreement on Nov. 24.
The Shorouk-Penguin partnership will support the translation and distribution of 12 Penguin Classics titles into Arabic and eight works of Arabic literature into English each year.
Prominent Arab authors including Ahdaf Soueif, Radwa Ashour, Bahaa Taher and Gamal El-Ghitani spoke at the event, emphasizing the opportunities offered by the agreement and the need for greater international appreciation and understanding of Arabic literature and society. Egyptian authors Alaa Al-Aswany and Khairy Shalaby were also in attendance.
Although Penguin has launched similar partnerships in Brazil, China and South Korea, the scope of the agreement with Dar El Shorouk goes beyond translation exchange and will offer the opportunity for classic works of Arabic literature to become permanent members of the Penguin Classics series, which currently consists of over 1,200 titles.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote: are among the books that will become available in Arabic beginning in 2011.
As a result of this partnership, it seems that Arab writers are finally poised to attract the international attention they deserve and have long sought. At the launch, the heads of both publishing houses expressed hope that the partnership would facilitate cultural understanding and exchange as more Arabic literature is made available in the west and more reliable and well-translated editions of classic western works become available in the Arab world.
Although most Penguin Classics titles have already been translated into Arabic, works like “Gulliver’s Travels” will be published reliably in a full Arabic translation for the first time, and will offer higher quality editions distinguished by their textual integrity and excellent translations. The publishers also hope to provide e-book versions of the published titles to facilitate their wide distribution across the region.
While the fact that just one work of Arabic literature, “The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam” has made it into the USA series so far speaks to deep misconceptions about the Arab world and its cultural output in the west, that forthcoming recognition is encouraging.
If belated culturally, the partnership is certainly timely for demographic reasons, as youth reading rates across the Arab world appear to be on the rise. The publishers expressed awareness of a rising regional demand for good quality translations of classic international works and cited it as a main impetus for the partnership.
A recent survey conducted by Ipsos Media at the MENA ICT Forum in Amman reveals a region on the brink of cultural change as the traditional roles of countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, long lauded for being, respectively, the nations of writers, publishers and readers, have been drastically impacted by the appearance of new media.
The survey found that the UAE has the highest reading rate in the region, with 54.2 percent engaging with books, followed by Lebanon with 53.5 percent, and Jordan with 47.6 percent while Egypt was ranked last at 10.6 percent, falling behind Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with 44.8 percent reading rates. The survey also found that the majority of reading is done by young people between the ages of 15 and 30.
These findings reflect changing cultural currents that will certainly begin to impact the Arab publishing industry in the years to come. It remains to be seen how the Shorouk-Penguin partnership will shape regional and international trends into the future, but it seems clear that both Arab youth and international audiences will benefit from an expanded worldview as the partnership begins its work.