New Initiative Taps Arab Book Market: A Q&A with Kalima Chief Executive Karim Nagy
The Arab-speaking world, which totals an estimated 250 million people worldwide, has been a relatively untapped market of potential new readers, with only about 330 books translated into Arabic each year. That market has recently been opened to more publishers, thanks to the efforts of Kalima—Arabic for “word”—a new, nonprofit cultural initiative dedicated to translating a wide variety of books into Arabic. Kalima partners with Arab publishers by funding the translation, publishing, distribution and marketing of these books.
Twenty-six U.S. titles are included in Kalima’s first batch of 100 classic and contemporary titles that it plans to translate in the next year, from William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” to Alan Greenspan’s recent best seller, “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World.”
“Kalima is an initiative set up by Arabs, for Arabs, and aims to celebrate the Arabic language by widening its usage,” says Karim Nagy, Kalima’s chief executive.
Nagy spoke with Book Business Extra about the history of Arab readership, the purpose of the Kalima initiative, and new opportunities that may be available for U.S. publishers looking to broaden their distribution.
Book Business Extra: What is the mission of Kalima?
Karim Nagy: Kalima is working to address the gap left by 1,000 years of limited translation—Arabic readers deserve no less. Kalima’s goal is to increase the number and choice of books available to readers in Arabic. Throughout Europe’s “Dark Ages” and until the end of the first millennium, Arab scholars and libraries led the world in translating, producing and preserving knowledge in science, medicine, philosophy and the arts. … Since then, however, very few foreign works have found their way into Arabic, producing a gap that Kalima aims to close through an ambitious series of public-private partnerships. … While the rest of the world has enjoyed a wealth of both domestic and translated books, the Arab world has not. To put the scale of the problem into perspective, on average, Spain translates [in one year] the number of books that have been translated into Arabic [over] the last 1,000 years.
Extra: Why have so few books been translated into Arabic thus far?
Nagy: The Arab book market is very fragmented. The market has also suffered historically from a lack of quality translation and translators, piracy, [and] weak marketing, merchandising and distribution channels. These issues are compounded by cultural, social, economic and even linguistic factors that have made the Arabic-speaking markets relatively less attractive than other regions for the international publishing industry. Kalima is dedicated to rebuilding the Arab library and reviving translation in the Arab world.
Extra: Beyond the initial selection of titles chosen for this project, what titles/genres should publishers consider for translation into Arabic?
Nagy: Kalima plans to translate 100 titles a year. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to pick only 100 titles each year out of the many thousands of works from all over the world that have been written over the centuries. … It’s important that as we do this, we strike a balance in the genres and categories of books we select. … We are partnering with publishers to ensure that a wide variety of books … are translated into Arabic.
Extra: Are new forms of digital distribution going to play a part in Kalima’s efforts?
Nagy: There will certainly be a digital element to Kalima. Books will be available to download from our Web site and will be available via other libraries in digital form. However, [print] books are still the medium of choice for the vast majority of readers. The death of books and printing has been predicted many times since the advent of the Internet; however, the publishing industry is healthier than ever, and certainly for the foreseeable future, we believe that many readers will want to read from a book, rather than a computer screen.