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A remedy for the Arab world's 'knowledge gap' - firm supplies translated IT texts

ASP translates, distributes over 1,000 foreign works, but faces a market suffering from economic constraints

"If God were to humiliate a human being, he would deny him knowledge," wrote Imam Ali bin Abu-Taleb in the 6th century.
Today's much-discussed UNDP Arab Human Development Report reveals bluntly that the Arab world is suffering a "knowledge gap" in comparison with the rest of the world.

Something went wrong along the road to development, and the region remains stuck behind the times.

Arabs, once leaders in many sciences, are now lagging far behind in scientific research and Information Technology (IT). The region is witnessing a drought of creativity and a severe shortage of innovative writing. To make matters worse, only a very small percentage of books and scientific publications are being translated. The realization that "in the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Maamoun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year" is quite shocking.

Improving the education system and creating the appropriate conditions to promote scientific research are but two of the widely accepted bold recommendations toward a "knowledge society" in the Arab region. These are Herculean tasks that take time to be achieved, but what about the issue of translating foreign works? This could be an intermediate solution, and one could assume that it is not such a difficult task.

Bassam Shbaro, CEO of the Arab Scientific Publishers (ASP), explains that on the practical level the translation and distribution of foreign works in the Arab world faces many hurdles.

ASP was established in 1987 by a group of Lebanese entrepreneurs. Its focus is to service the needs of an Arab market thirsty for IT printed material. Early on they were faced with the scarcity of Arab authors able to supply the needed material on time - i.e., as soon as the software hits the market. The best alternate solution was to seek copyrights and translate original publications.

Their first agreement was with Microsoft Press, which was followed by deals with Adobe Press, Cisco Press, Sybex and others. The market responded positively to this initiative, and by 1992 they established the Arabization and Software Center.

Today ASP's publication record contains over 1,000 IT titles. It succeeded in supplying its readers and various training centers in the Arab world with the Arabic versions as soon as the original publication became available. "The operation is developing well. Our costs are rational as we have a fully integrated operation - including a printing press, a translation and software center and a publishing house. Yet the profitability of the operation is less than satisfactory," says Shbaro.

In his opinion, the reasons are intertwined. The economic factor plays an important role. The price of an Arabic software manual with an explanatory CD is around $20. This is quite expensive in a region where most of the population lives on around $200 per month. Add to this that the region lacks a tradition of public libraries, thus reducing dramatically the demand for such products.

Yet Shbaro thinks that the problem transcends the fact that the average student cannot afford to pay for the product, and says the problem resides in the lax application of property-right laws within the region."Up to 25 percent of our costs consist of copyrights dues while most training centers, schools, and even universities purchase only one original copy and then proceed to either photocopying it or just reproducing it with small alterations" explains Shbaro.

The problem also has a sociopolitical dimension."Many include our products in the list of American products to be boycotted. Not paying the full price is a form of protest or revolt against the images coming out of Palestine or Iraq during the last four years," he says.

In addition to IT-related publications, the ASP library comprises more than 500 titles in subjects as varied as sciences, psychology, family and health, children books, business administration, cooking, tourism and - lately - politics and sociology. Most are translations of works in cooperation with publishing houses such as World Scientific, Berliz, Readers Digest and Osborne."In this instance we were faced with the issue of censorship in addition to the problems I mentioned in relation to our IT publications," continues Shbaro.

Acquiring the copyrights for the Arab language implies that the target market is the whole Arab region. Due to the small demand in most Arab countries, it was not profitable to print different editions for individual markets. Instead, ASP had to find a middle ground, allowing them to distribute their publications around the region without the specific censorship problems of each country.

"One might assume that in view of the fact that our publications are scientific or specialized in nature, the issue of censorship would not be a major hurdle," says Shbaro."This is far from being true. In some Arab countries it is not acceptable to include the pictures of women without headscarves or to show women in social activities considered not fitting in these societies.

"In other countries biology texts may not include any mention of the reproductive system, nor any mention of the Darwinian theory of evolution," says Shbaro."Even cook books need extra effort to be published, as we have to replace wines with vinegar and exclude any mention of pork. All of this complicates the process and adds costs."

Beirut,06 21 2004
Katoun Haidar
The Daily Star
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