Between the lines: Egypt's censorship crackdown targets foreign book translations

Between the lines: Egypt's censorship crackdown targets foreign book translations
Egypt's top translation institution has barred foreign books that criticise religion or violate social values, with fears it could extend to political literature.
5 min read
26 August, 2020
New guidelines on the translation of foreign books into Arabic have been widely condemned. [Getty]
Egypt's National Centre for Translation (NCT), a state-run entity, has imposed strict new rules for translating books from foreign languages into Arabic, in a move described by Egypt's cultural community and freedom of thought advocates as state censorship

Earlier this month the centre released a statement in which it dictated that any pitch by a translator that tackles subjects opposing social norms, morals and customs, and monotheistic religions would be rejected.

Books approved for translation must be between 60 to 500 pages in length and no more than five years old. For decades, the National Centre for Translation has been a major source of academic enrichment where intellectuals, as well as ordinary readers, could access high quality translated books on a variety of subjects for an affordable price. 


The centre's director Ola Adel, who was appointed in February, attempted to justify her decision after a backlash by writers and translators, who described the move as a form of censorship.

"The statement was released at this specific time after consulting…with some translators and the arbitration committees," she told Egyptian satellite TV channel TEN

Egypt's National Centre for Translation, a state-run entity, has imposed strict new rules for translating books from foreign languages into Arabic

"Sometimes books are proposed by translators to the centre and the committees authorise them without reading the [original] work thoroughly, which led to [grave] problems. These include books that defend atheism…[and] homosexuality. I'm talking here about blatant forms of violation of customs and traditions," she added. 

Award-winning Egyptian novelist Sherif Saeed said the new guidelines were "extreme". "What about Greek mythology that has nothing to do with monotheist religious traditions? Shall we stop having them translated and ignore their aesthetic value? Will any cultured person who reads books about it decide to worship Apollo, for example, instead of God Almighty?" he told The New Arab.

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"I wonder where this decision came from. I can't even recall a certain translated book that raised a debate in recent years. At the same time, the books published by the centre are only sold at its store in Cairo and not distributed at Egyptian bookshops. They only get enough publicity at book fairs," he added.

Freedom of expression censored 

Many fear that the NCT's decision may also extend to the censorship of books discussing politics that do not conform to the state's directives, under the pretext that they are against social norms. 

"I expect in the coming future more censorship on books discussing politics. On the other hand, writings against monotheistic religions, ethics, social norms and family principles are broadly phrased expressions that are indefinite and relative," a prominent Egyptian translator told The New Arab on condition of anonymity.

"The National Centre for Translation is an institution funded by Egyptian taxpayers. The question now is whether or not Egypt is a secular country, or it can just be described as a conservative or a religious state given that decision," he argued.

Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rule Egypt has drastically restricted freedom of expression, regularly targeting journalists, bloggers, and media organisations, with over 500 local and international online media outlets and websites of international and local organisations blocked.

Many fear that the decision may also extend to the censorship of books discussing politics, under the pretext that they violate social norms

Earlier this year, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) censored all independent reporting on sensitive political topics, with journalists and social media users only allowed to communicate the official narrative about the conflict in Libya, Sinai, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the coronavirus pandemic

Egypt has been described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the worst jailers of journalists globally, while Reporters Without Borders ranked it 166 out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index

Social media reactions

The NCT's attempt to censor creativity has further stirred controversy on social media, especially since some translated books sold in Egypt entailed ideas rejected by the government-run entity.

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Novelist Ahmed Fakharany sarcastically called the institution "the national centre for 'legitimate' translation" on social media. An activist nicknamed Zenobia, meanwhile, tweeted: "I'm mad at the….centre but the [activists] are doing their part. By the way, someone may question what family values are. [In Egypt], they differ based on district and social class."

Egyptian novelist and former diplomat Ezzedine Fishere said on Twitter that "the centre's decision should remind [people] of learning foreign languages [so as not to resort to] translations."  

In another statement released after the new guidelines became a subject of debate, the NCT said that "stipulating the conditions that translated books must not contradict religions, norms and customs came after it received proposals [by translators to translate] writings offending religious symbols and institutions without having real ideologies." 

"Some other works even promote homosexuality and atheism; [books] the centre would never put its name on," the statement added, claiming that there was no place for prohibiting the freedom of thought or ideologies. 

"We present ideas and thoughts in our publications that follow our beliefs in order to enlighten and introduce the culture and thoughts of the other," the statement read.

Nevertheless, Adel's statement contradicts the past editorial practices of the NCT, which has published books that address the very topics her new guidelines now censor. These books include several editions of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, a philosophical novel written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that is composed of four parts written and published between 1883 and 1885. 

The book was on the best-selling list of the centre during the recent Cairo International Book Fair in January this year, less than one month after she was assigned the directorship of the centre. 

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue

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