Translate the great American thinkers like Thomas Jefferson into Arabic

Decades ago, people stopping by in a bookstore or public library in Amman, Jordan, or Istanbul, Turkey, wouldn’t have been surprised to find a literary classic or political writings by a famous American author. That’s because the United States government used to make a concerted effort to translate great works of American thought into Arabic and distribute them throughout the Middle East. The U.S. Information Agency formerly performed that role, as did the nonprofit Franklin Book Program with financial help from the State Department and private funders. Unfortunately, all those book translation programs ended years ago.

That’s a loss for the United States’ public diplomacy and for the world, explains Juan Cole, a prominent commentator and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. Cole is the head of the Global Americana Institute, which now seeks to fill the void by translating the works of important American figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Jefferson. As he explains:

The classics of American thought and history have been little translated into Arabic. If you peruse Arab bookstores, you find almost nothing about the US, though sometimes anti-American polemics are displayed, and a few critics of US foreign policy are occasionally translated. But books on political thought, history and culture are rarely encountered. Worse, even when they have been translated, they have appeared in small print runs, and fairly quickly go out of print. The distribution system for Arabic books is poor, and there are few public libraries. Many books that have been published in the past are no longer available to most readers.

We have therefore begun a project to translate important books by great Americans and about America into Arabic, and to subsidize their publication so that they can be bought inexpensively. We are also subventing their distribution. We seek funding from the general public as well as from foundations.

Along with the private nonprofit sector, Congress and the Administration should also step up to provide more proactive support.

For more information, check out “Barnes & Noble Goes to Baghdad: A brilliant plan to send American books to the Middle East,” Slate.