Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Unknown to readers of Arabic

There is a lot of facile blather about the globalization of culture, but real divisions remain. Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, is concerned that many American classic writers -- like Benjamin Franklin, above -- are simply unavailable in Arabic. Few translations have been made, and those few are extremely difficult to find. Sure, speakers of Arabic who know English or French have more options -- though one wonders how available texts are even for them. Millions of educated Arabs who know only their own language have no access to what many people would think are essential works.

Cole thinks this is appalling, and it is even more appalling that official American efforts to promote the best of American culture have been cut back over the past decade or so. He's trying to do something about it.

This leads me to reflect more generally on the notion of access to classic writings in other cultures, or classic writings in the more-familiar past. How much better off than these mono-lingual Arabs are most of us who read English? Read any Ben Franklin lately?

Think about English-speaking Canadians, who live right next door to the USA and have near-instant access to American material. Wouldn't you guess that the most influential material on our view of the USA is in video form? Movies, music videos, TV shows, TV news? The last being a particularly inadequate representation of reality?

It's worth thinking about what people really know, but it's not easy to come up with conclusions.

In the meantime, you might yourself consider reading some good Arabic, Japanese, French, Brazilian or American material. Small as Nipissing University's library looks in comparison to bigger scholarly collections, it contains more good stuff than any one person is likely to read. This, for instance.


Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

This may not be old enough to be a classic (1984), but I just read J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, a fictionalized autobiography of growing up English in WW II-era Shanghai.

Pretty grim book, but compelling.

It's in the NBPL but not at NU. At least it will be when I return it.

EotS has been made into a movie, which was popular enough to be reissued recently on DVD in a "special edition."

10:26 AM  
Blogger Geoff Sinclair said...

Author: Witold Gombrowicz
Title: Ferdydurke
Year: 1937

Translated from the Polish, I read this over ten years ago and enjoyed its absurdist view of education as political or institutional indoctrination. Sorry, it's not in North Bay Public or at NU, but I think it qualifies as a (modern) classic!


3:04 PM  

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