King Abdullah International Prize for Translation was launched five years ago, and recently, a grand ceremony took place in Beijing to distribute the prizes among this year’s award winners.
The prize has established itself in the category of top awards for translation at the international level through its success in attracting major universities, academic institutions, and the best translators from all over the world.
This and other Saudi initiatives send across a clear message to the international community that the country is open for cultural exchange and dialogue in the interest of promoting understanding through languages and translations. The Kingdom’s growing international stature has already been recognized by several countries that have deputed Arabic-speaking ambassadors to Riyadh.
Major countries, such as the United States, Britain, France, China and Malaysia, believe in using the national language of the host country as a strategic diplomatic tool in developing rapport with the leaders of those countries. The US Embassy press attaché here, Mofid Deak, an Arabist diplomat, shared his views with Arab News about the advantages of being an Arabic-speaking diplomat.
“When we send somebody who can speak and understand the language and culture of the host country, this sends a message of good will immediately,” Deak explained. “It lowers the communication barriers created by the lack of understanding,” he said, adding that it is also an effective means of showing respect to the host country’s language.
According to Deak, an Arabic-speaking diplomat will gauge public opinion quickly on the street and relay the message more accurately to his or her government. This eliminates any misunderstanding that might occur as a result of unreliable translation, in which the truth might be lost in translation. Besides, knowing another language helps one overcome the cultural barrier and also in understanding the mindset of the people.
Deak said that when he spoke to the local press, they felt less intimidated in contacting him, as it saves them the hassle of getting a statement in English translated into Arabic. “Since I came here, our press statements have dramatically increased in Saudi Arabia, which is a good thing both for Saudi Arabia and the United States,” Deak observed.
According to the Chinese ambassador to Riyadh, Li Chengwen, who took over recently, his government had 23 Arabic-speaking envoys spread across Arab states, including himself, while it had over 150 Arabists in the diplomatic corps. They are now offering courses in Arabic diplomacy at 20 universities in China for further enhancement of their diplomatic missions in Arab states. “This shows how we, Chinese, care for getting along with the people and respect their culture and language,” he added.
The ambassador, the seventh Arabic-speaking envoy to work in Saudi Arabia, said that China’s foreign minister in the 1950s had advised all its diplomats to learn the language and culture of the country where they were going to be posted, so that they could stay tuned to the people and help cement relations. In this context, he disclosed that 500 Saudis visited China last year during the China Expo, where Saudi Arabia had built a huge pavilion.
The Chinese envoy said that in this era of the global village, international business opportunities had multiplied and travel and tourism had gained a new momentum. Mutual understanding and communications between nations — always a difficult task — had acquired increased urgency. As a result, significant numbers of people in the world had begun to call for better international understanding, with foreign language study becoming a critical element in attaining this goal
Another Arabist, Omar Al-Saggaf, Malaysian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and an alumnus of Al-Madinah Islamic University, said the Arabic language helped him boost bilateral relations in the economic field. “I established cordial relations with Saudi businessmen, press, TV and radio stations who have interviewed me because of my Arabic language skills.” He added that knowledge of local language and culture of the host country was a valuable diplomatic tool.
Not to be left behind, the Philippines government has, for the first time, decided to appoint an Arabic-speaking envoy. Alberto del Rosario, the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, wrote in a letter to Datu Camad Ali, executive president of the Southern Philippines Muslim non-Muslim Unity and Development Association (SPMUDA): “I have taken note of SPMUDA's wish to have Arabic-speaking diplomats appointed to Islamic nations. A career diplomat with outstanding qualifications has been named to the position of Philippine ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and his communication skills in the Arabic language were taken into consideration.” The letter was written in response to the NGO's fervent appeal to send Arabic-speaking envoys to Arab states.
Another important factor, besides knowledge of Arabic, is that the Shariah-compatible economic system in Saudi Arabia has gained international attention for its role in promoting a stable economy, unlike the free-market economy in the West blamed for much of the current economic upheaval there. Bankers from these countries are seriously studying the Islamic finance system as one of the options to cope with the situation their banks face and for addressing public concerns stemming from capitalist greed. The “Occupy Wall Street” campaign, which has spilled over from the US to Britain and elsewhere, underlines the gravity of the situation, for which the interest-free Islamic economy has an answer.
Many Arabists wonder why non-Arabic speaking expatriates are reluctant to study the language or let their children study in Arabic schools. In his doctoral thesis “Teaching Arabic to non-Arab Foreign Children,” Ibrahim Al-Rubais said expatriates did not expect much benefit from learning the Arabic language, as it did not guarantee a bright future for their children, both in the Kingdom and back home.
Second, Saudi universities do not allow foreigners to continue their studies after graduation from high school here. According to the thesis, foreign children studying in primary schools in the Kingdom return home when they realize they cannot pursue studies after secondary education.
Third, there is a lack of interest among sponsors and companies to encourage expatriates to learn Arabic, which could be one of the conditions for their retention and extension of services.
A Saudi columnist said that despite the government announcement that Arabic is the official language, many firms here persist with the use of English. This is due to the fact that many job vacancies advertised in the local papers indicate that applicants should be proficient in English. On the other hand, there is only a marginal preference for those who know the Arabic language.
Al-Rubais observed that the recent economic recession in the West had led to the closure of several major companies in America alone, leaving others with a question mark over their future. This has forced them to search for an alternative, as a result of which they have discovered an answer in the
Islamic economy. “This is a great chance for the Arab world to seize the opportunity. It should do something for expats to get them interested in gaining Arabic knowledge while they are in need of employment,” he added.
Al-Rubais has urged the Ministry of Higher Education in Riyadh to allow expatriate children studying here to pursue higher education in Saudi universities irrespective of the field of specialization. “Definitely, they will carry in their hearts love and generosity for this country and act as ambassadors of this noble country when they finally return home,” he added.