Sam Harris and The Number of Books Translated Into Arabic

In his criticisms of Islamist views, Sam Harris has repeatedly highlighted the intellectual isolation of the Arab world by repeating this claim:

Spain translates more books into Spanish each year than the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century.

A quick Google search suggests that Spain’s current population is about 47 million, while there are about 366 million Arabic speakers, so that would be an amazing statistic, if true. But is it true?

The source for this is the Arab Human Development Report 2003 – Building a Knowledge Society (2MB PDF), which was spearheaded by Dr. Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, director of the Arab regional office of the UN Development Program. According to that report,

Most Arab countries have not learned from the lessons of the past and the field of translation remains chaotic. In terms of quantity, and notwithstanding the increase in the number of translated books from 175 per year during 1970-1975 to 330, the number of books translated in the Arab world is one fifth of the number translated in Greece. The aggregate total of translated books from the Alma’moon era to the present day amounts to 10,000 books – equivalent to what Spain translates in a single year (Shawki Galal, in Arabic, 1999, 87)3 . This disparity was revealed in the first half of the 1980s when the average number of books translated per 1 million people in the Arab world during the 5-year period was 4.4 (less than one book for every million Arabs), while in Hungary it was 519, and in Spain 920. (Figure 2.9.)

The Alma’moon era refers to the seventh Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813-833 CE. So Harris appears to have good grounds for his claim.

In the United States, there are roughly 300,000 new and re-issued books published every year. Roughly 3 percent of those are translations or roughly 9,000 translated books per year for a country with roughly the same population as total Arabic speakers.

Part of the issue in the Arab world is that it isn’t just that there are relatively few translations published, but that there are few books published in general. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but the Arab Human Development Report 2003 and other sources estimate that only 7,000-8,000 books are published in the entire Arab world annually. This is due, in part, to high levels of illiteracy,

Literary production faces other major challenges. These include the small number of readers owing to high rates of illiteracy in some Arab countries and the weak purchasing power of the Arab reader. This limited readership is clearly reflected in the number of books published in the Arab world, which does not exceed 1.1% of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population. The production of literary and artistic books in Arab countries is lower than the general level. In 1996 it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8% of world production, i.e., less than the production of a country such as Turkey, with a population one quarter of that of Arab countries. An abundance of religious books and a relative paucity of books in other fields characterize the Arab book market. Religious books account for 17% of the total number of books published in Arab countries, compared to 5% of the total number of books produced in other parts of the world.

8 thoughts on “Sam Harris and The Number of Books Translated Into Arabic”

  1. What is your point?
    Can you prove Sam Harris wrong? Do so if you can but don´t go around the problem. Arab speaking people read less. Less books have been translated into arab in 1000 years than into Spanish in one year. It is a fact

    1. ROTFL. Did you even read the blog post? Like, I get that reading might be hard for you, but the post is fairly straightforward.

      Arabic-speaking countries have problems with high illiteracy and a lack of books translated into Arabic, so you think the obvious solution is to come here and demand “what’s your point?” and then link to a racist Islamophobic website.

      The really sad thing is that the irony of this is something you’ll apparently never be able to appreciate.

  2. Anyone who uses the word “islamophobic” is the Muslim brotherhood’s useful idiot. It created this word to silence criticism of Islam which is a spectacularly bonkers ideology. “Islamophobia” is simply a word “created by fasicsts and used by cowards to manipulate morons”.

  3. So your point is that they translate so few books because they couldn’t read them if they did? Harris wasn’t using this statistic to push Arabic publishing into greater efforts, he was showing that a culture that led the world in higher education, saddled itself with Islam and then gave up on educating its young.
    I met ten year olds in Cairo convinced that the sky was a blue shell, how hard would it be to find any 8 year olds in Italy who believe that? How about Portugal?

    Why are kids not taught to read in Egypt at the same rate as they are in Greece? Why are girls taught even less than boys in the Arab world?
    Why, are the scientific Nobel Prizes almost devoid of Arabic names?
    Face it. Islam is bad for education and it is bad for nations.

  4. I found this thread while looking for validation critique of this often-repeated quote about low numbers of books translated into arabic. I ended up finding the original source, and an article that refutes the original claim.

    The original quote is: ‘The aggregate total of translated books from the Al-Ma’moon era tothe present day amounts to 10,000 books – equivalent to what Spaintranslates in a single year.’ (Shawki Galal, in Arabic, 1999, 87). This sentence appeared in the 3rd Arab Human Development Report titled ‘Building a Knowledge Society’(UNDP 2003)

    A good critique of Galal’s claims appears in The Translator, Volume 15, Number 1 (2009), in the article
    ‘Translation Policies in the Arab World: Representations, Discourses and Realities’ by Richard Jacquemond, available at

    Jacquemond writes (page 5):
    (Galal’s) striking figures have been widely publicized, to the extent that the weakness of the translation movement is commonly quoted now as one of the indicators of the crisis of contemporary Arab culture. However, they are highly questionable. While the reference quoted here is a 1999 essay by the Egyptian intellectual and translator Shawki Galal (1999), the data gathered by Galal itself comes from an older source, namely, a statistical report compiled in 1985 by ALECSO (Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientic Organization),which had then elaborated a “National [that is, pan-Arab] plan for translation” – a plan that eventually became a dead letter. The sentence “The aggregate total of translated books from the Al-Ma’moon era to the present day amountsto 10,000 books” is directly drawn by Galal from this 1985 document. This is thus antiquated data, but it is above all highly distorted, because in its 1985 survey ALECSO had relied on data provided by the Arab states, data that was itself very much deficient.
    The other source the AHDR relies on for data on translated books is the UNESCO database Index translationum, which is now available online. But the UNESCO database is no more reliable than the ALECSO figures, because it also relies on data provided by the individual states and is thus dependent on the extremely variable conditions of bibliographical documentation in each country. The most obvious case in point is that of Lebanon: the Index translationum mentions only 78 translated books in Lebanon from 1978 until now, while the Lebanese publishing industry is known to be the second biggest in the Arab World (after the Egyptian), and a close examination of Lebanese publishers’ catalogues reveals that they publish at least as many translations as their Egyptian counterparts, that is to say, several hundred a year. On the whole, according to my own research, the total number of translations published in the Arab World during the current decade amounts to around 2000 titles a year, compared to 330 according to the AHDR.

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