Science journalism in Egypt reflects the way science is taught, perceived and practiced in the country. Online publications cover science and technology in different ways. Yet, all of them rely on translators as most of the science stories are sourced from foreign outlets. This paper looks at how science is covered in the top publications online and argues that in the digital age new skills and approaches are required to address a younger generation who did not grow up reading newspapers in the morning. They are accustomed to smart phones, tablets, game consoles, and multimedia. Edutainment remains a difficult term to translate into Arabic despite its relevance. The paper calls for innovative approaches to change the current attitude towards science. Ultimately the paper proposes an alliance between the colleges of science, translation, and mass media: audiovisual translation holds the key to a robust online presence.
The world has changed dramatically since Microsoft launched its pioneering program Windows 95, which ushered in a new world characterized by a new set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The Information Superhighway was the buzz word in the mid-nineties as personal computers gained more power and were able to interface with the internet. The world has never looked the same as almost everything became available on the internet and the digital world became a reality.
Newspapers and magazines, and for that matter all print media, had to adapt to the new technology driven age. Gone are the days when newspapers were the main source of news and information. The internet, through a myriad of multimedia outlets and platforms made news ‘travel fast’; faster than the print media could publish in the evening edition or the following morning. Soon, print journalism as we knew it changed. Journalists are now facing an existential question: if everything is available online through web sites, blogs, pages, lists, and Apps who needs journalists, or newspapers for that matter?
Yet, journalism in the digital age is alive and well. The Internet did not do away with journalism as once feared. The new technology merely forced the media to adapt to the new demands and habits of consumers. Naturally, the readership now has a different set of interests, habits, and demands. As they change, new pursuits and interests are being designed and introduced to cater to the new generation of readers, who never waited for the morning paper and probably never read one! This account depicts a situation in a context where reading is a major part of the cultural scene. In societies were reading a newspaper or a book is not an active part of the local culture, the situation would be naturally different. In Egypt, for instance, the print media, has borne the brunt of the digital transformation and continue to face serious challenges. By now all major publications have a presence on the Internet and almost all continue to post losses. High costs, dwindling readership, aversion to reading and poor online content are among the challenges facing Egyptian journalism in all its domains from soccer to science.
The way Egyptian media covers science is also a problematic area that requires examination from more than one angle. There is of course the media-proper aspect of presenting the subject matter, specialization in the topic, appropriate translation skills, and the multimedia specialist who is capable of presenting scientific data in a way that is both educational and entertaining. The last point is crucial for online journalism now has to endorse the new concept of edutainment. This paper takes a look at science journalism in Egypt and argues that the media mirrors the way science and scientists are perceived in society. It sheds light on the current situation where science is taught in a foreign language, discussed in the vernacular and published in a linguistic register that is not commonly used. It also points out that notwithstanding the present challenges, digital tools and the new field of audiovisual translation may hold the key to better science journalism in the country.
Science in Egypt
In El Mudeer El Fanni (The Technical Manager), a popular Egyptian film produced in 1965, there is a scene where a fish monger visits his son’s school. He argues with the geography teacher that the school is filling his son’s mind with fallacies and falsehoods. Not only does he confuse geography with photography but he also disputes a lesson in which the little boy is taught the earth moves around itself once every twenty-four hours which explains the alternation of day and night. The illiterate fisherman scoffs at the fact saying:
The earth turns around itself! Does this make sense?
I leave my shop at night in Cairo only to find it in Giza the following morning!
Angry with the level of teaching, the fishmonger threatens to withdraw his son and move him to another proper school. The geography debate, is one of the most memorable scenes in Egyptian cinema.
Notwithstanding the melodramatic effect, the scene reflects a chronic deficit in science education in Egypt. This varies from the teaching of science subjects in schools to the quality of scientific research, the reliability of published academic literature to the validity of organising scientific conferences (Ghorab 2018). In Egyptian pop culture, scientists are not always portrayed in a positive light as science is generally regarded as a hard subject, that is male-dominated, and taught primarily in a foreign language. Likewise, the absence of modern science museums, science exhibitions, science-oriented school excursions (to factories, farms, or film studios), the organization of science projects in high schools or the use of models and replicas in science classes are factors that mark an education system that clearly favours the softer subjects of the humanities. This perhaps explains the absence of science fiction in Egyptian and Arabic literature in general (Omran 2011). As a literary genre, science fiction reflects a society’s tendency to examine scientific facts and to engage in scientific enquiry. Science fiction, in its simplest form, could be seen as a way to engage the community in debating scientific issues and engaging with the scientific method of observing, analysing, and reaching conclusions. Such a skill is required in numerous other fields from football to religion. It is primarily directed at younger minds but also appeals to readers of all ages. While the pioneering works of Nihad Sherif, and the popular attempts by Nabil Farouk and Khaled Tawfic are widely regarded as a welcome contribution to popular culture, the phenomenon of science fiction has not reached an acceptable level vis a vis the population or the percentage of youth in the community. Likewise, the Egyptian film industry has not shown sufficient interest in the genre of science fiction films despite the fact that film viewership consists mainly of youth. In societies where science is consumed through translation and importation rather than created and debated locally it becomes apparent that science fiction, as a literary tradition, would not find a hospitable environment for it to grow. Al-Sharouni (2002) argues that science fiction has a positive role to play in societies where knowledge and the scientific method are not in good supply.
In order to understand the reason for this deficiency one has to look at the way science is taught in the country. At the tertiary level, all science disciplines are taught exclusively in a second language: English. The decision to do this is both historical and psychological. In the wake of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 there was a dramatic change that saw the gradual use of English as the language of instruction in higher education, and particularly medicine. By 1897, English had replaced French and Arabic and academics were brought from England to teach medicine (Suleiman 2002). Earlier in the nineteenth century, Egypt had embarked on a large-scale modernization program in the wake of the French Expedition (1799-1801). Despite the short duration and total failure of Napoleon’s armies the Expedition served as a catalyst for Egypt’s development. Thus, the government launched its Nahda and Tanweer (Development and Enlightenment) program. Education missions were sent to Europe (mainly France and Italy) to gain the latest knowledge and know-how necessary for the building of a modern state. For this purpose the School of Al-Alsun (Translation) was established in 1835. The translation school was primarily charged with the task of training interpreters and translators for the state machinery and its vast development program. The interpreters, translated foreign-language lectures and training at specialist schools (engineering, medicine, military, etc.) and also produced translations of seminal Western books and worked on the production of scientific terminologies. It is insightful to observe that in the early years of the School of Translation, students and graduates were capable of translating numerous scientific and technical books. The history of the School of Al-Alsun and its early efforts and achievements in promoting scientific translation have not been fully appreciated despite several outstanding examinations of the political, historical, and linguistic aspects surrounding the establishment of the school (El Shayyal 1945, Al Naggar 1987, Emara 1988, Taher 1993, Al-Sharqawee 2016, Labban 2017). Consequently, Emara (1988: 113) takes a long and hard look at the use of the national language in technical translations and urges scholars to do more:
We believe Tahtawee’s efforts in this field deserve a doctoral thesis dedicated to him and tackled by a specialist in the historical development of our language in modern times. It is a significant and rich field awaiting an energetic and serious researcher.Emara (1988: 113), Author’s translation
Soon after the British occupation the School of Translation was closed and English became the language of instruction in the schools of agriculture, medicine, and engineering replacing French and Italian, which were the two major Western languages of instruction (translated into Arabic by the Al-Alsun interpreters). The important fact is that the School of Translation ceased to provide the interpreting services into Arabic. As English became the language of instruction in tertiary education since then and it gradually became a tradition too hard to break. Shawqi Daif, professor of Arabic and former president of the Arabic Academy, argues that had Egypt continued teaching medical science in Arabic there would not have been a need for Arabization programs today (1995). Today, science subjects are taught in English not only at university but also in secondary schools. Furthermore, the number of foreign universities in Egypt is mushrooming at a worrying pace, now resembling a potpourri of educational systems, languages, and cultural traditions. While at the surface it may seem as a small multilingual and multicultural microcosm, the reality is far from the ideals advertised by these commercial entities. The adoption of English (and other foreign languages) as the primary language of instruction has created a chasm in the culture, making it difficult to articulate science in Arabic, and consequently limiting innovation in the disciplines taught. For over a century, academics, linguists, professors, experts, and journalists have debated the issue of English as a language of instruction. While science academics argue the need to teach in English due to the complex terminologies and in order to keep abreast of developments; linguists (including Arabists and translators) argue that the national language is capable of producing terminologies, and that ‘keeping abreast of technical knowledge’ is nothing but an excuse. The debate has been raging on, and in the age of digital technology, it is not likely to end anytime soon.
At the very beginning of twentieth century, Egyptian poet Hafiz Ibrahim wrote one of the most eloquent poems dedicated to the Arabic language and its virtues. Titled “Arabic laments its fate in its homeland” the poem begins by surveying the special characteristics of the language and then reviews the current state where native speakers of Arabic are turning their backs on their mother tongue in favour of foreign ones. It is peculiar that two decades after the British occupation that lasted for seventy three years, Ibrahim had the foresight to launch his powerful warning which continues to be as relevant as the day it was published:
Language is the source of one’s pride,Ibrahim, Author’s paraphrase
If you do not use Arabic,
You will lose it and
You will be marginalized!
It is equally remarkable that Hafiz Ibrahim was able to sense the danger so early. In 1903, the year he published his fateful poem, there was no electricity in most Egyptian cities; no radio, television, or cinema. There were no universities or a mass education system, only a couple of newspapers and no magazines. Few today would argue that Ibrahim was wrong. This, in turn, explains the psychological factor, and perhaps the reason that prompted Hafiz Ibrahim to write his poem and to sound the alarm. Speaking a foreign language in Egypt today is widely seen as a status symbol, both socially and professionally. This also explains the widespread phenomenon among Egyptians to pepper their spoken Arabic with English words, and in most cases, without rhyme or reason. The media reflects what the community speaks and this can be seen in the current debate on improving the secondary school system. The two key words in use are the English words “booklet” and “tablet”. The former refers to the new examination system and the latter refers to the introduction of the tablet (in September 2018) that has replaced traditional textbooks. The two English words are used in Arabic to imply “imported”, “foreign” and “quality”; all commonly regarded as the recipe for success.
Importing or borrowing foreign models and theories has been the hallmark of progress and innovation throughout history both in Egypt and elsewhere. However, the rigid faith and credence in everything foreign from fashion to football is also symptomatic of a serious lack in self-confidence. Foreign models should be deconstructed and reconstructed with the view of learning how they are made and how best to make them work well in the local setting. For example, importers of Japanese vehicles to the Middle East must ensure that they are modified to work well in the harsh desert climate. Not doing so, will risk products that will soon break down, and not serve the needs of the local community.
To illustrate this point further, the modern school of Al-Alsun provides an excellent example. The traditional stronghold of translation in the Arab world has been unable to fulfil its traditional task: prepare qualified translators and interpreters to serve the needs of the state machinery. Nahda and Tanweer, are no longer the objectives of the so many faculties of Al-Alsun (as of 2020 there are ten Al-Alsun colleges and three more colleges in Alexandria, Sharm Al-Skheik, and Hurghda are on the way). One of the reasons this happened, is the piecemeal importation of Western theories and models in the teaching, examination, and research in Translation Studies (Gamal 2019). It is peculiar that Al Alsun colleges do not teach any science or technical subjects at all. After almost two centuries of translation teaching in Egypt, there are no qualified technical translators who can either translate scientific literature or at least work as a member in the scientific section of any leading publication in Egypt. Technical translators are indispensable particularly in the absence of a strong technical education sector in the country. This is a significant point as the country needs to build a robust scientific community where scientific theories, facts and principles are discussed and debated, at all levels in the national language and in its two varieties Darija and the Standard. This is fundamental for the development of logical debate where opinions are examined, on their merits, and from more angles than one. Failure to do so also risks seeing scientific facts through a metaphysical lens.
As the science disciplines are taught and understood in English, a second language, the result is inevitable: the concepts become foreign and remain alien to the culture. This gets widely reflected in the way science is discussed in factories, farms, and among families. Numerous philosophers (Zaki Naguib Mahmoud 1989), thinkers (Tarek Heggy 2011), Linguists (Shousha 2004), translation policymakers (Asfour 2017) and even senior Arab politicians such as former Secretary-General of the Arab League (Chadli Klebi 1994) have argued against teaching in foreign languages underscoring the fact that one can internalize better in the mother language. It is not unusual then that science is widely perceived as imported, complex, and uninteresting. Thus, the notion of science as an outlandish topic becomes reflected in the media, in all its forms and formats and more so in science journalism.
Science Journalism in Egypt
The deficit in science in Egyptian culture is evident in how the media, both audiovisual and in print, cover technical and scientific news and themes. There is no significant Science Section or Science Supplement in the major publicly-owned publications. The other independent dailies seem to shy away from in-depth coverage of technical subjects. To date, Egypt does not have a publication dedicated to science and technology aimed at the general public. In the medical field, Tabibak El Khas (Your Private Doctor) launched in 1969 is the oldest medical magazine in Arabic and is directed at the general public. The magazine could have played a more active role in disseminating general medical knowledge had it embraced multimedia (particularly the use of Infographics) and espoused a new discourse (edutainment) that is in synch with readers in the digital age. It has not developed because it too is infected with the malaise of science journalism: reporting science rather than debating science. Other technical magazines, mostly issued by professional associations, are directed at members who are specialists in the field such as engineering, pharmacists, etc. Likewise, on television there is an acute shortage of programs that are dedicated to scientific news, medical and health issues, or even to the latest developments in science and technology. There are more foreign TV dramas that are subtitled or dubbed than there are scientific programs such as David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series. While copyrights and cost may prohibit the showing of such highly informative and entertaining programs, the numerous privately-owned TV channels do not seem to find scientific programs commercially viable. There are more programs on cooking, football, and talk shows than there are documentaries shedding light on climate change, water resources, renewable energy, smart technology, diabetes, smoking and cardiac health, civil engineering, or agriculture: areas that are of great significance to contemporary Egypt.
The decision to have a weekly or monthly publication dedicated to science is a huge financial responsibility and it is clearly a step not to be taken lightly. The aversion to reading, among youth, is one huge factor that impacts the decision to launch a new publication in any field. The Arabic version of Scientific American (launched in 1986 by the Kuwait Foundation for Scientific Advancement) and National Geographic Magazine produced by the Abu Dhabi Media Organisation (launched in 2010) are the two best known examples of scientific literature in Arabic. The two ‘translated’ publications have been invaluable initiatives in enhancing interest in scientific enquiry, thinking, and journalism. The latter point is of special interest: the production of scientific literature for the general public is an issue that has not received enough attention neither by academics nor by the media. Egypt is yet to produce its first non-specialist science magazine or mini-encyclopaedia such as the popular El Ma’rifa (Knowledge) translated from a Swiss version in 1971. Furthermore, the country needs its own Encyclopaedia Aegyptiaca: one that caters to its youthful population. Naturally, such opus has multi stages and several publications and ultimately a science publication, in the national language, is required.
A quick glance at how the Egyptian print media treat science topics and themes shows a profile characterized by a weak linguistic command and an outmoded method of presentation (plain text or text accompanied by an outsourced generic photo). The linguistic command of written Standard Arabic is weak, unscientific, and with inconsistent terminologies adopted throughout the text. Colloquial Arabic permeates the article and, more often than not, the overall discourse shows all the hallmarks of a translated text. These include uncommon terminologies, unexplained technical abbreviations and names, broken syntax, outlandish figures of speech and unusual cultural references. The text reads as if written by a non-specialist or written in a hurry that it does not offer any solid information on the topic. It is insightful that Farouk Shousha, a linguist who popularised the beauty and love of Arabic for almost fifty years, had a soft spot for journalists despite their “horrific mistakes” to quote Hafiz Ibrahim. Shousha appreciates the task of journalists and understood the burden of having to be intuitive and quick with new terminologies. He recalls it was a journalist in the nineteenth century who was the first to come up with the Arabic word for the newly-arrived invention: the train (2004). Prior to that the word for train was “the steam car that pulls carriages on rail roads”! However, Shousha also calls for solid training in Arabic linguistics to be popularised as well as modernized in order to be the language of science instruction in the country.
To illustrate the last point further, two recent incidents serve as good examples of how scientific issues are covered by the print media. For instance the phenomenon of the Supermoon (March 2019) is reported (translated mainly from foreign sources) as a news item but with no real effort to explain the phenomenon in its technical context, its overall significance, and most importantly its relevant terminologies. As different publications use different methods of reporting scientific news and also use different terminologies. The other example is the Coronavirus outbreak (January 2020) and due to its alarming nature and wide spread the information is translated from different sources. Although, on this occasion, more publications employed multimedia showing videos of quarantine stations, hospitals, and measures taken at airports not much technical data is offered. The basic term has been translated as: the China virus, the new coronavirus, the Crown Virus, the Conorna Virus, the Coronavirus Virus, the nCovid-19 virus, or the Covid-19 Virus. Most attention, has been focused on the casualty toll and the basic precautions to be taken personally. When the World Health Organisation declared a global emergency not many newspapers attempted to explain the meaning of the declaration despite the fact it was only the sixth time in history.
The other point in the profile of scientific journalism in the print media is presentation. The use of charts, drawings and pictures is infrequent and scarce in the presentation of scientific themes and topics. The employment of a graphic artist who is capable of illustrating the topic has never been a forte of the official print media. This is at odds with the talent available in the country. Many recall the incredible talent of Hussein Bicar, one of the most gifted illustrators of children books and Gamal Qutob, the applied artist who illustrated the front covers of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. Not long ago, most Egyptian film posters were hand-drawn with vivid colours and eye-catching details. This tradition could be developed into science illustration at any of the colleges of Applied Arts in the country. Well- illustrated publications with attractive drawings, vivid colours, and quality paper are what youngsters expect in reading material be it school textbooks, cartoons, or story books. Book production in Egypt has improved a great deal but not in the illustrated literature sector. It must be remembered that the licences for the Arabic versions of The Adventures of Tintin and Disney’s Micky Mouse were withdrawn due to the unacceptable graphic and production standards. Given the youthful population of Egypt and the apparent need to develop a culture of scientific enquiry the investment in scientific and data illustration as a distinct specialization appears to be justified. A weekly newspaper supplement dedicated to science, and beautifully illustrated by a talented artist or a scientist-cum-illustrator, would attract the attention of millions of school children as did Hussein Bicar when he covered the Salvage of Abu Simbel Temples in his famous 54 paintings that can now be seen in the Abu Simbel Museum in Hurghada. If the supplement is aligned to the subjects they study at school it would have a high chance of success encouraging school children to collect and read (in Arabic) the weekly supplement. Naturally, creating a culture of scientific enquiry and reading in the national language requires huge investment and a great deal of time for it to take root and become a cultural practice.
The print media, as indeed other media outlets including the audiovisual media, need to ensure that their journalists are trained in scientific reporting. This basically means a strong background and interest in science and the technical fields, the ability to express complex topics lucidly, the ability to write clearly in Arabic, as well as the ability to translate into Arabic. Generally speaking, the media recruit their journalists from the colleges of Mass Communication, Translation Schools, or Science Departments. The above basic set of skills is required of all. However, a closer look at the graduates and their skill sets would reveal a critical deficiency in written Arabic by all (particularly the science graduates), poor foreign language skills (except the language graduates) and no graphic or artistic skills by all. Given the financial pressures most publications are under, finding the multi-talented science journalist may be a tall order in a culture that does not study science in its own language, is averse to reading, and is increasingly using the colloquial variety of the language in writing.
In Egypt, and to a large extent in the Arab world, almost every newspaper and magazine has a section dedicated to football, cooking, fashion, crime, cinema, religion, cars, and daily living. Very few have a section on science, and if they do it is almost entirely dedicated to digital technology, and particularly to smart phones.
Science Journalism in Egypt in the Digital Age
The digital revolution has changed the way we learn, play, communicate, work, acquire information and entertain ourselves. Today, youth do not tend to collect stamps or postcards, write letters, browse books, read newspapers, review magazines, or even go to the library, museum, or stadium. The mere mention of these things makes one sound so pre-digital! But the fact remains that so many hobbies, interests, and attitudes have been seriously affected and indeed replaced by the new modus operandi in the digital age: the Internet and smart phones.
For the purpose of this research, a list of twenty-five websites of newspapers in Egypt* and other Arab countries has been drawn up. The selection is based on popularity as suggested by Google when the search term “Egyptian newspapers” is entered or major newspapers in a particular Arab country. The intent of the selection is to examine the way major publications cover science. Essentially, the examination looks at the title of the page/section dedicated to science, the theme(s) covered and the quality of the presentation of the topic. To illustrate this further, the enquiry looks at whether the word “science” is actually used in the title of the page/section and whether the impression of knowledge, enquiry and understanding is implied. The examination also tests whether the publication tends to specialise in any type of science: space, psychology, medicine etc. Finally, the enquiry examines the way scientific themes are presented and whether multimedia is utilized and the extent infographics, as a means of data presentation and simplification, is used. In order to extend the examination, websites of major print publications in several Arab countries have also been consulted and the same questions applied. The examination took place in the period between January 15th to 30th, 2020.
The findings, from the online Egyptian publications, can be summarised in the following:
1. Science is not a major section in the publications.
2. Digital Technology has replaced Science.
3. Technology is dedicated to Mobile Technology and Apps.
4. Technology and science items are generally translated from foreign sources.
5. Technical and scientific terminology is inconsistently used.
6. Thematic coverage of a single topic or feature rarely occurs.
7. Use of multimedia is limited.
8. Infographics are not widely employed.
9. Science is presented as a foreign item not sourced or created locally.
10. No Science Critic (Mr Science), like commentators in other fields, exist.
Discussion of the Findings
The following discussion of the findings is meant to explore the relevance of each finding in the overall context of how science journalism is produced and received. Essentially, the context is one where science appears to be divorced from everyday living and thinking. The purpose of the discussion, therefore, is to elaborate the observation with the aim of exploring innovative approaches that may help in changing the overall societal attitudes towards science. There is no denying that there has been a systematic turning away from science and rational thinking in Egypt over the past half century, and particularly with the launch of the Open Door economic policies in 1974, which encouraged the unbridled importation of consumer goods at the expense of local production. Numerous calls have been made to steer public thinking back into the rational path of scientific thought, but there has been an equally strong tendency to interpret matters within religious rather than rational lines or frameworks. Reconciling faith with scientific beliefs is a discourse that has not been mastered yet despite confirmation by prominent Egyptian scientists and scholars working abroad (such as Tarek Heggy, Farouk El-Baz, and Ahmed Zweil) that the two are not mutually exclusive. In discussing the above ten findings, particular attention will be given to the significant role translation plays in science journalism. Therefore, findings number four and five above will be discussed in more detail under the next heading.
- No Science: the majority of the reviewed websites of daily newspapers have completely steered away from science and technology: six out of the ten newspapers surveyed do not have a science section. While this is a valid choice if they were, for example, a specialist publication in football, fashion, or film; most publications touch on a wide variety of local and foreign news except with respect to science and technology. The majority of publications that actually cover science and technology do not feature ‘Science’ as a major section on their website. Quite often it is to be found under Menu or under another sub-heading. It is also noticeable that some items of scientific nature are published under different sections as miscellaneous news.
- Technology and Science: quite often when science is covered it is to be found under the section named ‘Technology’. Not surprisingly, some publications have opted for the overarching and more relevant technical term: (digital) Technology or even Mobile Technology. Some, however, have opted for the safe combination of Science and Technology.
- Smart Phones and New Apps: Under ‘Science & Technology’ most of the news covered are dedicated to the fast-changing nature of digital technology with its constant updates, versions, and new Apps. Almost all news items in this section are foreign sourced. Despite its practical nature, most coverage consists of news reporting on games, smart homes, software programs, mobiles and Apps that, in the final analysis, do not amount to a body of knowledge that boosts a reader’s knowledge or confidence in using digital technology. Few, however, include a section dedicated to teaching digital skills or explaining an App or software program (particularly Photoshop) in some helpful detail.
- Translation in science will be discussed under the next heading.
- Translation of terminology will be discussed under the next heading.
- Thematic Coverage: it is observed that none of the publications consulted for this quick survey had a single scientific or technical theme. This means that the page or section dedicated to Science and Technology is populated by a collection of translated news items grouped under the heading Science and/or technology. It is not an exaggeration to say that dedicating a section or a page to a particular phenomenon is not a common practice (not even for the Coronavirus outbreak in January 2020). There appears to be an aversion to tackling technical themes in depth, despite the numerous topics, issues, and cases in need of specialist and lucid presentation. For instance, there are medical issues such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, or Hepatitis C that are endemic and require massive public education initiatives. In the country’s huge agricultural setting, it is perhaps significant to examine the reasons why more than half of the tomato crop is wasted and more than 60% of the grape harvest is lost due to antiquated harvesting practices. Furthermore, thematic coverage dedicated to local issues would help localize science by making it relevant to different sectors in society. Also, by practicing science in the national language i.e., in thinking, reading and writing, a culture of science is likely to evolve for a new generation to grow thinking science and knowing that it is part of everyday life and reasoning. In a context where schools are overcrowded and suffer a chronic shortage of investments in teaching material, thematic coverage of science and technology by major publications would be seen as a welcome contribution. By ignoring science, at the mass media level, a serious deficiency is created and becomes harder to tackle by current and future policies and programs (Morad 2008).
- Use of Multimedia: few of the online publications consulted make use of multimedia. The term multimedia, popularized in the mid-nineties, simply means the use of text, colour, image, video, and sound to help explain, simplify, or offer an added dimension to the news item covered in a manner that is informative and interesting. The concept of edutainment (and its variant infotainment) relies heavily on multimedia. It is perhaps sufficient to draw a comparison between the now obsolete mono-dimensional Overhead Projector and the modern tool of PowerPoint that combine almost everything: from text and images (in high resolution) to sound and video (plus special presentation effects). It is understood that the online presence of a publication is not an end in itself, and that it is a means that requires constant upgrading and updating, to remain professionally reliable as well as commercially viable. However, that in itself is an added challenge and cost to numerous publications. Adding an image, a video, a recording, or even a graphic illustration is an added skill and effort many a ‘print’ publication has not yet mastered. It is noticeable, also, that some publications use the term ‘interactive’ for a mere photo slideshow or a video but with no interactivity whatsoever with the medium used. A small number of publications (and indeed many other websites) seem unable to realise that placing the entire print publication online does not mean they have created an electronic presence, for the medium is different and with it comes a totally different set of skills. The best example to illustrate this is eLit (Electronic Literature): the mere uploading of a novel online does not make it eLit.
- Use of Infographics: few publications employ infographic software to help illustrate, visualize, or simplify technical or scientific news. There are several software programs that are commercially available to present data and could be a great help in the presentation of scientific news. Another anomaly is the use of images to support translated text. Most images used are also foreign as publications tend to obtain them from foreign sources. In the digital age, and particularly for a youthful population, the visual presentation of data is particularly important. In the absence of a dedicated publication or website for science and technology in Egypt, it would be a great help, should leading publications upgrade their journalistic skills in covering and illustrating science. Science journalism needs to keep pace with digital technology and to appreciate that it must speak the language of the new generation: edutainment.
- Science is Foreign: given the current status of science, scientists, and the teaching of science in the country, the overall impression is that science is a foreign discipline. As most science news are sourced from foreign publications, and translated into Arabic, the way it is currently presented enforces this impression. Linguistically, as will be discussed below, the presentation of scientific news is somewhat outlandish: science is merely reported and seldom debated. To overcome this, visual presentation, concept simplification and professional interest in the topic would help create and strengthen the habit of reading the section or dedicated page to science and technology. It is interesting to remember how Kamal el Mallakh, a brilliant Egyptologist-cum-journalist popularised Egyptology and became the critic and commentator of Egyptology par excellence from the moment he joined Al-Ahram Daily until the day he died in 1988. El-Mallakh, a professional Egyptologist, credited with the discovery of the Solar Funerary Boats next to the Pyramid of Cheops in 1954 joined Al-Ahram in 1957. For thirty years, his articles on the last page of Al-Ahram crafted with only ‘text and image’ was the source of primary interest to readers each morning. He used locally-sourced images and opted for the unusual long rectangular photo rather than the usual square shape. Taha Hussein, Egypt’s prominent literary figure, praised his journalistic style commenting: “Kamal made Egyptians read newspapers from back to front” (Musa 2019). It is interesting to note that El-Mallakh was able to create this edutainment effect before the concept was born. In some publications particularly in the football and film pages, infographics are commonly used to illustrate competitions or film festivals. More is required. Infographics are empowering tools that can lead to understanding and reflection, and ultimately, more creativity. Students, now with tablets and smart phones, should be encouraged to use infographics in all their work from writing composition to science assignments.
- Mr Science: generally-speaking most publications have a sub-editor for each section of the publication be it fashion, film, or football. Some of the sub-editors are specialists themselves or hire the services of a technical writer, critic, or commentator in the field. This is seen in major fields particularly the economy, politics, or religion. Yet, no publication in Egypt (or anywhere in the Arab world) could be said to have a qualified science editor, critic, or commentator who offers news, comments, explanations, or answers to interesting, complex, or trending science questions. The notion of explaining, reasoning, or exploring is not widely seen as the primary goal of science journalism. This is perhaps a reflection of the overall perception of, or regard to, science in the local culture. Students are not taught to read maps or technical manuals, or write analytical essays in their writing composition classes or to think critically. It would seem that Mr Science is a person many publications, TV programs, film directors, school principals, public libraries, and national museums must turn their attention to: finding, training, and grooming. In the digital age, Mr Science is more likely to be the product of interdisciplinary studies that combines media, science, and translation, with a strong grounding in Arabic. For all intents and purposes, Mr Science is eloquent when speaking on TV but equally lucid when writing in newspapers and clever when presenting the topic through multimedia and infographics. He (or she) does not have to be in a white coat or with silver hair and thick glasses, but can be of any age as long they are well-read, well-spoken, and convincing.
While none of the publications visited for this research were approached with regards to the findings, it is possible that they may have an insightful explanation for some or indeed all of the above findings. The short examination of how science is reported by major newspapers in Egypt (and other Arab countries, more so in the Gulf States) does have its limitations. For instance, it does not have regard to the fact that a publication may have content in another format dedicated to a scientific phenomenon be it the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing (1969-2019) or the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Also, the period of examination could be extended for more detailed analysis. Finally, the examination is confined only to the web pages of the publication and does not cover its App, and whether more technical attention is given to multimedia. However, the current coverage of science by the major daily publications on their websites reflects a clear lack of scientific culture. It is important, however, to remember that newspapers are commercial enterprises and they must sell their papers to readers who are interested in buying them. Put simply, if readers are not interested in science they will not read or buy the papers. In the digital age, newspapers are under tremendous financial pressure to remain commercially viable. The demise of the Lebanese Al Hayat newspaper in 2019 after seventy years of outstanding journalism is a sad reminder of the challenges faced by newspapers. The new technology has changed and challenged journalism to find a new and a very different path. Journalism is no longer so much about the news as it is about information: collecting, sorting, archiving, searching, finding, mining, and most importantly, presenting information in a new informative and entertaining way. Today, the presentation of information logically, analytically, and graphically are considered some of the hallmarks of successful journalism in almost any field.
The deficit in science in the Arab and Muslim worlds has been examined from different angles (Mahmoud 1993, Overbye 2001, Heggy 2010, Ofek 2011). There is now a need to open the debate in order to encourage innovative solutions to address the problem. One of the first steps to be taken is to decide on a better translation of the term “secularism” which remains awkwardly translated and widely misunderstood since it was first coined in Arabic in the early years of the nineteenth century. In some religious circles in the Arab world the term is widely mistranslated and is mistakenly understood as “Science-ism”. This in turn is seen as contradictory to orthodox religious thought that interprets issues according to a strict religious framework. The numerous faculties of Al-Alsun in Egypt may wish to initiate a national debate on a better and clearer equivalent for the term that has intrigued and confused Egyptians (and the Arab world) for almost two centuries. Abu El-Ghar (2020), in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm succinctly sums up the situation:
Many believe that the cause for lagging behind is due to straying away from religion. It is actually the opposite: turning away from science and scientific enquiry is the main reason. Many generations grew up convinced by the media that the key to solving Egypt’s economic, health, and security problems lie in resorting to religion. In a situation such as this, it becomes difficult to convince people that scientific enquiry is the basis of all progress.” (Author’s translation)
It is insightful to recall that six centuries prior to Galileo’s feud with the Catholic Church in 1633 over the fact that the earth turns around the sun, Arab and Muslim scholars had been able to chart and apply a scientific enquiry based solely on trial and observation. It is this very same Muslim methodology that became the basis of Western scientific thought and progress. The Church later apologized to Galileo as the earth indeed turns around the sun.
It is therefore imperative to create the position of a Science Critic or Commentator in each publication. Like commentators on soccer, film, crime, fashion etc., “Mr Science” is to be charged with explaining and simplifying common, popular or trending technical concepts with the ultimate goal of engaging and encouraging youngsters to seek more knowledge. Whether a journalism graduate or a science graduate, Mr Science will need a talented graphic illustrator and a trained translator since all science news are foreign. In tough economic times, it is understandable that publications, might find the investment in a specialist journalist, a technical translator, and an info-graph illustrator unwarranted. Specialist training needs to be designed in this critical area and offered as an interdisciplinary module in the digital media courses offered at several universities in Egypt.
The discussion of the above findings does not touch on the impact smart technology has on the overall science culture in Egypt (and the developing world) as it is outside the scope of this paper. It will, however, turn its attention to an important aspect in science journalism: translation and the way science is translated into Arabic.
Translation and Science Journalism
One of the most consistent findings in the above examination of daily publications both in Egypt, and in other Arab countries, is that almost all science news are translated from foreign sources (Morad 2008). This in itself is another highly specialized field: scientific and technical translation which despite its importance receives far less attention and celebration compared to literary, religious, or political translation. A quick glance at translation conferences at Egyptian (particularly at the Faculty(ies) of Al-Alsun) and other Arab universities would reveal the acute shortage of conferences dedicated to scientific and technical translation. The specialization is critical to national security and apart from the apparent shortage it is also facing a fundamental problem: the quality training of technical translators. In a context where science is taught in a foreign language and Arabic, being a diglossic language, where the standard variety is not celebrated neither in the community nor the media, the quality of science translation in Arabic becomes questionable.
The findings (four and five) listed above have regard to the translated scientific text at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.
At the word level, technical words and terminology (including equations, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms) pose a big hurdle. Different publications appear to have different policies on the translation of technical terminology that varies from direct lexical borrowing to paraphrasing to translation. Terminology is the backbone of scientific translation and must be clear and consistent at all times. Different publications, within the same country, tend to use different terminology for the same concept. Even the same publication, uses different terminologies on different occasions. One of the more disturbing observations is the nonchalant tendency for lexical borrowing: that is to use the foreign word in Arabic (despite the readily available equivalence). While lexical borrowing is indeed a natural phenomenon in all languages, it has reached a level that would make Hafiz Ibrahim shiver at the frequency of occurrence and its rationale in today’s spoken and written Arabic. Over the past thirty years, Arabic translators and lexicographers underscored the significance of terminology standardization and management. Their efforts were crowned with the creation of ArabTerm, a repository of scientific terms in the technical fields and is closely associated with Arabization programs in several Arab states. However, ArabTerm remains the exclusive domain of lexicographers and has not been made accessible to translators or journalists.
Translation scholars, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, have argued that technical translation needs to be given priority in funding and support. Translation schools need to return to the orthodox path of training translators and interpreters and not merely teach foreign languages. Didaoui, one of the most prominent translation scholars in Morocco, calls for “translation and terminology to be taught at high schools and technical colleges so professionals are trained in terminology management,” (2016:47) (Author’s translation).
It is interesting how medieval Arab and Muslim translators were able to deal with foreign technical terminology. No translator has ever mentioned difficulty or challenge in translating foreign concepts or terminology (Dahab 1992) nor complain of the shortage of specialized dictionaries or the lack of technical encyclopaedias. This is how Arabic became the international language of science for almost six centuries (Galal 1977). Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, who came from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds published their research in the only lingua franca of science: Arabic. One of the finest examples is that of Omar Al-Khayyam whose poetry in his native Farsi was synonymous with gold. Yet, when he wrote and published his treatise on mathematics, he would only publish it in Arabic: the international language of science.
At the sentence level, two distinct issues are noticeable. The first is that the expressed concept is not always clear as if the author is not sure about the meaning. This essentially stems from the previous point of awkward terminologies and the need to explain it in more than one word in the target language. It is a common observation among technical translators that unless the concept, and its terminology, is clearly understood the sentence will be structurally flawed. Experience also plays an important part: technical translators need training in written technical Arabic particularly since most science subjects are taught and studied in English. The other issue is the length of the sentence in Arabic which tends to be too long. Writers in any field, and more so in technical and scientific fields, concur that clarity leads to precision and that means economy. Science journalists in Arabic publications need to address this point. Long (and loose syntax) tends to turn readers away as they lose concentration particularly when the concept is terminology-dependent, complex or unfamiliar. The examination of scientific and technical Arabic is rarely discussed in Egyptian academic contexts despite the numerous conferences held at translation schools and mass media colleges. The structure of the scientific sentence in Arabic also needs close examination from specialists in Arabic linguistics, translation studies, and the scientific fields. If left unchecked it will enforce the notion that Arabic is unsuitable for scientific discourse.
At the discourse level the entire translated text is often received as foreign, not only because the source is foreign but because it reads like a translated text. This is seen through the use of imprecise terminology, elongated sentences, and foreignized syntax. The latter refers to idiomatic expressions as well as syntactic structures that are borrowed in toto without appropriate explanation or proper localization of the linguistic item. Another reason may be due to the translator’s inexperience whereby they tend to favour the foreign syntactic structure. Favouring a foreign term or structure is not a flaw, per se, but its use and occurrence may denote a translator who lacks experience in their own language, the field at hand and more significantly the role of a science translator in developing countries. It must be mentioned, however, that in most Egyptian publications, journalists in general and science journalists in particular lack a good command of written Arabic. The diglossic nature of the language means that there are two varieties of Arabic: the vernacular (spoken and rarely written) and the standard (spoken in some educated quarters but always used in writing). This is another problem that is felt at all levels and across all fields and specializations in the Arab world. Increasingly, the vernacular is creeping into the written text and is encountered even in some of the well-respected publications in Egypt. Even prominent journalists, in various fields, are employing the vernacular in the misguided belief that such linguistic behaviour is trendy or is likely to attract youthful readers.
It is apparent that most scientific and technical texts are in fact isolated foreign news items translated by a large number of individual contractors. Whether these authors are trained journalists or freelance external translators, it is almost certain that no editorial policy applies. The absence of such policy and practice risks science being seen as an outlandish pursuit, complex and difficult to attain in the Arabic language. Tolerating such discourse is not only in bad taste, but will have a devastating effect on the national language in the long run. It is interesting that an increasing number of Arab states have now enshrined a law to “protect and safeguard the Arabic language” and yet the daily publications continue to promote ambiguity and tolerate disrespect to the mother tongue. It is perhaps insightful to remember that etymologically speaking, an Arab is he who is clear and Arabic means clarity!
Audiovisual Translation and Science Journalism
In 1974, the Higher Institute of Media Studies at Cairo University was elevated to a full-fledged university college. In the same year, the Higher Institute of Al-Alsun also received full university status. Staff and students at both institutions rejoiced with the upgrade but the two institutions never met. It is peculiar that the two specializations did not see a need to cooperate despite the numerous overlapping interests. Media studies need language and cultural skills and Al-Alsun, needs specialist knowledge in as many fields particularly media studies. The fact that the two colleges never initiated any mutually-recognizable courses or interdisciplinary studies may explain why Egyptian soft power has not reached its full capacity abroad. There are several areas that require excellent media skills when dealing with the outside world varying from tourism to the World Bank. Despite their claims to professional standards, foreign media is not always balanced nor fair when reporting Egyptian issues. In recent years, there were times when Egyptian media locked horns with The Economist magazine, the BBC, and others over biased reporting. The way some Egyptian media handled the controversies was not always creative and left much to be desired. Engaging foreign media requires superb skills; linguistic, cultural, and journalistic, and also a shrewd eye for long-term gains not merely short-term wins. Today, most state services in Egypt translate their information and content into two languages only. On the other hand, Al-Alsun with its reservoir of translation skills has not been able to impact the media and cultural scenes in the country notwithstanding the fact that the most senior interpreter in the country is actually an Alsunian. In the digital age, an alliance between the two colleges is not only advisable but imperative.
There is no doubt that the education system in Egypt is in need of huge investment to address many negative aspects chief among them over-crowded classes, syllabus design, teacher training, and outmoded instructional material. Too many schools do not have adequate resources such as equipped labs, audiovisual material, or even updated globes. Numerous students study science, astronomy, physics, and geography without having actually experienced using the basic equipment deemed fundamental for instilling the spirit of scientific inquiry. It is not an exaggeration to say that many students are taught geography without a globe in the classroom and that the earth is shown as flat on a map hung on the wall.
Given that science is sourced from foreign publications, the alliance between Media Studies and Translation Studies seems vital. The digital age has brought about opportunities to address the imbalance in science culture and science teaching. For instance, online content is now considered an essential feature for cultural and educational organizations. There is clearly a shortage of quality online content, in the Arabic language, in several scientific, and technical fields varying from agriculture and physics to physiology and health. Although the issue of Arabic online content is debated in the media from Casablanca to Doha, very few independent and individual initiatives have been attempted. In a way this reflects the pre-digital habits of working in isolation from others where now the internet opens communication channels never dreamed of previously.
Audiovisual translation is fast becoming a specialization sui generis within the broader field of Translations Studies and has great potential to solve some of the perennial problems that faced the culture industry in Egypt: producing and distributing quality material in a manner that is cost-effective, modern, attractive, fast, and far-reaching (Gamal 2014). Translation studies, like in many other fields, is being overhauled by digital technology. Today, translation is electronic: created and accessed through a screen online. Audiovisual translation, ensures that the linguistic transfer is produced by multimedia in ways never seen before: it is fast, accessible, cost-effective, far-reaching, informative, and entertaining. Although audiovisual translation, as an academic area is now twenty-five years old (since the groundbreaking conference in Strasburg in 1995 that launched the academic interest) the field of examining audiovisual translation in Egypt (and in the Arab world) remains at its infancy (Gamal 2019). There are several reasons why audiovisual translation, despite its promise and potential, has not received the approval of academic management. One of the reasons is the cost of digital transfer from paper to screen and the cost of the software involved in training and production. However, there is also the significant factor of digital experience and its penetration in Egyptian culture: from game consoles (Gameboy to Sony PlayStation), electronic games, DVDs and DVD players, digital TV, satellites, the accessibility and coverage of the internet to the overall level of digital literacy. Such reasons and background contribute to the belief that audiovisual translation is not ‘relevant’ at the traditional translation school in Egypt and in many Arab countries. This in turn may explain why almost all translation conferences over the past quarter century have ignored audiovisual translation studies completely or touched on the field in passing. To date, Egypt has not organized a conference dedicated to audiovisual translation despite the promise and potential of the specialization and the huge opportunities it creates for interdisciplinary cooperation between media studies, science, and the IT industry.
The production of online content, traditionally the domain of Media Studies, can benefit a great deal by initiating an alliance with Translation Studies. The many Al-Alsun colleges in Egypt may wish to embark on interdisciplinary studies including science and technical fields in their curricula. Double degrees in languages and science is not a new idea as it was suggested previously. El-Hamalawy calls for “professional PhDs and MAs in technical translation with a strong emphasis on advanced Arabic language skills offered by technical colleges as well as by translation schools,” (2002:72). (Author’s translation)
Audiovisual Studies in Arabic is yet to move away from the over-fascination with subtitling and dubbing (Qasim and Yahiaoui 2019) and to begin taking stronger interest in addressing the emerging demands of the wider community (Gamal 2017). The only way to do so is to start examining the context, field, and landscape of translation in Egypt and to develop local theoretical frameworks and models for serving the needs of the youth (Gamal forthcoming). Translation in the digital age is no longer text-based but is created with multimedia and with a youthful audience in mind. The “readers” of today do not flick through the pages of print material but surf and swipe their screens in search of information that is interesting and challenging. Perhaps digital technology, if well-harnessed, could adjust the deficit in scientific knowledge created by the poorly-produced and unattractively-presented information in the print age. After all, the poor quality of textbooks, high prices, and costly distribution issues undermined the development of reading as a national habit in Egypt. All these issues are now of the past as audiovisual translation is created with attractive multimedia features, available free or at an affordable cost online, accessible in numerous languages and once uploaded gets instant world-wide publication. Audiovisual translation has so much potential and scope to fill the void created by pre-digital policies that were hampered by cost, effort, time, and distance (Gamal 2015).
Some positive steps have been taken recently which could confidently boost the role of audiovisual translation in the country through cooperation and integration. For instance, the 8th Digital Media Conference at the Ahram-Canadian University in December 2019 examined the application of interdisciplinary studies to the challenges facing Egyptian society. Also, the decision by Zagaziq University to establish the first Digital Media College in the country was announced in September 2018. Equally significant is the recently-introduced (2018) online Diploma in Digital Media offered by the American University in Cairo. Yet, one of the most promising signs is the Translation Conference held at the Faculty of Al-Alsun in March 2020, dedicated entirely to Applied Translation Studies: an area that Egypt is in dire need of given the total absence of a strong technical education section in the country. Though confident in its approach (as seen in the conference streams) it stopped short of spelling out the need for creating a strategic alliance with the Faculty of Media Studies at Cairo University. As discussed above, a more inter-active dialogue between the colleges of science, media, translation and the IT industry is needed for the creation of a robust interdisciplinary program that is mindful of the context, field and landscape of audiovisual translation in the country. Only then, would it be in a possible to create innovative and effective contributions to the challenges facing science journalism in Egypt.
Science journalism has always been tasked with reporting the latest and covering it well. In emerging economies like Egypt, it is expected that science journalism would play its role in making science popular and accessible. Naturally different societies manifest their scientific culture in different ways: dedicated science magazines, documentaries, weekly supplements with giveaways for youngsters, technical museums, regular exhibitions etc. In the digital age, however, most online publications are now expected to cover science in a manner that is both informative and interesting. To do this, new digital features and programs are now available to help materialize the difficult equation: making science both simple and fun. Multimedia, as the term suggests, is the use of several media such text, colour, image, video, and sound to help illustrate complex scientific concepts. Multimedia is not too expensive or complex but needs continuous training. The digital age, brought about the concept of upgrading and versioning, which presumes that we all have to constantly learn how to update our knowledge and skills.
Audiovisual translation presupposes the harnessing of multimedia as well as a strong multi-disciplinary alliance that combines languages, science, and mass communication skills. As translation studies is becoming attuned to smart technology, it will be well-placed to spearhead the multidisciplinary training that hopefully will see a new breed of multi-skilled science journalists. It is perhaps a matter of time before the kids who grew up playing with their Gameboys and Candy Crush to take charge of the Science pages. But until then, a balance needs to be struck for Egyptian youth to be at the forefront of digital technology but also to be active participants and not mere consumers of foreign and imported goods and games.
In the famous scene between the geography teacher and the fish monger discussed at the beginning of this paper, the teacher shows the irate fish monger a globe and tells him:
Look, the earth is like this globe, it turns!
To which the bemused fish monger replies:
Don’t be silly, this is a toy!
*This study was conducted in January 2020 and consulted the web sites of the following papers: Ahram Gate, El Tahrir, Sawt El Omma, Sawt el Malayeen, Al Watan, Ashorouk, El Sabah, El Fagr, Al Dostur, El Youm El-Sabe’, El Masreyoon, El Wafd, El Masry El-youm and Shabab Masr.
It also consulted the web sites of other major Arabic publications in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.