Colloquial vs. Classical: How Do You Write?

The most interesting things I’ve overheard from the Beirut39 festival (and it’s hard to overhear what’s going on in Beirut from Cairo—noisy here) have been about how young writers choose to reconcile the divide between classical (fos’ha) and colloquial (3meya) Arabic.

A generation ago, many writers switched to writing dialogue in 3meya, leaving the rest in fos’ha. Some writers continue to play around with the divide: In Elias Khoury’s most recent novel, Ka’anaha Nae’ma—which should be available in English from Archipelago next year—large chunks of the narrator’s internal monologue are in Lebanese 3meya.

But the relationship between standardized fos’ha and dialect 3meya is more fraught than the above would indicate. Palestinian author Adania Shibli talks about her relationship with 3meya in John O’Connell’s festival report in The National.

[Israeli Arab author Ala] Hlehel admits he experimented with writing “spoken” Arabic in a blog, but for Shibli this is a step too far. “I can’t write in dialect. And I feel the same taboo about speaking in classical Arabic. If I do then I feel embarrassed, as if I’m in a TV news report. This is especially a problem when I write dialogue – and so I don’t. My characters are basically silent.”

Yes! Shibli’s characters don’t speak. It had never occurred to me that the reason they are silent is because she won’t have them talking in colloquial. Fascinating!

Guardian editor Claire Armistead, also in Beirut for the festival, tweeted (twittered?) about her experiences, noting:

Big Beirut talking-point – how do you reconcile classical Arabic with desire to reflect modern, local lives (there may be no local readers)

For those of you unfamiliar with Arabic, learning to read and write is much more of a hurdle here than in the English-reading world, because of the divergences between fos’ha and 3meya. Many Lebanese apparently don’t know how to read—and don’t even know the Arabic alphabet.

This topic is addressed in Adania Shibli’s lovely novella Touch, out now from Clockroot Books, but perhaps some of the most interesting details are lost in translation. After all, it’s difficult to explain the difference between “written” and “spoken” words in English (without significant digression).


  1. Such an interesting topic! now that translation is a significant concern, the various 3amya’s of Arabic present a new challenge for translators. It would be very interesting to read translations into English of different 3amya’s. How an English translation of a Lebanese dialect would be different from a translation of an Egyptian dialect? What if two characters speaking two different 3amya’s converse in one novel?

  2. Gaelle, you’re hurting my head!

    When I talked to (translator) Humphrey Davies about it, he indicated that he didn’t see colloquial/classical as a big hurdle, that he just sort of felt his way through it.

    I remember Jonathan Wright saying the same sort of thing at an AUC event about translation. But then Khaled al-Khamissi (whose /Taxi/ Wright translated into English) interjected that his Italian translator had rendered the divide between fos’ha and 3meya as…was it Neapolitan and standard Italian?

    And recently W. Scott Chahanovich, who translated /The World of Boys/, was saying (I haven’t read the translation) how he rendered 3meya as “American country slang as an English substitute for Egyptian Colloquial. A faux pas for a beginner, I guess.”

    I sympathize with Humphrey’s “just feel your way through it” strategy, although I also think something is lost this way.

  3. And if characters were speaking in two different 3meyas…there would have to be some way of indicating the words not understood (zabadi is yogurt here and I think in another 3meya it’s milk?), the reasons why they’d make fun of each other’s pronunciation?

    Now you’re really hurting my head.

  4. truly sorry for hurting your head! didn’t mean it. I think that such situations call for the expansion of the translator’s creativity, and it would be very interesting to see how such works would (re)emerge in translation!! just wait and see…

  5. That’s all right, my brain is easily bruised.

    If I remember, I will grill Ahdaf Souief on this topic when she comes to town for the translators series…next week?

  6. It would be extremely interesting to hear (read) her perspective, or the way she would proceed if confronted with such texts…

  7. re: neapolitan accent — a couple of years ago i saw matteo garrone “gomorra” while on holiday in tuscany. the neapolitan dialect came subtitled in standard italian, so there …
    in my experience (mostly as a reader, not so much as a translator), rendering dialect into a “relaxed” version of the target language usually works best. translating into a specific dialect usually feels forced. also, such translations “age” much faster.

  8. *garrone’s. need more caffeine.

  9. Interesting! So I hope the Italian readers who picked up /Taxi/ didn’t need subtitles to understand the parts in Neapolitan (which I can’t help thinking of as an ice cream, sorry).

    I imagine a “relaxed” version is the only route English really offers? Especially if you aim for readers in different Englishes. I always feel awkward when there’s something that feels British to me in an Arabic-English translation; I’m sure Brits must feel similarly about Americanisms. It suddenly evokes another place entirely, and really throws me out of the text.

  10. well, it’s the same for all the languages. it’s not just the various dialects, it’s the registers as well. i remember a translation of shaw’s “pygmalion” that used dialect. it was done by a superb translator, but it was unreadable and it was never staged. shaws’s contempt for classes and social strata could not be translated into the existing colloquial registers. but it worked perfectly in standard with made up adjustmets for each characters.

    which is partly the answer, i think: the language characters speak is always a construct, because the characters are a construct. if they are well defined, then whatever language they use will feel natural, in original and in translation.

    i don’t know about the englishes. when “trainspotting” came out it had to be re-dubbed for the american market, because the original would be incomprehensible. i guess a similar situation also explains the popularity of boxed sets of “the wire”. (subtitles, yay!)

    i’m sure the same could (should?) be done with arabic. people get used to it very very quickly. actually, i heard a couple of years ago, that — because of some soap or something — the gulf dialect was totally the thing. i’m sure it irritated the purists, but then, what doesn’t?

    i’ve completely veered of the topic, haven’t i?

  11. …The author who ‘bestsells’ in Italy is Andrea Camilleri, a very old and courageous writer who invented a language partly Italian, partly Sicilian, partly similar to Sicilian. And he sells everywhere in Italy…

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