The (Arabic) Children’s Book Dilemma

Yesterday, I got a very well-timed email from blogger Elias Muhanna.

Lately, I’ve been trying to get together an Arabic story time or Arabic toddler book group for my two-year-old. (You know, so the kids can discuss their impressions of the Arabic translation of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear.)

It’s not an unpopular idea, but yesterday evening a friend looked me in the eye and said: in fos’ha?

Children’s books are almost entirely written in fos’ha, or “literary,” formal Arabic. That’s wonderful, because they’ll be learning fos’ha in school, as they should: much excellent literature is in fos’ha. But nobody (at least no one normal) speaks fos’ha. And if you want to grab the attention of a toddler and make them love literature, you probably need to use everyday speech. Or at least a mixture of fos’ha and everyday speech.

Muhanna also has a toddler, and also has struggled with this issue. In his words:

Here’s the basic problem. To a child’s ear, MSA sounds like what it is: a formal language that people don’t use in everyday speech. It is a language that has to be learned in school, not like the mother tongue that kids grow up speaking. As a result, children’s books written in fus’hā have a way of sounding antiquated at best, when read aloud. The immediacy, vividness, and general “at-home” quality that one feels in one’s own mother tongue is, to a large part, lost in MSA, unless one has devoted years to reading, writing, and developing fluency within it.

Muhanna ended up doing what my friends say they do, “translating” his daughter’s books into colloquial. And, he said: “Suddenly, a light seemed to go on and she was instantly interested in the plot and characters.”

Muhanna has a hilarious translation of the fos’ha children’s book he ended up “translating” into Lebanese 3meya for his daughter. It’s about visiting the doctor, and his English version begins: “Forsooth didst the nayward damsel alight upon the threshold of the quacksalver’s vestibule….”

Still, I’m not happy with this idea of the parent “translating” books into 3meya, for two main reasons: 1) toddlers love repetition, and off-the-cuff translations are bound to be slightly different each time, 2) children’s-book authors should be crafting wonderful, fun, poetic language that engages the child’s natural love of words. An off-the-cuff translation (probably) can’t do this nearly as well.

Muhanna’s readers suggest a few Lebanese-Arabic children’s books, but I suppose it’s up to me to dig up some beautiful, charming ones in Egyptian Arabic. (Not to mention the books I still need to dig up for my six-year-old.) Surely, they are out there—but how to find them?

Perhaps you have suggestions?