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?

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18 comments

  1. Duality of Arabic is definitely an issue when it comes to children’s books.Publishing in one specific dialect which differs from one country to the other limits the market a lot, For that reason, all of Kalimat books use simplified fus’ha. Words are carefully chosen so the story can flow nicely. We are working on a few Emirati books now and some of them use Emirati dialect.From my experience with my own children, reading in 3amiyya, works really well. As my daughter is getting older, though, she is gradually accepting Fusha.. In fact exposing young children to some fusha can help in the transitional period between home and school. We have a series of 4 baby books in very simple rhyming fusha and works so well with babies and toddlers. My children now fill in the words for me when I’m reading any of the baby books to them.

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    • Just a comment on what Dareen wrote. In fact, Kalimat’s book on Emirati culture are written in Classical Arabic not colloquial.
      One of the stories is based on traditional nursery rhymes where we have left the songs as they are but the rest of the story is still in Fush’a.

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  2. A child typically learns two versions of Arabic when growing up – the more formal written, or classical, Arabic and the less formal spoken, or colloquial, Arabic, which differs from one country to the next. The problem is that there is a large gap between the language of orality and that of literacy. In fact, the two variants of language are so vastly different in many ways that it has been compared to having to learn two separate languages, rather than only one.

    Because of the complex grammar and writing system, Arabic is one of the most difficult languages to learn, especially when compared to other languages such as English. The fact that English has become the preferred language of reading in many situations due to globalisation exacerbates this problem, and poses a huge threat to Arabic language, culture and identity.

    Classical Arabic, or Fusha, is considered sacred because of its use in the Koran, and has remained largely unchanged since the seventh century. But this gives it a sense of artificiality, and can make stories and situations seem contrived, making it exceptionally difficult for children – or even adults – to relate to what is being read. The gap between the Fusha that children learn at school and the Arabic they speak at home is one of the main reasons for the low levels of adult literacy throughout the Arab World. The fact that Fusha is also outside of people’s immediate frame of reference and is not a part of daily life creates additional distance, and learners are unable to relate what they are reading to their own personal experience, which results in many eventually losing interest.

    As such, to ensure that children don’t lose interest in our books, we must make Arabic a popular language for reading. We must steer away from traditional depictions of Arabic literature and come up with fun and exciting books that children – and even adults – will be attracted to.

    For this to happen, writers need to step into the shoes of children when they are writing and make sure the topics and language are familiar and close to their personal experiences and emotions. Writing in colloquial Arabic would probably pose more problems than it would solve, because it would just push classical Arabic even further away. Rather, we need to bring the two forms closer together and reduce the gap between the written and spoken language by choosing familiar words and sentences that overlap both categories.

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  3. Hi there,

    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.

    I entirely agree with you, particularly on point number 1. That’s the main problem with off-the-cuff translations. Repetition is hugely important, because toddlers can’t understand about 80% of the words they are hearing in a lot of these books. What’s important is that they keep hearing them again and again, and eventually they become vocabulary. My daughter had memorized the entire series of “Frances” books by Russell Hoban by age three, even though she probably didn’t understand every word. But the fact that she heard them again and again made them become part of her mental stock.

    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?

    Almost none of the suggestions were actually in Lebanese Arabic. And I’ve had NO luck whatsoever in finding any on my own. I’m kind of shocked that no publisher has taken advantage of this.

    Kalimat’s books are probably the best alternative. They’re beautifully illustrated, and the stories are cute. But they’re in fusHa. Sure, the language is not as stultified as some of the other material out there, but it’s fusHa. It’s not the kid’s mother tongue. It’s not the language they hear every single day, the language that they are making leaps and bounds in because they WANT to be able to communicate their feelings to people around them.

    That’s the problem. Write books that sound like people’s speech, and kids will read them and love them.

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  4. unfortunately, i can’t help with any suggestions but i have some comments and questions for all of you.

    arabic is hardly the only language with a significant difference between spoken and written language; all children have to deal with this kind of diglossia, no matter what their first language. of course, it depends on the language and the child’s dialect, but it’s always there.

    what everybody seems to be saying is that there is not much choice in arabic, so poor kiddos are stuck with the nayward damsel, right? that’s not a question of fusha or amiyya, it’s just poor writing and editing.

    after all, most everyone of my vintage grew up watching (and reading, and colouring) this (in our own respective mother tongues):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPm7-W-lpq4&feature=related and i’ve never heard of anyone being discouraged by the fact that it was in a language that was obviously not the one used for everyday whatnots.

    i agree with trying to simplify the language for very small children and find “familiar words and sentences that overlap both categories”. but i also believe that children learn by repetition and have the capability of grasping the fact that language changes depending on where it’s used.

    also, fairy-tales aren’t exactly know for using ordinary, everyday words, are they? i mean, go and ask a group of pre-schoolers what a spindle is. then repeat the exercise with college seniors. exactly.

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  5. Bibi!

    Yes, every language has a gap between spoken and written, and when I hear my six-year-old reading books aloud in English (although he prefers to read “in his head”), I note a number of spindle-ish words that he doesn’t understand.

    Certainly, there are all sorts of words like this. Some I still can’t properly pronounce, but have been reading for years and years. Fine.

    However, let’s say most of the words in the English book are in my son’s vocabulary—even if it’s a fairy tale. And, what’s more, the grammatical structures are the same. So he can grasp the extras from context.

    I think I might even remember wondering exactly what a spindle was, and how it pricked one’s finger.

    Whereas, with the 3meya/fos’ha gap, it’s not a question of a few things being beyond the child’s reach, but many.

    Lately, I’ve been reading Eric Carle’s /Brown Bear/ with Rami in English and in Arabic. He loves the pictures and the repetition; it’s an extremely simple text; no way to go wrong.

    And I really had it in mind to stick with the fos’ha, but find myself simplifying nonetheless, trying to use some fos’ha but also use words/animals names that he knows from everyday speech.

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  6. Also, /The Guardian/ recently posted a list of the “best children’s books ever.” I don’t find the list that interesting (some good books there, sure), but I love the comments at the end:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/12/best-childrens-books-ever

    I’m especially charmed by the number of people who think Lucy Mangan/Sarah Crown/Julia Eccleshare are “mad” for not including their favorites. I want this passion for children’s books in Arabic—but first there need to be some books to get passionate about.

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  7. funny dat. i actually read most of the books people mentioned in the comments, but almost none of the original list. see how the western cannon changes when you leave the english speaking world 😉

    i understand what everybody meant by no suitable books for children. i just have a bit of an issue with every single language thing turning into this fusha : amiyya debate. it’s simply not very constructive. i know this debate from my own language — it’s a slavic one; you speak russian, so you probably understand where i’m coming from.

    before i anger everyone 😉 what about these:
    http://www.ldlp.com/cgi-bin/LDLP.storefront/4bee5fa809706b60273f4284ebaf06f8/Catalog/1484

    they’re DK books, so at least they should be pretty. (and in fusha, yes, yes.) don’t know how many stories they have for the little ones, though.

    and, i just remembered: your older son might enjoy the asterix comics. i know they’re translated into arabic, and because the topic is ostensibly so removed from everyday life, the language shouldn’t sound strange. plus, they used to come with this bizarre two-pages-coloured-two-pages-not layout, so he might have fun colouring, too. the dar al ma’arif on the corner of adly and sherif used to carry the lot (i think that’s the one.) start off with asterix and cleopatra, it’s hilarious.
    my father read them to us when we were children, that’s how i learnt most of my french (i went straight into proust from there. textboox just didn’t do anything for me ;-)), not to mention almost everything i know about the history of the roman empire. you can call me shallow …

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  8. Bibi

    I disagree with you on the following counts:

    “arabic is hardly the only language with a significant difference between spoken and written language; all children have to deal with this kind of diglossia, no matter what their first language. of course, it depends on the language and the child’s dialect, but it’s always there.”

    Sure, diglossia exists in other languages. Is it always as pronounced as it is in Arabic? No. Sometimes it is even more pronounced. Sometimes it is less. The point is that, as you note, it depends on the language, and in the case of Arabic I think it is a problem that there are NO children’s books written in 3amiyya.

    None.

    Why does everybody act like poor old fus7a is getting the short end of the stick, when it is actually 3amiyya that is woefully under-represented in Arabic children’s literature (or Arabic literature, period)? I don’t get that. Sure, it’s great for kids to gain an appreciation of the diglossic condition from an early age, etc., but why can’t they also have books read to them in colloquial?

    “what everybody seems to be saying is that there is not much choice in arabic, so poor kiddos are stuck with the nayward damsel, right? that’s not a question of fusha or amiyya, it’s just poor writing and editing.”

    It’s not just poor writing and editing. It’s a problem of translation. That’s what’s happening, because the language is not the kid’s first, so no matter how well the book is written or edited, they are still, in effect, reading a book in a non-native language.

    No one wants people to stop writing books in fus7a. I just want someone to write a few in 3amiyya as well.

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  9. qifa,

    i beg to differ. i think it is very much a question of writing and editing. i’m not acting “like poor old fus7a is getting the short end of the stick”, nor do i have anything against books written in amiyya. i guess my comment was more general on the fusha/amiyya issue and i’m sorry if i was unclear.

    the language i write as my first language (not, according to your rationale, my mother tongue — a a situation further complicated by the fact that my mother and i don’t speak the same dialect) has strongly pronounced diglossia (but it’s spoken by a very small number of people, so it makes no sense to print books in venaculars), so i understand the situation in arabic, what i don’t believe is that this diglossia prevents children from enjoying books. i’m quite certain that children would find dull stories written in poor amiyya equally uninspiring.

    one question, for english speakers: when you read to your children in english, which english is it?

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  10. To be honest, I don’t have to think about “which English” I read to the boys in.

    Since we live in Cairo, a good number of our English books are British English, some are Australian vernacular, and we have lots and lots of books hauled over from the U.S. Some were written recently, some 30 years ago, 50 years ago, more.

    Sometimes I have to explain what a “nappy” is (or a spindle), or why a flashlight is called a “torch,” etc., but I don’t think Isaac find the Englishes particularly different other than a twinge of vocabulary here and there, and something tonal that is different but not confusing.

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  11. I saw all the discussions about the Arabic language and children’s literature, I would highly recommend a series of children’s books “qusqush”, a very unique book that the Arabic writing is literary writing, but at the same time also spoken. Very exciting books for children, you can buy them through http://www.amazon.co You can also enter http://www.darelham.com author’s site and get more details about the Series

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  12. When I was publishing Arabic children’s books in Cairo, mainly for the Egyptian market, we developed a children’s book format with a flap on the back cover. If you folded the flap out you could read the Egyptian colloquial text while you turned the pages of the story. In this way the child can ‘graduate’ from the colloquial (which will be a ‘stable’ text, which commentators above have said is so important) to the standard form at their own speed. This mirrors the process that most children in for example the UK go through – they know a picture first orally and then come back to it repeatedly (if they like it!) until they can read the words themselves. Currently, as one half of a husband-wife team translating picture books into Arabic, we try to make sure that the text is as close as possible to standard Arabic. See the translation of the Gruffalo for example (Al Gharfool). The research that I’ve seen suggests (unsurprisingly!) that young children who regularly listen to good picture books read aloud in standard Arabic tend to become better readers.

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    • Andy,

      Hmm, I haven’t seen any books with a flap on the back cover, and I’ve torn apart the children’s-book sections at most of the Cairo bookstores.

      But in my (rather chaotic) experience of reading books to my two sons (2 and 6), I think the translated ones *tend* to turn out stiffer and less “fun” than the ones written recently and well in Arabic (areed asdan, fizo yaraf). But I haven’t seen any of your work, and I haven’t yet seen Al Garfool available in Cairo. I certainly want it!

      And of course I am hardly shocked by this research. I would love it if my older son’s Arabic teacher would sometimes read to the class (instead of all writing, writing, memorization of grammar), and we’re still trying to put together Arabic story times for preschoolers. One of the big problems, I think, is that Arabic is often presented like medicine instead of as something fun.

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    • Absolutely! Have you been over to our other blog, readkutubkids.wordpress.com? I’m happy to put together a list, although I need to know where you are. Different books available in different places/countries.

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