In Translation: Creativity vs. Responsibility and Colloquial vs Standard Arabic

Dr. Mona Elnamoury attended the second international translation forum at Al-Alsun. Two speakers had two different opinions on Arabic children’s literature.

By Mona Elnamoury

Fatima Sharafeddine (center) as she displays an award at the Lebanese Book Fair for her excellent first young-adult (YA) novel, Faten.

Issues like the responsibility of the translator and the ongoing debate of whether to translate into colloquial or standard Arabic for children are hot issues that might not end while this year’s forum ends on Thursday.

Award-winning Lebanese children’s book author and translator Fatima Sharafeddine  said, in her talk, that she believes it right to talk to a  preschool child in his or her own mother tongue. By mother tongue, she means the one he speaks with his mother. That is to say, colloquial.

When Sharafeddine first started translating, she dreamt of delivering books in colloquial Lebanese without any  linguistic obstacles to  the child. However, at the time, the publishers refused for economic reasons. To have a book written or translated into classical Arabic meant that publishers could sell it all over the Arab world, while a book in Lebanese Arabic could only be sold in Lebanon.

However, Sharafeddine’s translations into fosHa, or standard Arabic, did not satisfy her, as she found that a two-year-old toddler would not understand much of what was read to her. However, under the pressure of the publisher, Sharafeddine found a way; a level of language that could be easy to grasp without sacrificing fosHa altogether.

That new level necessitated a continous process of trying with the levels of language, as well as inventing new words. As an example, “scooter” is “ دريجة“  or a small bicycle and so on.

As for the Young Adult literature, Sharafedine believes that finding the right choice for translation is a real problem because as the Arabic culture is highly reserved many topics like sex, love and the body. Many of these things are still taboos to talk about with a teenager, not even approaching the idea of translation. Though a translator should be a writer basically, writing and translation are two different activities — and a translator should try her best to keep the overall identity and style of the original text.

One last thing Sharafeddine had to add: Although it might result in the acquisition of good values and attitudes, writing and translating for children should not be an educational, didactic activity . She prefers working on the feelings and emotions. Learning comes during and after that as a natural, self-acquired outcome.

On the other hand, Dr Ahmed Abd al-Azeem, a critic and an Arabic Dept. lecturer with the al-Alsun faculty, held the opposite viewpoint. He admitted that colloquial is attractive to use, but he can see that the same attraction can be grasped while using fosHa. He saw that, in using fosHa, there is a great added value for the child in stressing the larger mother tongue and establishing its linguistic pillars at a very young age.

Dr Abd al-Azeem gave examples from his own children speaking fosHa fluently at a very young age. So, he prefers cartoon movies and stories in particular to be translated into fosHa. What concerns him mostly are the choices of publishing or translation. These are choices that may end in disastrous effects from his viewpoint; namely,  for issues like open sexual relations, violence, breaking the law, disregarding Islamic or Christian values and so on. Dr Abdul Alzeem brought interesting videos of famous cartoons where essential values have been disregarded. A great filtration, then, should take place over the translation choice which lies in the hands of publishers before the translators.

As for the creativity, Dr Abd al-Azeem believes that, though freedom of creativity may be thought of as limitless sometimes, it cannot be thought of as such when it comes to children’s literature. Children, to him, are unfinished character projects that writers and translators cannot be careful enough with.

Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.