Fatima Sharafeddine: On Writing and Translating Arabic Children’s Literature

In addition to her report from the al-Alsun conference on the 3ameya vs. fos7a debate, Dr. Mona Elnamoury also sat down with award-winning Lebanese author and translator Fatima Sharafeddine, who has written for children ages 0-18. (One can also find adults of all ages buying her YA novel, Faten, which will soon be available in English translation.) 

Mona Elnamoury: What are the key differences between writing for young adults in English, Arabic and French?

Sharafeddine reading to a group of older children.

Fatima Sharafeddine:I do not think there is a difference. When you are writing a book for young adults you are writing a book for young adults in any language. In fact I think that writing for young adults is similar to writing for adults in the fact that language is elaborate and developed. The difference lies in the fact that you write  particular issues. But if you ask me about writing for  small children, then that is different and more interesting.

I think personally that writing for the young is  much more difficult than writing for older age groups.

When you are writing for young adults, it is almost like writing for adults in things like the elaborate and developed language, but when you write for children every word counts and it has to be in its proper place. You have to ask yourself “is this the right amount of text on the page?” because you have to set a story from beginning to end in 500-700 words. So, you really have to choose every word carefully.

There is also the music of the language, even if it is not rhymed. You always should pay careful attention to the music, read it aloud to yourself and hear the music. All in all, I think writing for children is much more complicated than writing for adults.

As for the language used in writing for the young, it varies a lot from English and any other languages. As I was asked before how do you translate curse words: the answer is that we do not. We do not use bad words in Arabic and we are still in a stage where we have to be very careful about this age group because we are very conservative about many topics.

ME:What should be kept in mind when we translate YA literature?

FS:I only translated one YA book, which is my own novel, Faten, from Arabic into English. It will be published soon in Canada. The publisher wanted to have the first chapter translated as a sample to taste the book. I did the translation but they obviously liked it. When my Arabic publisher told them that the translator was herself the author, they didn’t mind. I did the translation and gave it to my 20-year-old daughter — whose first language is English — for editing.

It is a translation that contains like 20% of rewriting in certain parts. As a writer, I have the right to do so. But if I wasn’t the writer, I would not do the same. As a translator, I have to be very faithful to the original text.

ME.But doesn’t the original text have to right to exist as it is?

FS:I did not change it, I only made it better to the audience I am working with. I kept all the names except one guy name which is “Jehad” in Arabic. I had to change that for the Western audience for many reasons, one of which is that I did not want any political or religious controversy to be raised. If I weren’t the writer, I might have hesitated, asked the writer or the publisher before doing that. I also gave another title. Instead of Faten I gave it the title The Servant.

ME:What about children’s picture books? Is there any differences in writing one in Arabic vs. in English?

FS: The only difference is that in Arabic we have the duality of language, the spoken and the written. When we write, we have this issue. I always debate with myself [regarding] which form to use  and whether it is appropriate to say this or that. Then, I write, constantly checking dictionaries to see if that word exists. But sometimes I write in English directly and it becomes much easier, much funnier and much lighter.

In Arabic I restrain myself, I feel the difficulty of introducing a text and the first draft looks much different from the final draft. I make sure it is beautiful to the ear because Arabic is such a musically rich language and we can use that to keep the children’s interest. Sometimes I write the whole text in “sag3” (rhyme). Sometimes I am asked to translate into rhymed Arabic as well and I do. Of course we may change a few words but we must not contradict the images.

ME: How do we get more children to read?

FS:It is not enough to write, it is not enough to illustrate, it is not enough to publish, it is not enough to sell books. We have to make an extra effort. We have to develop a reading context. We need to hold contests in our schools and communities if it is feasible here. We have to create reading clubs. Schools have to conspire with the librarians and parents. We all have to collaborate to take the book from the bookstore, from over the shelves and put it in the hands of children, giving them a reason to do so.

Of course we have to give them books that are as beautiful as possible. As a writer I do the best I can to do so. I give opinion on the illustrations and if I feel a publisher is compromising quality, I simply stop dealing with them. Create a reason for the child to want to read.

ME:What do you think is wrong in the children and YA literature in the Arab world? Why do we have relatively little production?

FS: Nothing is wrong. In the last fifteen years, many many publishers have become  specifically interested in children’s literature. I think the only problem is that there isn’t enough editing. Publishers publish anything anywhere because they want to publish. Some of them, not all of them to be honest.  It is not enough to have an idea and say I will write a book on it. You have to know the basics of writing a children’s book like what do with the dialogue, the rhyme. The problem is that the publishers do not think about these things. In the West, you have an editor before the publisher who takes care of these things. In the Arab world, we do not have this stage. It is only the writer and the publisher and that is all.

ME:Is translating for young adults different from translating for adults?

FS: It is basically the same. You have to be a writer to translate.

ME: Why doesn’t Arabic YA literature handle issues like computers and virtual games like the ones our teenagers are spending a great part of their time in?

FS: These are productions of the West that we consume but are not necessarily part of.  We use technology but we did not create or develop it. It is not part of our real life. Literature develops with life. So, it is only natural that we still handle issues that may seem behind the technological stage.

ME: Bridget Collins, the British YA writer once said that good YA literature is valid at any age. How far do you agree with that?

FS: I agree. Not only young adults but children’s literature. A good book remains a good book that can be enjoyed at any age. Even a picture book that is well written and illustrated can still be enjoyed by a sixty-year-old man.

ME: Faten, your famous novel. What do you want to tell us about it?

FS: I enjoyed writing Faten. The idea came to me and I started with a plan. But when I started  writing, I deviated from the plan because Faten came alive as a character and she took me to places where I did not want to go. That was a great experience to me and I learned a lot while working. When I translated it I also really enjoyed doing so because as a translator when you translate a book you immediately know if it is good text or a bad one. So when I translated Faten, not thinking that I am the writer, I enjoyed it and then I knew it was a good book.

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.

Tomorrow: Mohga Kahf talks with Elias Khoury about writing about torture and how having a central female character changed him.