Can’t ‘Let It Go’: The Role of Colloquial and Modern Standard Arabic in Children’s Literature and Entertainment

When Arabic-literature scholar Elias Muhanna — otherwise known as @qifanabki — published a piece on The New Yorker about the fos7a dubbing of Disney’s Frozen (“Translating ‘Frozen’ into Arabic“), a roar went up around the Internet. Even Jezebel felt the need to weigh in:

FROZENThis is hardly surprising. Even when Muhanna posted about the issue without referencing Elsa and Anna, back in 2009, it created a small earthquake. Rather than revisit the issue myself, I invited a few of those who were debating the topic to weigh in.

Zeinab Mobarak, @Zuza_em, Egyptian dubbing translator

I have been a dubbing translator for more than 15 years. As I remember, we started off translating Disney films and series into colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and it was a great hit. A few years later, it was suggested (by Disney) to try using more mainstream Arabic, and we tried using colloquial Egyptian plus some MSA  (Modern Standard Arabic) words, if the colloquial was too specific to Egypt. This was done in a series called “Bear in the Big Blue House,” and it went off really well.

Then, once again, that changed, and at Disney’s request, we started translating films into colloquial Arabic and series in MSA (i.e. classical Arabic)! This went on for quite some time, and I think it had started when I was working on very old Disney series from the 30’s. The idea was that these were classics and it would be nice to keep them apart from everything else, since they did stand alone. Some of them had Mickey Mouse as drawn by Walt Disney himself. So, it figured.

But, MSA  somehow got the best of us, and it was probably a marketing decision, when we were asked to dub everything into MSA. I think it had to do with Al Jazeera Children’s Channel buying the rights to all the Disney films. We were even asked to re-write dialogue and songs of films that we had already dubbed years ago into MSA. I did that with Lady and the Tramp  1 and 2, but then refrained. It was too much! I felt I was massacring the films and my work. The changes involved not only the language but also the concept of the films!

The problem is that MSA is a “read only” language — I mean, no one uses it in real life. So having animated characters speak in it is just not normal. Add to that the fact that ethnic diversity is totally lost in film characters, since there is no ethnic dialect in MSA. Songs and jokes are congested and restrained because of the nature of MSA and its many rules and regulations.

Fans from all over the Arab World, who have different Arabic dialects, have tried to resist this change, and petitioned to Disney to return dubbing into Egyptian colloquial. It is widely understood and loved all over the Arab countries, since most of feature films and many series and songs are written in the Egyptian dialect ever since the early 20th century. The fans even have several pages on Facebook that spell out this resistance. One of them is actually called “Haters of Al Jazeera Children’s Channel”!

I personally love classical Arabic, but using it for dubbing children’s films and series, or even feature films and series, just strips the work of many artistic qualities and leaves much to be desired.

Zeinab Mobarak is a writer, puppeteer, and professional dubbing translator. Read more about her dubbing work.


Thoraya El-Rayyes, @ThorayaER, Palestinian-Canadian translator

The notion that Modern Standard Arabic is inaccessible to children just doesn’t square with reality. My generation grew up watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into MSA and we loved them. Twenty years later, there is a Syrian band playing theme songs from these cartoons in the bars of Amman to nostalgic children of the 1980s – 1990s who still remember the words and sing along (at an alarming volume).

Not all MSA is the same, it can be simplified and the choice of words helps determine how accessible it is. That fact that Disney has done a hack job of dubbing Frozen into MSA says nothing about the language itself and everything about Disney’s complacency in catering to the Arabic speaking market.

It seems to be en vogue to dismiss MSA as an obsolete and irrelevant linguistic form. Elias Muhanna asserts that we are in “the age of the Arabic vernacular” and the renowned Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim opines that “When you write in literary Arabic you are like something from history.” It is true that MSA has a limited ability to give expression to experiences in our everyday lives, but it is also true there are many things that cannot be expressed in vernacular Arabics. Just try to have an in-depth conversation about politics or philosophy without lapsing into MSA – the vernacular dialects just do not have the vocabulary.

More importantly, how can we deny the value of sharing a standard language with 300 million other people? Without my knowledge of MSA, I would never been able to decipher the Arabic dialects of Tunisia and the Gulf during my time in those countries. I would have been trapped in the linguistic silo of my Palestinian/Jordanian dialect, trying to communicate with other Arabs in English or broken French.

The debate about MSA versus vernacular Arabics bothers me because I feel it pushes people into accepting a false dichotomy between the two. The reality of language is so much more flexible than that. There is so much room to make MSA more expressive and relevant by incorporating common colloquial words and phrases into the language used, as many writers of Arabic literature have been doing for years.

Thoraya El-Rayyes is a writer and literary translator living in Amman, Jordan. Her translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in various literary magazines including World Literature Today, The Common, CutBank, and Banipal.


 Noura Noman, , Emirati author  

When I got a tweet from a young Qatari that “Frozen” was going to be dubbed in Arabic, I automatically tweeted back saying that I hoped it would be in Egyptian Arabic. The young man was shocked at my suggestion. A young Syrian living in Canada also chimed in that she thought Egyptian Arabic was a bad idea. And what the heck was wrong with “fus’ha”? And what about millions of Arab kids who didn’t understand Egyptian? Having had these futile debates before I was not afraid to point out that Egyptian is merely the Hollywood of the Arab world, and that Fus’ha is formal and dry, whereas Disney-speak isn’t. The Qatari said he couldn’t wait to hear “Let It Go” in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). I cringed as I explained that unless the translators were geniuses, the song will probably be really bad.

Man, how I hate when I am right. What was Disney thinking? I am always astounded by Arabs defending “fus’ha” merely for the principle. They retort with all the canned responses (read that as: they have no opinion of their own and only repeat what  they had heard from dinosaur purists who want to “preserve” Arabic by freezing it in cryogenic tanks.) (a) Arabic is the language of the Qur’an (never mind that the Qur’an was the dialect of Quraish – yes *gasp* a dialect!). (b) Arabic is our identity, our honor (drama queen-ism galore!) Not one of them sees it for what it is: a means, a tool, an instrument of communication. Two important words: tool (constantly being developed and upgraded) & communication (if no one understands it then there is zero communication). So as I always end my debate with the purists, I will end with this: when you teach your children “fus’ha”, where do they use it? They don’t use it to talk to their parents. They don’t use it when they walk into a grocery shop manned by a south Indian shopkeeper, and ask: هل لي برغيف من الخبز (The equivalent of: Dost thou hath a loaf of bread). Do they? So why must we deny the fact that dialects are 90+% Arabic and can also be used in children literature, so that our children don’t live their lives in this hypocritical duality that they simply do not comprehend? Modern Standard Arabic isn’t Quraish Arabic, is it? So, allow the same process to happen again, gently, guided by those who know what they are doing. Please.

Noura Noman is an Emirati mother of 6 and author of UAE’s first Arabic YA SF novels, Ajwan and Mandan.


Tarek H. Shalaby, @keratibalahs, Graduate Student

Personally, I oppose the suggestion that children’s literature and entertainment should be translated into local dialects. The MSA/Vernacular dichotomy is incredibly problematic and a recurring issue in Arab countries since at least the ’50s and ’60s when Taha Hussein supported the use of MSA. My worry is that if children are not grounded thoroughly in MSA, they will increasingly feel that MSA is not the “real” language of feelings and entertainment, but will simply resort to the use of their local dialect given that it already consumes so much of their media and daily speech. My friends and I who were born in the ’80s have a deep fondness and nostalgia for the cartoons of our childhood, the vast majority of which were Japanese anime dubbed into MSA, such as Captain Majed, al-Muhaqqiq Conan, Garandizer, Adnan wa Lina, etc. Ask any twenty-something about the impact of Captain Majed on their youth, and whether their fluent MSA unsettled, distanced, or alienated them in any way whatsoever. I would argue the exact opposite – it taught us that MSA is a complete natural language of expression and emotion.

So why is MSA important enough to protect? I see far greater social and economic benefits to the use of MSA in the longterm. The internet is radically bringing internet-savvy Arabs together, and anyone who has ever spent any time on the infamous Arabic forums will know that Moroccans, Iraqis, Sudanese, Syrians are actively cooperating and communicating with one another in MSA. A guilty pleasure of mine is, a website where Arabs from all over the world work together to translate western comic books into Arabic. The use of MSA is obligatory on their forums and in their translations. How would a child brought up on vernacular cartoons and books feel about Wolverine defeating his opponents in MSA? Would it not simply make it more unnatural for them? And in light of increasing pan-Arab media, music, and entertainment, wouldn’t a push for MSA make even more sense for us economically?

I do not oppose the promotion of local dialects in the long term, and in fact, my main concern is the timing. With the dismal level of Arabic secondary and higher level education, promoting vernacular dialects will only decrease the usage of MSA, which I feel is already threatened by increasingly right-wing nationalism across the region. MSA’s standing in society is precarious in Egypt, where the rate of illiteracy is nearly 30%, in Lebanon where there are social movements like Fa’el Amr to protect Arabic from the encroachment of English and French, in the UAE where majority of university students are educated in English. How is it possible that a country like Norway with 4 million people, or Finland with 5 million, can teach their students engineering and medicine and physics in their own languages, and we cannot? Until we have drastically higher literacy rates and a higher education system where most students actually learn in their own language, I cannot support the promotion of local dialects.

Lastly – which local dialects? Muhanna’s article states that many Disney movies in the past were dubbed in the Egyptian dialect. Well this is actually not that accurate. They were dubbed in the Cairene dialect. In “What is Arabic?” by Jan Retso, he argues that local dialects lie on a continuum of variance, a spectrum of minute changes. There is no Egyptian dialect. There is no Saudi dialect. Only stereotypical versions of each. Both countries actually contain a vast variety of dialects and registers. Why support the hegemony of the Cairene dialect over all the others? The Sa’eedi child, the Siwan child, the Sinaitic child – none speak in the Cairene vernacular. Should books be published in their local dialects as well? Or should we simply pick one from each country and promote that? Should we also publish and translate into the dialect of Fayfa in Saudi, on the basis that it is what the children hear and speak everyday? I believe that with more and more inter-communication on social networks and on forums, Arabic dialects are actually in the process of amalgamating and absorbing one another. In the past, an Algerian would never have come into contact with the Homsi dialect. Today, Arabs on social networks such as the “r/Arabs” subreddit on have created a Dialect Project for all Arabs to come into contact with each other’s dialects and understand their intricacies. Currently these are completely non-standardized dialects with no hard-fixed spelling or grammar rules. Would not standardization at this point only hinder their evolution? And would not publication and translation in a vast variety of local dialects only create a cacophony of competing non-standardized languages? If I walk into a bookshop to get a book for my child 10 years from now, will I have to navigate my way through the Homsi, Aleppan, Cairene, Sa’eedi, Hejazi, Gazan dialects to find the one I prefer? Would it not be far simpler and more efficient to promote the use of MSA and boost literacy and education in the Arab world instead?

Tarek H. Shalaby is a graduate student of Architecture and Urban Design at Cambridge University in the UK. His thesis discusses civil society and public space in Qatar. 

Nesrin Amin, Egyptian scholar

I just wanted to comment on one point, namely that “watching cartoons in modern standard Arabic was an important educational aid,” which for me sums up my problem with dubbing into MSA.

I remember how shocked I was when I once watched the Arabic-dubbed Teletubbies. Where in English they speak a version of baby-English, in Arabic they spoke MSA! And so it is that the Arabic child, from pre-school years until their teens, rather than watching kids’ shows for pure enjoyment, watches them as an educational tool! How come adults are allowed to watch all their entertainment in their local dialects, but little kids are denied that simple pleasure because they need to be constantly educated, never entertained? Oh, I agree so wholeheartedly with the point made in this article!

Nesrin Amin, formerly an instructor at University of Exeter with an interest in Arabic language and linguistics, now works at Cambridge International Examinations.