The Particular Challenges of Translating Children’s Literature Into and Out of Arabic

Literature Across Frontiers Director Alexandra Büchler, Turkish children’s-book author, editor, and agent Zeynep Sevde Paksu, and Lebanese children’s book author and translator Fatima Sharafeddine spoke at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Monday about the rewards and difficulties of translating children’s literature into and out of Arabic:

Clockwise from upper left: “Faten” in English, Arabic, Turkish, and Norwegian.

The session, part of the fair’s professional program, leapt straight into the challenges of helping the best stories move between languages, particularly into and out of Arabic.

In translation: mutual taboos

The stories that are considered important in European cultures, Büchler said — about abuse, bullying, teen pregnancy, drugs — are often considered inappropriate for children by Arab publishers.

One year, she said, Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) decided to promote only the translation of children’s books at the fair. The kinds of books that eventually found a publisher were mostly for younger kids. These were books she considered “really quite innocuous.”

This makes it difficult to reach young-adult audiences in the same way they’re reached in some other languages.

LAF, for instance, ran workshops in Cairo on crafting graphic novels and comics for young-adult audiences. “At the end of the project, we invited publishers and we made a presentation,” Büchler said. Yet the pieces weren’t published. The response was “our market is not ready for stories like this.”

But, she said, “it works the other way around as well.” For instance, Büchler saw an Arabic children’s book, on the topic of getting a second mother, where the protagonist’s father had married a second wife. “I found it quite shocking,” Büchler said. “But they showed reality.”

Different styles of illustration

The European illustrators’ styles were often considered to be “not realistic enough” by Arab publishers, Büchler said. “And that’s another stumbling block.”

“There are real cultural differences,” she said, both in terms of what’s considered appropriate for children and what’s considered “high quality in terms of illustration.”

Mismatch of language

In part because Arabic children’s books are written in standardized Arabic, and not in a child’s mother tongue, there is sometimes a mismatch between the language level of a book coming from another language.

“A book that addresses a nine-year-old child in the US or France, [if you] translate it into Arabic, the language is a bit ahead of the language in Lebanon, because of the difficulty of the Arabic,” Sharafeddine said. After all, these books are not translated into Lebanese Arabic, but into the standardized Arabic, which children begin learning later than they would learn English or French.

“This is the main problem I have when translating,” Sharafeddine said. “You don’t want to simplify the meanings, because he’s nine years old. But then at school he’s not learning the language at this level.”

Turkish children’s book author and agent Paksu said, “If for London [a book] is 6+, for Lebanon it will be 9+.”

Affinity between Turkish and Arab audiences

A number of books are translated from Arabic into Turkish each year, including books from the Syrian publishing house Brightfingers, which is now located in Istanbul. Other houses, like UAE-based Kalimat, have sold several titles to Turkish publishers. Sharafeddine’s YA novel Faten was recently launched in Istanbul, and she recently traveled there, speaking to “three schools a day.”

Paksu said that part of the reason for this literary affinity is “when we compare the Middle East to Turkey, we have common traditions.” She added: “But they are different, still.”

Although Sharafeddine’s Faten was undoubtedly translated, Paksu argued that for younger children, writers should go through less a process of translation and more of adaptation. “Under the age of 13, you have to re-write the text. Because every country’s imagination style is different.”

Children understand

Paksu said there is a marked difference in Turkey, as in most Arabophone countries, between books marketed to schools and those truly written for children. Schools, she said, “consider a book like bread. I pay a dollar for this, what do I get out of it?”

Parents are much the same, she said. If a book promotes “good behavior, good manners, then it’s worth it.” But for children, the attraction is completely different.

When a child comes to your stand and looks at books, Paksu said, “they understand literature.”

The process of translation changing the text

Sharafeddine talked about translating her YA novel Faten for Groundwood books in Canada, which came out from the press as The Servant. She did the translation herself, and she said, “I discovered when you write in a different language, you say things differently.” So she changed about fifteen percent of the text for the English version, she said.

But now, she added, “we are re-printing in Arabic.” So she “went back to English and made some of the changes” to the Arabic. Not all of the changes that happened in the English edition made their way back into Arabic, she said. But some.

Is translation for children important?

“I can’t imagine my childhood without Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh,” Büchler said.

“The first book I read in my childhood was Narnia,” Paksu said. “That book made me a writer and a publisher and an independent woman, because it encouraged me to imagine. We have to translate. We also have to produce local titles.”

“We also stress that translation develops local writing,” Büchler said.

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