The Challenges (and Opportunities) Translating Le Guin’s ‘Wizard of Earthsea’ into Arabic

Earlier this week, Mona Elnamoury gave a talk for the American University in Cairo’s Center for Translation Studies lecture series about Ursula K. Le Guin’s moving Wizard of Earthsea (1968). What follows is drawn from her notes:

Photo provided by Elnamoury.
Photo provided by Elnamoury.

As Elnamoury wrote, The Wizard of Earthsea was a bildungsroman targeted at young-adult readers, although a delight for any age. She chose to translate the book into Arabic for two key reasons: First, she’d done her PhD on Le Guin’s work and had fallen in love with Earthsea. But there had to be not just her passion for her book, but also a potential audience. The second reason she cited was the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series: in the original, in film, and in Arabic translation.

Elnamoury referred here to Itamar Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory, which posits hierarchies of literature: children and adults, translated and original-language, among others.

Wen-chun Liang, who studied Harry Potter translations in Taiwan through the lens of polysystem theory, wrote that the Harry Potter novels were a game-changer in Taiwan. “Ever since the success of Harry Potter in translation, its popularity has brought children’s fantasy fiction to occupy the central position in…Taiwan.”

In Even-Zohar’s framing, Liang wrote, “children’s literature [usually] occupies a peripheral and secondary position in the literary polysystem. In other words, it rarely actively participates in shaping the center of the literary polysystem, and its repertoires are not regarded as canonical.”

This has certainly been generally true of children’s literature in Arabic, Elnamoury said.

Yet Harry Potter, Elnamoury said, was responsible in Egypt — as it was in Taiwan — for moving translated fantasy writing for young people closer to the center of literary discussion. Other novels, she felt, could follow in this newly forged space.

The successes of Harry Potter

There have been thirteen Harry Potter editions from Egyptian publisher Nahdet Misr, Elnamoury said, the first of which appeared 2002. The translations have been in demand to the extent, according to Elnamoury, that parts five and six were translated and printed in the same year.

This success led Nahdet Misr to translate several works by J.R.R. Tolkien. The demand for Harry Potter was also strong enough to have encouraged Nahdet Misr to go back and edit the previous translations, which have some flaws and notable omissions.

How this changes the work of a translator

Elnamoury, in her talk, addressed the many challenges of translating Earthsea, and many of her specific solutions. For one, she realized the book — as a fantasy for young people — would be measured against the Harry Potter phenomenon. Another challenge was the depth and breadth of Le Guin’s invented language and cosmology.

But the space created by Harry Potter, Elnamoury said, made it easier to solve many of these problems with a “strategy of preservation and transliteration,” instead of an attempt at domesticization. So, for instance “Earthsea” is kept transliterated in the book’s title, rather than an attempt to make a new Arabic word from “land” and “sea.”

Translating the cover

Translating the cover turned out to be another challenge. The first cover artist, she said, didn’t work out.

Eventually, a young fantasy-loving artist was found, she said, who could understand the story and translate its elements into a cover. Mostafa Negm created the cover below: