Although translations of grown-ups’ Arabic literature have seen a sharp uptick in the last two decades, translations of Arabic children’s literature have not:
It’s worth thinking about reasons why. First, English-language children’s publishing is, in general, linguistically insular. There aren’t a lot of translations of French or Spanish children’s books, either. Yet one can certainly expect a small but steady stream of titles from European and East Asian languages.
In part, this small-but-steady stream is because of established translators and established relationships. Tiny Owl is watching what’s new in Iranian children’s literature; Balestier Press is on top of new Chinese YA; North South has their eyes out for great European children’s literature. They know which translators are reading kid lit, and who’s got great taste.
If there is a publisher with a keen eye out for Arabic children’s literature, it’s unclear who they are. Moreover, there haven’t been — to the best of my knowledge — translators dedicated to finding their way around the world of Arabic children’s literature.
There have been a few books to make it across. House of Anansi published Fatima Sharafeddine’s Faten as The Servant in 2013. Sharafeddine translated the title herself. Orion published an adapted version of Maitha al-Khayyat’s Tareeqti al-Khasa, or My Own Special Way, as translated by Sharafeddine and “retold by Vivian French,” whose name gets the biggest billing on the cover. Illustrator Maya Fidawi doesn’t make the jacket.
Also, Neem Tree Press recently published Ahlam Bsharat’s Ismee al-Harakee Farasha as Code Name: Butterfly, translated by Nancy Roberts, a wonderful novel for young people that’s bursting with the questions of life, especially life in Palestine.
If the “what we need to know about them” genre of Arabic literature was the leading edge of the translation surge of the last two decades, then it’s possible we haven’t thought our children need to know about “them.” (Except, perhaps, a funny story about a girl who decides to wear hijab.)
There are award-winning children’s books — for instance al-Noqta al-Sooda’ (The Black Dot) — although Andy Smart notes that Walid Taher’s Etisalat Prize-winning book is the wrong length for an Anglophone children’s book. Or Ehem.. Ehem.. Marrerni Men Fadlek (Ahem.. Ahem.. Let me Pass Please), also illustrated by Walid Taher. It’s hard to believe there’s anyone who doesn’t need more art by Maya Fidawi in their life:
Why translate the new flowering Arabic children’s literature into English?
Because the stories are fun, the illustrations are wild, the characters are heartwarming. Since the headline promised a list of eight new Palestinian children’s books that can and should be translated into English, without further ado:
رحلات عجيبة في البلاد الغريبة
Wondrous Explorations in Strange Nations
This Etisalat Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel (2014) takes us into wild adventures when a life is revealed to a university professor invited to attend a conference in Morocco, where she is handed an old manuscript on the life of “Qamar,” who is some combination of Sindbad, Ibn Battuta, Pippi Longstocking, and a figure from Palestinian folktales. Qamar travels dangerous waters and faces enslavement, danger, and hardships, but she also meets friends, loves, and sets out to travel strange lands once again.
This exciting book about one Palestinian girl seeking to stop the collapse of the boundary between djinn and human worlds, and save the universe, is a Harry Potteresque fantasy (she’s an orphan, she didn’t realize she had powers) set in the very real world of Palestine under occupation, where just getting across town can take more courage than meeting a djinn.
This is the first book in a trilogy, and readers are left biting their fingertips, wondering what will happen next.
This is a fabulous and fantastic story about Bulqash’s visit to an island full of wild rabbits that takes place on a certain day each year — the day of the first spring flower. Since it happens each year, they all wait longingly for the day, just as a child might wait for Christmas. It’s a story about longing, about play, and about what a source of amazement life can be, in its aspects both mundane and unique. Yara Bamieh plays masterfully with words and pictures, and the fact that Bulqash won the Etisalat Award for Best Production is no surprise.
بركة الأسئلة الزرقاء
مايا أبو الحيات وحسان مناصرة
A Blue Pool’s Questions
Maya Abu Alhayyat and Hassan Manasrah
Who is this strange man who goes around, alone and humming? Flowers grow out of his coat sleeve and everything he reads in books turn into questions that fall on the town. Together, these questions form a blue pond.
This book is almost like a philosophical meditation on man’s search for happiness. It hasn’t been easy for me to grasp, but every time I read it, I think more and more both about the text itself and about the amazing illustrations. The book is a work of art in itself and attracts really imaginative musings, both for children and for adults. This book won the Etisalat Prize for Best Illustrations.
فلفول في بيت الغول
مايا أبو الحيات واناستاسيا قرواني
Falful in the Troll’s House
Maya Abu Al-Hayyat and Anastasia Qarwani
Falful is a little mouse who lives with al-Ghul — the troll — and his three troll siblings: Maltoub, who’s afraid of the dark, Banurah, who’s always chewing gum, and Sansur, who’s always roaring with anger, causing havoc, and terrifying poor Falful. Should he be quiet as a mouse, as Maltub suggests, or should he yell back, as Banurah says? In the end, Falful asks al-Ghul for help, and the story ends just as well as any magic story can.
نصائح غير مهمة للقارئ الصغير
أنس أبو رحمة ولبنى طه
Unnecessary Advice for the Young Reader
Anas Aburahma and Lubna Taha
Although unnecessary, this advice can be just as amazing! Consider the following:
Do not read when you are hungry.
Do not read when you smell freshly baked bread.
Invite your favorite character to dinner with your family.
Don’t ask to become friends with your favorite author on Facebook.
Choose any book, but especially the one that you find in your grandfather’s room, or out on the street.
Don’t tell anyone what book you’re reading until you’ve read it.
Read to your dog!
If I had to pick one piece of favorite advice from all this, it would be the advice to google a photo of one of my favorite writers, memorize the picture, and draw it. The book includes a drawing of Mohieddin El Labbad (1940-2010), a great Egyptian illustrator, of whose illustrations I am inordinately fond.
ميس داغر وضحى الخطيب
The Gypsy Witch
Mays Dagher and Daha Al Khateb
This story begins with children talking about a frightening woman who must certainly be a witch, and everyone is frightened! She has large magic eyes, a nose as long as an elephant’s trunk, and teeth as sharp as a wolf’s. She surely eats kids, too! But fantasies rarely match reality, and these children’s fantasies turn out to be no more than imagination. One of the girls tells us she enjoyed the woman’s company on a bus, and although she first fearfully turned down an apple and an orange from the woman, she could not resist strawberries!
“Thank you,” she said. “Just one.” But it wasn’t long before together they had gobbled up all the strawberries, and the apple and orange besides, and the girl realized there was nothing to be afraid of! Moreover, it turned out they both had frightening fantasies of each other, and each had been just as scared!
قصر الأميرة بهرج
أحلام بشارات وريما الكوسا
The Palace of Princess Buhruj
Ahlam Bsharat and Rima Kusa
For the sake of a single bloom, the earth grew greenery… So begins this dreamlike story of a garden, a princess’s beauty, and how the love of a prince falls, as rain falls to the earth, as trees flourish, as the stars glimmer. The prince is looking for Princess Buhruj, and he struggles through the mist that settles over the mountains and builds a palace to capture the princess’s attention, a palace with windows that reflect the sun and moon. When spring arrives, everything is ready for the arrival of a princess.