What Arabic Children’s Literature Needs, And How to Bring the Best Into Translation

Today is the last day of World Kid Lit Month (#WorldKidLit) as well as International Translation Day (#ITD2017). Here, we bring together a few of the issues facing Arabic children’s literature and make suggestions for a start at bringing the best of Arabic children’s literature into English:

It was also this week that award-winning Jordanian children’s-book author and publisher Taghreed Najjar and award-winning Emirati publisher Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi were at the Gothenburg Book Fair, appearing with librarian and Arabic children’s-literature specialist Elisabet Bokstigen. There, they spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing the Arabic children’s book ecosystem.

Arabic children’s book events are particularly key in Sweden, where, as Al Qasimi noted, Arabic is now the second-most spoken language.

One of the issues raised at the event was the challenge of integrating colloquial language into children’s books. Publishers have generally been wary of any colloquial in children’s books, even in dialogue.

Indeed, in her 2016 Etisalat-prize winning middle-grade novel Sorakh Khalf al Abwab (Screaming Behind Doors), author Rania Amin had originally written the dialogue in colloquial. But, she said, “then the publisher changed it into fos7a, because we have to consider competitions (such as the one I won in, for which I am very thankful of course) plus consider the market in other Arab countries, which I believe is sad, because somehow writing conversations in fos7a is a big drop in the story, and it’s not really MY work anymore, but my hands are tied, unfortunately.”

There is a new publishing house bringing out picture books directly in colloquial Arabics, Ossass-Stories. They write, on their website, that the books are “intended for children, but also for high school or college students and for other adults who want to learn colloquial Arabic.” So far, their first book is available in Egyptian and Shami.

Long-time children’s-book writer Rania Amin has also spoken about other challenges facing Arabic YA literature, saying, “I believe that if writers were given more freedom to write for children and teens and not write for publishers and for competitions, we are going to do a much better job and we will actually also find an audience of children and young adult readers.”

How can world publishers get to know Arabic children’s literature? 

Only a handful of children’s books have crossed from Arabic to English: 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.

But most of the richness of Arabic children’s literature — the books by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr, Egyptian writer-artist Walid Taher, Syrian author-illustrator Gulnar Hajo — doesn’t make it into translation.

ArabLit is going to make more of a concerted effort to forge links with publishers. In the meantime, for the intrepid who want to look for themselves:

Translate this!

For WorldKidLit Month, Petra Dünges Recommends 4 Great Kids’ Books to Translate from Arabic into World Languages

For WorldKidLit Month: 8 New Palestinian Children’s Books to Translate, and More

Recent news:

Budoor calls for developing Arabic children’s book industry

Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature Receives 166 Entries From 15 Countries


Anna Lindh Foundation: Arabic Children’s Literature Portal

Translator Petra Dünges: Arabic Children’s Literature, Translations from Arabic into German

Librarian Elisabet Bokstigen: Arabisk barnlitteratur

A few children’s publishers and projects with an online presence:

Salwa Books, Kalimat, AsalaDar al-Saqi, Dar al-Shorouk Kids, Nahder Misr, Tamer Institute  (Palestine Writing Workshop), Al-Balsam Publishing

On instagram:

Illustrator Maya Fidawi

Arabic books for children


Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature

Anna Lindh Honor List

World Kid Lit image courtesy Elina Braslina.