On Bringing ‘Firebelly’ into Arabic: A Discussion With Author, Translator, and Publisher

Author J.C. Michaels recently visited Cairo to talk with audiences about the Arabic translation of his YA novel Firebelly: 

By Yasmine Motawy

Balsam Saad (Balsam Publishing House), author JC Michaels, and translator Mona Drouby.

J. C. Michaels, the author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed philosophical young adult novel Firebelly: A Journey into the Heart of Thinking gave a talk to a full house at the Cairo Greater Library in Zamalek, hosted by Michael’s Arabic publisher, Al-Balsam Publishing House.

Passages from the book were wonderfully dramatized by professional storyteller Haytham Shoukry, director of the mobile libraries project at the Goethe Institute, and the talk was moderated by myself, Yasmine Motawy, and the Arabic translator of the book, Mona Drouby.

Firebelly is the story of a young girl who wishes her separated parents would live together — a teenage girl trying to understand the difference between what she can be and what she must be, and a small firebelly frog with a choice between a comfortable life as a pet and an adventurous life in the wild. There is a rich underlying philosophical theme to this book, in which the three characters consider the existential questions of freedom of choice, authenticity, subjective meaning, anxiety, and despair, giving life to the ideas of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and Heidegger.

I sat down to speak to the writer, the Arabic translator, and the publisher on selling rights, translation, and the readership of the book in Cairo. 

Yasmine Motawy: Selling rights is not an easy task, yet you managed to sell the rights to Firebelly in several languages. How did you achieve that?

J.C. Michaels: When I finished Firebelly, I felt I needed to approach the second part in an objective and dispassionate way. I had a product and I needed to introduce it to potential readers. According to Bowker, the official ISBN agency in the U.S., last year a million new books were published in the U.S., 700,000 self-published, 300,000 traditionally published. How does one get noticed?

With modern-day technology and social infrastructure, and time and effort, anyone can become known. The real challenge is getting reviewed by people other than friends and family. During the writing process, I thought little about my audience, other than this initially being a story for my daughter. I simply wanted to write what I thought was a compelling story.

The structure of the book is more like experimental fiction than genre fiction. It had not occurred to me that my audience was YA, young adults. At the time, I didn’t even understand this phrase. I later learned it was invented by the publishing industry to sell books. I later came across an organization called P4C, Philosophy for Children, run from Mountclair State University in New Jersey. Their goal is to teach philosophical thinking to children starting in grade school. They do this through literature, by reading stories and discussing topics like other minds, consciousness, ethics, etc.

I also entered my book into competitions in the U.S. A panel of qualified judges does read and evaluate your work. To my surprise, I was almost always a finalist or higher. When you win book awards, you get stickers. Gold, silver, bronze, 1st place, 2nd place. etc. Within a twelve month period, I had about about six stickers that I could attached to the book.

I then felt ready to send participate in international book fairs. At the American Book Expo, a literary scout for 20th Century Fox became interested. She didn’t feel Fox was the right place, but she did contact various directors to see if they might be interested. Several contacted me. Eventually, an offer was made. I discovered that, when selling movie rights, you initially only sell the ‘option’ to make a movie. What often happens is the option takes the book off the market. A few books get made into movies, most just sit on the shelf. In the end, I turned the offer down.

YM: Tell us about the translation process; how did you work? Was this a collaborative process?

Mona Drouby: I did this translation over ten years ago, and it was a collaborative process, not with the author but with the publisher. We would have endless discussions about how I would exercise my creative liberties as a translator, while she was concerned with remaining faithful to the text! I was blessed to have a publisher that was this involved and respectful of translation. In the end, the translation took a year and my priority in the later drafts was maintaining the cadence of the Arabic language and the beauty of the sentences in the translated edition.

It was no surprise to me to learn that it had been translated into ten languages. There were hardly any cultural concepts that were completely alien to an international reader. I only remember reflecting for a while on how I would translate “pilgrimage to India” in a culture where the use of the term was limited to religious travel to Mecca, but that was it. Once the translation was complete, we ran the translation of the title by the author because I was not sure whether to translate it to sound like Little Red Riding Hood, or in this case, Little Red Bellied Frog, or whether to stay faithful to the common name for the frog, which we did.

YM: How did you select this book for translation?

Balsam Saad: I was a the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and I picked up the book after liking a blurb in the catalogue, and read it cover to cover on the plane back to Cairo. That same day, I wrote the author an email asking to buy the Arabic rights! That was back in 2007.

Fast forward to 2017 — it was amazing that John made the effort and took the time to visit Cairo this week. It has been a great journey, launching and relaunching the book — ten years after its first publication. I want to thank him for the book and the visit and to thank everyone who helped to make the visit a success. 

YM: Any final thoughts on translation or the readers you met on this trip?

J.C. Michaels: I have no linguistic access to the Arabic edition, but I know that good translation has to recreate the story. The feedback from the audience gives me an impression of the quality of the Arabic translation. I intend to make a special introduction to the next Arabic edition. I was happy to be consulted about the title because my Portuguese editor told me that ‘firebelly’ in Portuguese meant ‘indigestion’ and that the translator would have to make adjustments!

On this trip, I have been asked questions on design, voice, and other writerly concerns that I have never been asked before, and I must say, I have met some of the most careful readers I have ever come across.

The author visited several NGOs and schools and spoke to another full house of children about writing, philosophy, and the book at Al-Balsam bookstore. Michaels is finished with his second novel and is working on the third.

Yasmine Motawy is a children’s literature scholar, translator, editor, consultant, and an instructor at the American University in Cairo.