Sawad Hussain’s ‘Translating Humor in Contemporary Arabic Literature’

Together with seven other (aspiring) translators and writers, our editorial assistant Leonie Rau attended translator Sawad Hussain’s workshop on ‘Translating Humor in Contemporary Arabic Literature’, hosted by Catapult on September 25:

By Leonie Rau

Sawad Hussain

Sawad Hussain says that she got the idea for a workshop on translating humor from her own experience translating a short-story collection by Najwa Bin Shatwan. The collection is “full of humor and satire” — both notoriously difficult to translate — as Sawad writes in the course description: “Humor is one of the most difficult concepts for any writer or translator to engage with, and yet undoubtedly the most rewarding when it’s done right.”

After she got interested in doing it right, she began researching and reading widely on the topic of humor: how to pinpoint what makes a text funny, and how to transport this into another language.

Sawad then very generously shared her knowledge in this workshop, aiming to familiarize us with different types of humor in contemporary Arabic texts across different genres and media.

As a warm-up, we discussed jokes and tongue twisters — sussing out what exactly made them funny and realizing how very dependent humor is on time, place, and context.

In the course of the workshop’s 2.5 hours, Sawad acquainted us with Arthur Asa Berger’s framework of comic techniques and guided us expertly through applying it to excerpts from Arabic short stories, novels, and even a graphic novel.

We read, for example, the short story “The Memoirs of Cinderella’s Slipper” by Shahla Ujayli, from her collection A Bed for the King’s Daughter, translated by Sawad. In this story, a modern-day Cinderella feels compelled to beat up various unlikeable people she encounters, using her elegant slipper. One of the humorous techniques we identified in this story was what Berger calls “burlesque,” which “refers to any literary form that makes individuals, social behavior or other literary works ridiculous by imitating them in an incongruous manner.” In this instance, we thought the technique was used to criticize societal structures by subverting a familiar tale.

Understanding exactly why a certain scene, setting or joke is humorous is crucial for rebuilding that humor in a second language: once you figure out whether it is the sound of repeating letters in a tongue twister, the use of a stereotype or the reversal of a well-known standard script, you can begin to think about approximating those humorous devices in a way that makes sense and is funny in another language, too.

It turns out that even though humor might not be universal, its building blocks seem to be, and anyone equipped with the proper tools can learn to identify them.

If all this sounds great, you’re in luck: Sawad will run an expanded version of this workshop in the form of a three-week course hosted by the British Library, starting October 13. Find all the information on the class and how to register here and follow Sawad on Twitter @sawadhussain to catch any updates.


Leonie Rau is a Master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and hopes to pursue a PhD after her graduation. She is an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.