Translating Children’s Literature into Arabic: Just as Hard as Grown-up Lit

The popular Gruffalo, translated by Nadia Fouda and Andy Smart.

Translating children’s books might seem like an “easy” task (only a thousand words instead of sixty thousand! simple terms! nothing to look up in the dictionary!). But a great children’s book translation—written into vivid language, echoing the effect of the original—is, I would argue, just as difficult as a great translation of grown-up lit.

Although I do concede that a thousand words probably doesn’t take as long as a hundred thousand.

Still: Take, for example, the Arabic translation of Aiyooha Al Dub Al Bonni, or Brown Bear, by Eric Carle. Something of the charming ease of Carle’s words “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” is lost in “Aiyooha al dub al bonni, aiyooha al dub al bonni, maza teree?” While my two-year-old likes the rhythm of the English-language Brown Bear, he only really enjoys the final page of Aiyooha Al Dub Al Bonni.

The younger one does still enjoy Hal Lil Kanghar Aidan Um? (Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too?), also by Eric Carle, even though the Arabic title loses its lovely internal rhyme. And certainly other books, like Koli El-Bisilla, which don’t rely on rhyming structures, but on acceleration and absurdity, are easier to render in Arabic. (Promising your child two elephants, a bathtub full of ice-cream, and the moon is funny even if the language isn’t perfect. However, promising to buy your child Africa—well, I didn’t find that so funny in the mouth of a British mum.)

I haven’t yet read the Arabic translation of The Gruffalo (apparently it will arrive in Diwan bookstores next week)penned by Nadia Fouda and Andy Smart—but am very pleased by how seriously Smart seems to have taken the project.

Smart told the Gulf News last month:

The main challenge is the same that any translator faces, which is how to remain faithful to the language and spirit of the original text while creating a text that has its own life and should have its own merits regardless of the original text.

Translating into Arabic for young children has an extra challenge because of the differences between written and spoken Arabic. Young children who are not yet able to read confidently in Arabic have to make a real effort to appreciate the written form.

The recently founded Etisalat Prize for Children’s Literature does not allow translations into the competition (and rightly), but why not recognize and celebrate good translations as well?

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