The Poetry of Translating Children’s Books: The Gruffalo and الغرفول

I have now read الغرفول in English and Arabic dozens of times to my two sons, feeling its texture and rhythm in both languages.

The book is charming—for those who haven’t read it, my goodness! hie thee to a bookstore!—and it features a clever mouse who not only outwits a fox, a snake, and an owl, but also the fearsome…غرفول. The textual rhymes, the charming illustrations, and the different voices it encourages make it a great experience both for the seven-year-old (who can read it aloud, and knows what the mouse is up to) and the two-year-old (who just likes to hear the sinister إلى أين إلى أين، يا فارة يا عزيزتي ؟ )

The more I read it aloud, the more I think that translating a children’s book like The Gruffalo is more akin to translating poetry than to translating simple prose. Different translators could come up with many different versions, some better than others.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think translating a book like الصواريخ الحمراء  و جيلي القوس قزم (Red Rockets and Rainbow Jelly) presents the same sort of challenge. A color here, a child’s name there, and boom! You’re finished.

But الغرفول, if it’s to maintain its rhyme and its meaning, cannot simply echo the English-language text. What would “Gruffalo crumble” mean in Arabic? (In fact, what on Earth does it mean to my children in English?) So instead, the mouse likes to eat كباب الغرفول.

At some points, I prefer the English text, such as when we get to the last line: “The mouse found a nut and the nut was good.” And at times, I like the Arabic better, such as إلى أين إلى أين، يا فارة يا عزيزتي؟  which lends itself so nicely to a sinister foxy (or owly, or snake-y) voice.

The Arabic version at times requires the scary voices to complete the appeal; translator Andy Smart underlines the issue in an interview with Gulf News.

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.

However, with a book like الغرفول, the leap to appreciation is pretty short. More expensive than many books on the market, but high quality and highly recommended.

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4 Responses to The Poetry of Translating Children’s Books: The Gruffalo and الغرفول

  1. saara says:

    It’s wonderful to see this books available in Arabic! Ah, Grufallo crumble = Gruffalo kabab! LOL! We have almost all the Julia Donaldson books (in English). They are so well written and the illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great.

    A a few days ago, while I was posting comments here I wondered what Arabic translations of children’s picture books, especially the ones written in rhyme/poetry, were like. I mean does the Arabic translation maintain the rhyming pattern? It must be a challenge.

    I’ve seen the Jarir bookstore here in Saudi Arabia carrying Ladybird books and a few other children’s books and a selected few novels in Arabic. I know a little Arabic. We buy mainly buy the English language materials for my child though. Occasionally we get a few good-quality picture books in Arabic (we usually translate the text into English and write it in on the page).


    • mlynxqualey says:


      Yes, the rhyme scheme is maintained (except in one tiny place), and I think The Gruffalo comes off quite well in Arabic. Some other books I don’t really like as well, for instance Brown Bear feels too cumbersome in Arabic, without the lightness of Eric Carle’s English prose, but Rami and I quite like Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too? in Arabic. Same repetition, although the rhyme of “kangaroo…too” doesn’t come through in Arabic.

      I think books written originally in Arabic are best—but only when written with care by talented and knowledgeable people. It’s no mean feat to write a good children’s book, I think!

  2. birkenbihl says:

    where can i get both, arabic + English versions of books you suggest, like “The Poetry of Translating Children’s Books: The Gruffalo and الغرفول”? and: is there a spoken version for students of arabic? i have just subscribed your blog, do i get a mail if there is an answer to my question? i woukd appreciate it a lit, shukran jaziilan.

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