The U.S. and U.K. are famous for translating very little adult literature (just 2-3 percent of the total literary output each year, by most measures). And certainly no one should want to imitate this lack of openness to the outside world.
When it comes to children’s books, there’s even less being translated into English. There is an award for translating children’s literature into English (the Marsh Award). But, while the award says it’s open to “British translators of books for 4-16 year olds,” it seems to celebrate exclusively middle-grade and YA lit, which don’t function very differently from grown-up books.
But could U.S. and U.K. publishers be right in this focus? Are locally crafted picture books (usually) better than translations?
There are many picture books my sons and I love in (Arabic) translation: السمكة الملونة هربت, translated from the Japanese; الغرفول, translated from the English, and الأخر جميل أيضا, translated from the German.
But, often, translated children’s books don’t create the same connections as locally produced literature. My two-year-old often calls out for Walid Taher’s سعيد… سعيد. We have other titles from the Shorouk “Green House” series (lovely pro-environment books for kids!), but they don’t make the same sort of local sense as سعيد… سعيد.
قط و فرخ, for instance, is a quite sophisticated (and well-crafted) translation from the English, wherein the country cat comes to visit a city chicken, and helps the chicken brighten his environment with a neighborhood garden. But—while an American child might think of planting flowers in an abandoned lot (although I doubt it)—a rooftop garden or window boxes make more sense for an Egyptian child.
Anyhow, as you’d find by reading سعيد… سعيد, we have other problems in Cairo: trash, noise pollution, smog, water pollution, rampant cigarette smoking (and thus second-hand smoking by children). It is سعيد… سعيد that speaks to an Egyptian reality with Egyptian solutions: We all need to get together and take small steps to improve our environment!
It’s not just the more “practical” children’s books, either. While I find Gabali (Clifford) books or the adventures of Shams (Daisy) to be just fine in Arabic, they’re nothing like the locally-produced شركة فيزو. Not to mention, of course, that the two Gabali (Clifford) books we have talk about Halloween and Easter.
While of course there is a role for translated children’s literature, and I wouldn’t want to give up السمكة الملونة هربت or الغرفول, I’m going to risk being an insular by saying that the greater focus needs to be on cultivating local children’s-book authors such as Walid Taher (author of سعيد… سعيد, as well as the excellent “Fizo” series), Fatima Sharafeddine, and Qais Sedki.