Are Translations Suffocating the Arabic Children’s Book Market?

In the grown-up world, one often hears this United Nations-generated statistic: “Only 330 books are translated annually into Arabic.” In the past 1,000 years–this same run of statistics continues—only 10,000 books have been translated into Arabic. Period.

It makes the Arabic-reading world seem terribly insular. (Unlike the English-speaking world, which of course must read loads of books translated from the Arabic, among other languages. Right?)

But if in fact those statistics are correct—which I and others doubt—then each and every one of those 330 books must be children’s books.

If you walk into the Arabic children’s book area of a Cairo bookstore, you will be overwhelmed by the number of translations: from German, Japanese, French, English. Some of them are quite lovely (الغرفول, هناك ما هو أسوأ), some of them are necessary (the Harry Potter books, for instance), and many are neither: all these “Franklin” books, Berenstein Bears, Smurfs, Barney, Weekly Readers, and so on.

I was really distressed to find a Goha collection that had been originally written in English (by Denys Johnson-Davies) and later translated into Arabic. I’m sure Denys did a lovely job, and I wanted to buy the collection, but: We can’t produce our own Goha stories??

As Buzoor founder Zeyna al-Jabri recently told me:

Another challenge facing Arabic children’s literature these days and [which] will continue to do so in the near future, is the massive influx of translated work which can often overshadow books written originally in Arabic, therefore making it more challenging for Arab authors to shine and “find their shelf space.”

She adds:

I also fear that the challenges in selling Arabic children’s books may hinder a number of potentially very good authors or publishers who may not have the financial means to sustain their efforts for long.

What’s the big deal? (You might ask.) As long as a book is in Arabic, what difference does the original language make? In fact, don’t I elsewhere argue that translation is good?

Yes, yes, some translation is good. Even a large amount of translation—let’s say 30-40 percent of a grown-up book market—is good. I wouldn’t want the Arabic-reading world to become like the English-reading world, where only 2-3 percent of the total book output is translations.

But we also need healthy, flourishing local production. There are issues of cultural relevance and the beauty of language. But, more than that, a society that has its own authors (of children’s books, YA literature, grown-up books) is a society that’s creating its own vision.

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