30-second Review: عائلة هيكل

عائلة هيكل , created by Janet and Allen Ahlberg and translated by Mahmoud Gaafer, is newly out in Arabic from Bloomsbury Qatar. It’s a “night in the life” story of a skeleton family: a big skeleton, a small one, and their skeleton dog.

The book’s just-a-bit-scary silliness, as well as its textual repetitions the grown-up feeling to the drawings, makes it appealing to a wide range of children: perhaps 2 1/2 to 8.

The repetitions also make it easier for emerging readers.

The tale begins:

هكذا تبدا الحكاية ..
فوق تل مظلم، مظلم..
كان هناك حي مظلم، مظلم.
في هذا إلحي إلمظلم، إلمظلم..
كان هناك شارع مظلم، مظلم.
و في هذا الشارع إلمظلم، إلمظلم..
كان هناك بيت مظلم، مظلم.
و في البيت  إلمظلم، إلمظلم..
كان هناك درج مظلم، مظلم.
و أسفل هذا الدرج إلمظلم ، إلمظلم..
كان هناك قبو  مظلم، مظلم.
و في هذا القبو إلمظلم ، إلمظلم

عاشت عائلة هيكل.
كان هناك الهيكل الكبير ،
و الهيكل الصغير ، و الهيكل الكلب.

And what does this skelly family like to do? Why, scare people, of course!

و في ليلى من الليلي, جلس الهيكل الكبير في سريره ، و هرش جمجمته ثم قل: ماذا سنفعل الليلة؟

رد الهيكل الصغير ” هيأ نتمشى مع الهيكل القلب. ، و نرعب شخصا ما!
قال الهيكل الكبير: فكرة رائعة!

Indeed, although they’re not particularly successful, they never give up hope of scaring someone.

One difficult part of children’s book translations is transmogrifying the unfamiliar (especially foods, flora, fauna) into the familiar. Forget the debates over grown-up literature: translations of children’s books should be “domesticated” as much as possible. To that end, the tennis courts in the park felt a little strange (and perhaps unnecessary, since they’re not pictured).

Yet more difficult to translate are sing-songy parts, such as the أغنية العظام .

I don’t know how it sounds in English, although from the fans online I imagine it plays off the well-known, “the toe bone’s connected to the heel bone” song. This is how the song begins in Arabic:

عظام أصابع الاقدام تركب في هذا المكان ، نعم ، هنا، في عظمة القدم من الأمام

The same points of cultural resonance are not available in Arabic, and need to be re-invented so the book feels just as sing-able. Difficult.

Still, the boys were oblivious to these points (as well as the slight muddling of the humor of the dog’s mixed-up bark), and enjoyed the book thoroughly. They enjoyed the rhythm, and particularly the part where the skellies give up on humans and decide to scare themselves.

The book is a bit of a cult phenomenon in English, and one can see why. Worth reading and re-reading.

See a video of the Funnybones in English:

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