Earlier this month, approaching the end of my residency, I led a ‘Translating YA Literature’ workshop at the BCLT, where we covered:
- Pitching YA Arabic literature
- Situating it in the greater Arabic literary sphere
- Process of choosing a cover/publicity
- YA Translation conundrums
During this residency I have been translating the Djinn’s Apple, a YA part crime novel, part historical fiction, written by the Algerian author, Djamila Morani. The primary challenges I have faced with this work are quite similar to what you’d expect when translating from other language: how to communicate cultural and historical specificity, how to ensure the narrator’s voice is believable, etc. However a unique obstacle I always face when translating YA literature written in Arabic into English, is the quandary of register.
With very few exceptions, Arabic YA is written in Modern Standard Arabic which doesn’t reflect the lively way in which teenagers/young adolescents speak. This can come across as stilted if you translate directly what’s on the page. Modern Standard Arabic is usually used in educational settings, on the news, in textbooks and literary works (to name a few). However this is slowly changing as not only are more and more dialogues being written in ‘Ammiya (colloquial Arabic) or MSA with shades of colloquial, but even the language of the narrative frame itself has become more colloquial.
Though, the main reason I have heard for children’s literature and YA still being written in entirely MSA, is because children are still strengthening their linguistical foundation, and so ‘society at large’ want their future citizens to read the ‘correct’ Arabic, as opposed to a written version of ‘spoken Arabic’. As a result, translating Arabic literature in general, but specifically YA, is exceptionally thorny because you are working with a much higher register in the source than what the target requires.
I brought this quandary to the workshop and shared the following context:
A twelve-year old girl who is mature in her thinking, and yet still wouldn’t be expected to be speaking the way the passage is initially translated below in English.
The passage on your handout is an example of some flowery language. How would you deal with it, keeping in mind the expectations of your YA English language readers?
أخيرا جادت السماء بقطرات الغيث ، إنها بداية الخريف في بغداد ، يفتر سخط الشمس الذي ألهب رؤوس الناس ، فتحتجب خلف السحب متعبة، و تنفض الأشجار عنها بهجة الصيف ، لتكتسي الأرض بأزهار أسلمت نفسها للفناء و لكنها أبت أن تغادرنا دون أن تملأ الساحة الكبيرة بآخر ما تملك، أريج فوّاح.
English rough translation:
Finally the skies were opened-handed/generous with rain, indeed it was the beginning of autumn in Baghdad, the sun’s fury which had once seared the tops of people’s heads waned and hid veiled behind the clouds, tired. The trees shook off the joy of summer, to clothe the ground with flowers that had surrendered themselves to passing away/disappearing, but these blossoms refused to leave us without filling the large courtyard with the last of what it possessed, a fragrant air.
Finally, the skies in Baghdad showered us with rain. Autumn was just starting; the furious sun that had roasted the tops of people’s heads grew tired and faded away, hiding behind a veil of clouds. The trees shrugged off the joy of summer, blanketing the ground with blossoms that had given up, but not without first filling the courtyard with the last of what they possessed: a sweet-smelling air.
So how did I end up there? What was my process? Usually I do just as you’ve seen above. I did a direct translation, and then started thinking about the following:
– Long sentences are a standard feature of Arabic literature, and yes they can be used to represent the stream of consciousness of a particular narrator, but usually they are just characteristic of the language itself.
-YA literature in English tends to use shorter sentences, and convey a confessional tone.
As such, I broke up the one long sentence and focused on bringing across the imagery instead of the exact wording. I have done my best to keep the poetic aspect of it, but also made it into something that would be more believable coming out of a 12-14 year old’s mouth.
Let me know on Twitter @sawadhussain if you also face similar challenges when translating literature?
 P24-27 of the rights guide.
 In case you missed it, Jonathan Wright delves further here into this MSA vs colloquial situation in Arabic literature.
 Please note this Arabic passage is all one sentence. In the rough English translation I have broken it up.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic translator and litterateur who is currently co-chair (with Rebecca DeWald) of the Translator’s Association. She was co-editor of the Arabic-English portion of the award-winning Oxford Arabic Dictionary (2014). Her translations have been recognised by the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, English PEN, the Anglo-Omani Society and the Palestine Book Awards, among others. She has run workshops introducing translation to students and adults under the auspices of Shadow Heroes, Africa Writes, the National Centre for Writing, the British Library, and Shubbak Festival. She has forthcoming translations from Fitzcarraldo Editions, Neem Tree Press, and Restless Books. She holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from SOAS. Her Twitter handle is @sawadhussain. Her website is https://sawadhussain.com