On the Rise: Arabic Children’s Literature Translated into English

September is World Kid Lit month, a month where children’s literature in translation is celebrated and children are encouraged to read more translated works from around the world.

Translating children’s literature isn’t a new thing – folk tales, fables, fairy tales, epics, and popular stories have long been passed from culture to culture, and translated from one language to another to enable the dissemination of moral parables and historic stories.

Tales such as, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, by Antoine Galland, who translated them from tales told to him by Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab, are still popular with English readers and has influenced how the West has viewed Islamic countries since this time.

However, since the start of the most recent Arabic literature translation surge, which began in 2002, children’s literature has been largely overlooked.

According to a recent article in The National online, this is due to fact that Arabic children’s literature has been largely undervalued, with picture books becoming moralised, comics scorned, and authors such as, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, not taken seriously.

The article does highlight some children’s literature that was translated from Arabic early in the 20th century. Texts such as, Fatima Sharafeddine’s moving Fi Madinati Harb (In My City, There’s War) was translated into Catalan, Castilian, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Korean, but not English. Some titles by Walid Taher also appeared in German and French – but again, not in English.

Other children’s texts which have been translated since the turn of this century include, Emily Nasrallah’s award-winning Yawmiyat Hirr (A Cat’s Distarary, 1997) which was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies as What Happened to Zeeko in 2001, however this was published in Egypt and didn’t have much impact elsewhere.

Similarly, in 2006, Mohieddine Ellabbad’s The Illustrator’s Notebook was translated by Sarah Quinn, when it came out as a bilingual edition from Canada’s Groundwood Books. Seven years later, Groundwood Books published Sharafeddine’s Faten, translated by the author as The Servant.

The Servant soon became a trendsetting book, starting a new wave of Young Adult novels and winning the Beirut Book Fair prize in 2010.

Later the same year, Maitha Al Khayat, the Emirati author, released, My Own Special Way, illustrated by Maya Fidawi. This vibrant picture book, was translated in 2013 by Sharafeddine and “retold” by Vivian French, becoming the first Arabic children’s book to be shortlisted for a major prize in English translation.

Sharafeddine’s abundant and sensitive writing, and Fidawi’s exuberant illustrations, have helped spark the new interest in Arabic children’s books with at least 6 new titles planned for release in 2019.

Look out for titles written and illustrated by, Gulnar Hajo, Abir Ali, Taghreed Najjar, Sharafeddine, Samar Mahfouz Barraj, Ahlam Bsharat, Fidawi and Hassan Manasra.

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