Fatima Sharafeddine is an award-winning writer and translator of children’s books. Alice Guthrie, from Literature Across Frontiers, spoke to Fatima for our landmark research on the reception of Arabic Literature in the UK. Here we give you an extract from an interview that took place at the 2011 Prague Book Fair. 

Fatima Sharafeddine has won several awards and prizes for her books for children, including the 2007 National Committee of the Lebanese Child Award of best book of the year for “Mountain Rooster”, the 2010 IBBY-Lebanon and Beirut World Book Capital award for best book published in the last three years in Lebanon for “My Skirt”, the 2011 Anna Lindh ‘Reading Here, There and Everywhere’ award for “The Book of Laughter and Crying” and the 2012 Arab Thought Foundation ‘ARABI 21’ award for the book “Grandpa’s Donkey”.

Alice: How do you see your role as an author for children? Do you see yourself as an educator, with a message to get across, or is it more creative?

Fatima: At the time my children were little, I would visit Lebanon and look for books for them in Arabic; I wouldn’t find anything comparable to the books they had access to in the United States, or that would make me proud to say to them ‘Look, it’s an Arabic book’. My decision to start writing for children was taken back then, when I realized that children’s literature in the Arab world was practically based on unscreened publishing/translating. Publishers, in general, were not aware of the basic characteristics of children’s literature. We needed to develop this literary art in Arab countries, so I decided to take action. My background as an Early Childhood Education specialist, and as a natural writer, were factors that set the stage for me to start publishing my stories.

I don’t really want to educate anybody with my stories. It’s not my purpose to send any messages through the books I publish, but of course there is a message in every book, whether I want it or not. I believe that the smartest technique is to be very honest when you write. Writers have to really draw from their own experience as children, and from their memories. Basically this is how I write – I draw from everything that I see. And I always relate to myself as a child. I think this is the trick: to be a good writer for children is to be a child yourself, to write from that perspective, from the point of view of the child. If you are able to do that, it reflects not only in your ideas but in the language you use as you write.

You have to plan ahead what age group you are addressing, and that will dictate what language level to use and how complicated the story line will be. This is to say, you have to think of many things at the same time; writing doesn’t just happen. After I write a new book, I put it aside for a few weeks, then come back to it. I rewrite the same story a number of times before taking the decision to give it to a publisher.

Fatima Sharafeddine

A: So still thinking about the messages, whether they are deliberate or not, what would be some messages that you would want to give out or indeed avoid? Your book Chez Moi C’est la Guerre obviously has a therapeutic function and quite a clear message, and belongs perhaps to a special category of books in that way. Can you tell me more about how that all works?

F: This book is one of my most successful books. I first published it in Arabic (fii medinati harb), then it was translated into several other languages. The book was a big success in Europe because it tackles a topic that is, up to now, a taboo there – to talk about the war. So with this book I really didn’t have any messages for anybody. When I wrote it I was living abroad and had been away from Lebanon, where I grew up, for long years. I had lived the civil war, the 1982 Israeli invasion, and the numerous massacres that took place. I had lived through a lot and I really had to deal with it somehow. A way to express myself was to write about it. So writing is a way for me to deal with my own issues. My own therapy – I did not write it to tell anybody anything. For this book specifically, I had hoped that one day it would reach children who don’t know what war is, so that they become aware that still, today, there are countries and children suffering from war. Back then it was just a dream, I really had no idea that this book would be translated and would reach European children.

A: So why particularly did you feel like reaching out to children who are not living in war zones?

F: Because there is ignorance. Living in Belgium, you tell them you’re from Lebanon and they hardly know where Lebanon is. If you say it’s next to Israel then they would know, but if you say it’s an Arab country, or that it borders with Syria, it’s different. Anyway, since I left Lebanon in 1990 I’ve been asked about it so many times. So I talked a lot about the war, but people don’t really know what it is really like – unless you’re in an academic environment.

I have been living in Europe for the last ten years, where my children go to school. I would talk to my friends about my story of the war, and everybody would say ‘Yeah yeah, that was a long time ago.’ So I felt I needed to clarify it to them, that actually there are children who still live in countries where there is occupation or war, where they are scared from bombings, from death, on a daily basis.

Last year, I was invited to schools in Brussels to talk about Chez Moi C’est la Guerre. They had the children read it before my visit, so they could interview me about it. That was an amazing experience because the children’s first reaction was ‘Oh, you’re young! Did you really go through a war?’ To them, war was something that grandmothers remembered, not young women. ‘Yes, of course. I did live through war, and you know what? Children your age now live in countries and cities where there is war’. That was when the children got interested, and I was pleased because I had the opportunity to tell them: ‘You have water, you wake up every day and you can wash, you can come to school. This doesn’t happen in some countries. There are children who suffer; sometimes they’re out, going to school and bombings will start; they have to come back home and hide.’ It is necessary to let the European children think and become aware that they are very protected in Europe and very fortunate with what they have. I want them to understand that what they take for granted is heaven to other children in a different place.

A: And do you think that exposure could make those children grow into adults who are better equipped to relate to people from your kind of background? Sometimes books can do a lot of opinion forming.

F: Yes, but it’s mostly the politics of publishers. It has to be a collective effort. One writer or one book is not enough. I, personally, have to do whatever I can, and someone else does the rest. I hope that my book leaves an impression on readers. If one child out of the two hundred children I saw got something out of a child living through war, I would be satisfied.

A:  Yes; and Chez Moi C’est la Guerre has been translated into a lot of different European languages. Did it for example go to former Yugoslavia – was it translated into Serbo-Croat?

F: I don’t think so. As far as I remember, it was published in Catalan, Castilian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Korean.

A: It’s interesting that the book was published in Iberia, for example, because that’s a society that has hugely suppressed its memories of the war, right? But they’re not so distant, even people in their early forties have got childhood memories of the Spanish civil war. It’s interesting, isn’t it, in this globalised age, that you can be sharing these stories. You started your early life in Sierra Leone. Do you remember that? Has it influenced your work?

F. I remember it vaguely; I remember it was a happy time, but I have a very bad memory. I always tell my brother that he is my memory; he is two years younger than me and he reminds me about things I do not recall at all. So I don’t remember much but I know it was a happy childhood. It hasn’t directly influenced my work but my dream is to go back to Africa to the same places where I grew up, in order to reconstruct my memory.

A. There was quite a Lebanese diaspora in West Africa, wasn’t there?

F. Well, the Lebanese are everywhere; since the beginning of the 1900s they have been dispersed all over, some for pure business, and some to earn a better academic life.

A: I wanted to ask you about translation. I see that you have been translating children’s books from French and English into Arabic yourself, and that also your work has been translated. So could you talk a bit about those processes?

F: I believe translation is a very important aspect in children’s literature. There are many Arab publishers who translate all kinds of children’s books. I believe there should me more screening in regards to choosing what to translate. On the other hand, the Arab publishers have not been successful in selling copyrights to foreign publishers, which is saddening. I think I am the first writer of picture books to be translated from Arabic into foreign languages.

I recently finished the translation of four of the Paddington Bear books. It was a difficult task, since the books are very ‘British’. The process of translation was a lot of fun, but also full of challenges.

A: In children’s books you can’t have footnotes, or a glossary, or a translator’s introduction – it has to stand alone.

F: True. When I translate, I think about the two trends – domestication and foreignisation – I don’t want to domesticate Paddington, I don’t want Paddington to be a cute Lebanese bear. So you have to preserve the soul of Paddington, who is really British – although in a way is somebody from Peru, also… and it’s a challenge. I am really happy about this project. Before that, I had translated a series of very popular British books by Lauren Child – Charlie and Lola. Besides, I am sometimes asked to translate very original books, for instance, ‘The Black Book of Colors’, a Spanish book written in Braille,  that won an award at the Bologna book fair a couple of years ago. It’s a black book that describes colors in very concrete ways –  yellow is the crumbling of leaves in autumn, red is when I fall down and my knee hurts. It’s very beautiful, very poetic, and very touching, and I had to be aware of all of these aspects before translating it.

A: And are they selling well, these Arabic editions of this stuff? Are they distributed across the Arab world?

 F: Yes I think they are selling well, and they are certainly well distributed.

A: That’s amazing! Because book distribution in the region tends to be so fragmented.

 F: I know. I mean, I’m not sure if Paddington Bear will sell well, but we’ll see.

A: And how about your stuff, I mean obviously if they keep on commissioning it then it must be selling, right? You obviously have a European audience?

F: Yes, I have had four books translated in Europe. Chez Moi C’est la Guerre is one of them; Sami et la Belle Boite de ChocolatSami et la Nouvelle Coupe de Cheveux, and Nina et la Chat. The last one is the story of a baby elephant whose mama and papa are too busy and can’t take care of her. So a cat is assigned to be in charge of Nina. In no time, Nina the elephant starts acting like a cat, thinking she’s really a cat – she climbs trees, licks herself clean, etc.., which is a disgrace for the community of elephants. When I wrote the story I was not aware that it was basically a story about foreign domestic workers who are brought in to the country to serve as maids and nannies. Most children in the Arab world have maids from the Philippines, or Sri Lanka, or Ethiopia; and there’s a problem now – the children are being raised by those nannies, they are speaking their languages before they speak Arabic as mum and dad are very busy and have no time to spend with their children. This is a big issue, and I truly tackled it in through this story in a very unconscious way.

A: Well there are a lot of big issues with that culture of foreign maids and nannies – not just the language issues, there’s all the abuse of the maids that goes on as well, right?

 F: Of course, yes, it’s very complicated.

A: So you approached it through animal characters?

F: Sometimes it is easier to tackle sensitive issues through the animal world. The idea goes across smoothly but surely.

A: And I like this anecdote about you not knowing. It reminds me of this great story that Tayeb Salih used to tell, of having a daughter studying modern Arabic literature at a university in England, and her being taught his [seminal Sudanese novel] Season of Migration to the North. So the teacher told the students ‘This text is about the clash of the East and the West, and the man and the woman are metaphors for the East and the West, and their relationship symbolises neo-colonialism,’ and so on. So Salih’s daughter came home and asked him, ‘Dad, is that true about your book?’ and he told her ‘No, it’s a love story about an African man falling in love with a European woman’. So she went and wrote this in her essay and they failed her! When she protested her mark, and cited her father on the subject of his own book, she was told ‘It’s not true’. And I thought this was amazing, this grappling, for versions of stories…

F: Yes, this referencing of art or literature, deciding meaning… My story is just about an elephants who learns life matters from the babysitter she loves.

A: Once you’ve given birth to it and it’s out in the world then it’s not your thing anymore, is it? People can tell you it’s not about an elephant and a cat, it’s about a Philippine maid.

F: Exactly.

A: So now I see what you mean about how you may think that you’re not conveying a message but there will always be some message or other.

F: There is another story that I’m really proud of. I love it, but it hasn’t been translated yet. It is called ‘The Story of Nura’. The text is written in rhymes. Nura is an ant who lives with a group of ants; they work together and take care of each other’s well-being; then one day, when there is a shortage of food, the ants get into a fight, and Nura decides to leave thinking that whether there or not, things will be okay; nobody will notice her absence. So she leaves and tries to find friends, a new home, but can’t. Instead, she is sad and lonely and misses her family. One day, she hears a commotion and smells something familiar; she soon realizes it is her friends who are caught in a flood, and since she’s been out and about she comes back and helps them to get out of this mess and go back home. That is when they tell her they are very happy that she is back: ‘Don’t leave, you’re one of us and we love you’. Nura realizes that she loves them too, so she decides to stay and never leave them again.

A: How moving…

F: In Arabic this rhyming story is really beautiful. The illustrations are very good too, with a successful portrayal of characters. They have a lot of details, with a background of oriental calligraphic flowers. The text is handwritten in a calligraphic way, which matches the whole atmosphere of the book.

The first critique I heard of the book interpreted it as being about a politician who had to leave Lebanon after the civil war in order to save the country, and then came back when the time was right, to save his country again. My respond to that analysis was denial of course. ‘I have nothing to do with politics!’ I said. Nura’s story is really a personal issue that I was dealing with. When I was a little child, and I had a fight with one of my five siblings, I would always wish to disappear. The story of Nura stems from that idea/feeling. That is the origin and it has nothing to do with any politicians. Yet again, at the panel event here in Prague, we’re talking today about literature in exile, and it’s funny that this was the first book I wrote when I started writing. It was dealing with the issue of being away and wanting to return.

A: It seems to me that this is a huge and quasi-universal theme: going out on ones own and coming back and belonging. Being held in the group or going out as the pioneer, and it touches me very deeply because I lived abroad for many years (although not in exile) and I’ve just moved back to Britain and I’m feeling that feeling of coming back into the group.

F: That’s what I’m living now, I’ve just moved back to Lebanon. But this book really illustrates what happens when you leave and come back. When you decide to come back it is by choice, and you’re a more confident, stronger person – at least in my case, and you know exactly what you want.

A: It sounds like an important book for kids… It’s amazing because this also really illustrates that as a writer for children you are somehow doubly vulnerable to peoples’ projections of what the meanings of your books are; because not only are they going to assume it’s about a specific politician, as they might with an adult book, but also – given that it’s for kids – we have this feeling of responsibility to our children in terms of what stories we are telling them, and you will always be asked about the message you are giving them.

F: There’s always a message but it’s not my first concern. If the children read the book and it tells them something, that’s great; and if it doesn’t and it’s only for fun, then that’s even better. So really, as you said, when you create a piece of art or a piece of literature, you put it out and it’s not yours anymore, it’s for them to interpret, to enjoy, to critique, to hate, to love.

A: There are some powerful examples of translated children’s books and ‘cultural transplantation’, the adjustments that are made for the new target audience – for example even the illustrations are sometimes ‘translated’, so that when in the original European version a young family is on the beach in swim-wear, in the Arabic version they have been covered-up, they have many more clothes on. Of course this is quite a thorny issue, isn’t it?

F: Yes, certainly, but it depends in which country they are translated – Gulf states do this differently from other states, for example. I translated a German book that had been translated into English, so I translated from English into Arabic. It’s about this raven who is very mischievous and one day he is sitting with a friend and they are eating spaghetti; he spits in the bowl so nobody would want to eat the spaghetti. In the original story, you can see in the illustration, the spit going into the bowl. But the Arab publisher wouldn’t accept this!  So he made him sit in the bowl – that was apparently more acceptable than spitting into the bowl.

A: So I wonder whether any of these translations, in either direction, are actually giving us a picture of the other? Is an Arab audience being shown how European children play, or vice versa, or are stories just being transplanted, harmonised with the recipient culture?

F: I think one of the main roles of translated literature is to break the stereotypes. We are all humans and many issues are universal. When I read a book in a different language about a person going through something, it’s a human issue. As a child I might be afraid of the dark, and here is a boy in Germany who is afraid of the dark.

A: So it’s more about showing the universal nature of certain experience?

F: I think so. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the West doesn’t translate many children’s picture books from Arabic.

A: Partly because, as you were saying, Arab children’s literature hasn’t been sufficiently developed already, right?

F: Exactly. And then when Mijade (the Belgian publisher) translated my books, the illustrations in all four of them were completely changed. So for example Chez Moi C’est la Guerre, in the Arabic version, is illustrated by a friend of mine from Germany, and then the illustrator of the Belgian version is Belgian. The funny thing is that both of them are actually European. The Arabic text is very much a caricature; it’s very light, the boy describes the war: ‘I live in the city and the war scares me – foreigners came and broke into our houses, and when there’s bombing we can’t go to school, and when the bombing stops we do such and such…’  So it’s describing daily life. ‘And now I’m really scared, but when I grow up I will tell this foreigner to go away, this is my city. And I will become a teacher and teach the kids not to be afraid.’ That’s the book. So in Arabic the colors are red, green, white and black – the colors of the Arab flags – but nobody told Thomas to do this, he’s from Germany, and he just did it. And then with the French version, the publisher said about the illustrations that they are too ‘Arabic’; they don’t work in the European market. So Claude K. Dubois, who is a Belgian illustrator, used dark pastel colors and made the character a girl (in Arabic it was a boy). The atmosphere of the book in that version is very nostalgic, as if it all happened a long time ago, not now. So there is this difference in the atmosphere of the book, and for me it’s a completely different book.

A: It sounds like it – I mean changing the gender of the character is a big deal.

F: That was a translation misunderstanding, because I gave them the text in English, and ‘I’ in English is of course not gendered, so they didn’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. Originally when I wrote it in Arabic it was a girl, because I am a girl, but the illustrator, Thomas Bromm, also, when he read the text he thought it was a boy, just as Clause K. Dubois thought it was a girl. So anyway I liked their perspectives, I mean I don’t mind much, but it’s completely changed the atmosphere of the books.

A: And I guess that’s something very specific to children’s literature because the text and the pictures are so interwoven, aren’t they – you wouldn’t get that with any other kind of translation.

F: Yes, absolutely.

A: I’m just thinking about the inevitable revolution question, here… Are you going to be writing books about children in the revolution now? Chez Moi C’est la Revolution or something?

F: In the summer of 2010 I was in Cairo for a workshop organized by Literature Across Frontiers about young adult graphic novels. When we asked two participating teenagers about the reason they don’t read in Arabic, they claimed there are almost no books specifically for young adults, just lots of translations – so for example, if they know English, they prefer to read Harry Potter in English than in translation. But when we went deeper into discussions, the two teens expressed despair regarding the political oppression, and claimed they would never dream of getting involved in opposing the regime. ‘We’re not happy, we are very pessimistic, we don’t have a future in this country; we’re oppressed; we can’t get involved in any politics because we are under eighteen and if we do our parents will go to jail… the system of education is that we have to memorize information at school, no critical thinking is allowed.’ So they were basically complaining that they have no future in this country with the oppression of the system, secret agents everywhere, and so on. And then four months later the Egyptian revolution took place, and I am sure those two youngsters were in the lead of the demonstrations. Inspired by that image, I recently wrote a story that will be published by the Egyptian publisher Dar Al-Shourouk as a picture book for children from age five. It is called A Strong Wind Blew, illustrated by Walid Taher.

Cover for Habbat Rayahon Qawayaton – Fatima Sharafeddine’s book A Strong Wind Blew

A: The other thing I wanted to hear about are these workshops you’ve been leading, for children, and also for writers who want to write for children: how that works, and what the key qualities are that you want to bring out in people.

F: The thing is in Arab countries we do not have a specialisation at universities for children’s literature, or illustrating for children’s literature. And not only me, there’s a couple of other writers and publishers who’ve been doing workshops. But on a very small scale, and basically because publishers want to publish so they’re taking anything and everything. And in Lebanon you do not have editors in a publishing house; the publisher – the owner – reads the texts, likes it, publishes it. So there is no screening, no sifting, which is very dangerous. That is why I decided to get my materials together and prepare workshops. I was invited to give workshops in Jordan, Damascus, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. Basically, what I want these writers to know is that it’s not easy, it’s not the easy way out, it’s very difficult to write for children; it’s harder than writing for adults because you have 500 or 700 words with which to convey a full story, to catch the readers’ attention, to make them feel the words, to trigger thinking. So there are lots of things to think about in those 700 words. So first I want them to know that, and second to have the qualities: basically the language you write for children in is not the language you read in the newspaper or novels. You really have to have an awareness of child psychology and child language acquisition at every stage. So it’s not random, it’s not just fun. And when you write for children you have to be a child yourself. To talk about a child in an amusement park you have to go to an amusement park, sit on the swing, be scared of the roller-coaster or whatever, live the experience. Talk to children, be in contact. So anyway I try to convey messages like these in the workshops for adults.

Now for the children, they are much more fun workshops. I’ve done them several times now. In the summer we go to a remote area of Lebanon, in the north, and live in a camp. We camp for five or six days. Several writers and illustrators with thirty children from all over Lebanon; five from each region. We split the children into groups, and we work with them on different topics. These are kids who come from remote villages in the north and go to public schools with no facilities, where they can hardly read or write by nine or ten years of age. Through these experiences, they feel that it’s the first time an adult is listening to them, and it’s wonderful. We discover talents, we talk about issues and help them write down their thoughts, dreams, fears, and so on. And they also illustrate their works, then we produce a book for each child. We also organising an exhibition of their writings.

Fatima’s هبت ريح قوية / Habbat Rayahon Qawayaton (A Strong Wind Blew) is out from Dar Al-Shourouk, illustrated by Walid Taher. Her book for young adults, Faten (The Servant) is also out in English translation from Groundwood Books. The Paddington Bear series starting with the original story بادنغتن، القصة الأصلية للدب الآتي من البيرو is published in Arabic by Antoine-Hachette. And you can find more information about her books on her website: www.fatimasharafeddine.com

Alice Guthrie is a freelance literary and media translator, writer, editor and researcher, and is Project Manager–Researcher for Arab World and Euro-Mediterranean Projects at Literature Across Frontiers. Read her full biography here

You can download the full research ‘Literary Translation from Arabic into English in the UK and Ireland’ report from our research pages

Read more: https://www.lit-across-frontiers.org/fatima-sharafeddine-in-conversation/