TRANSLATION Marcia Lynx Qualey

A pigeon saying "Moo!"

In our series of interviews, children's book translators explain just what goes into their work. Today, Marcia Lynx Qualey, founder of ArabLit, talks about translating from Arabic. 

What gave you the idea of starting the (wonderful) website ArabLit?

Marcia: About a year before I opened ArabLit (in the fall of 2009), I wrote a long essay about a novel I'd loved: Betool Khedairi's Absent. The essay took maybe six months to appear in a print journal in the U.S., the Alaska Quarterly Review, and then nobody I knew even read it. I still thought of online spaces as less 'serious' or 'real' than print journals, but I'd also just had a baby, so I was feeling particularly disconnected from literary life. I opened ArabLit as a WordPress site simply to jot down a few thoughts about some Iraqi short stories, and Shakir Mustafa stumbled across the site and responded to my ramblings. So Shakir found it somehow, and then Issandr and Ursula at The Arabist found the site, and then Ahmed Naji, who was writing for Akhbar al-Adab [a weekly literary magazine] at the time. I just happened to open up at a moment when there was a strong desire for community and conversation around Arabic literature and translation.

What got you interested in translations for children?

At first, it was because of my own small kids. The first time I traveled to the Sharjah Book Fair [in the United Arab Emirates], in 2010, I left one small child at home and had another in my belly. In November 2011, I traveled to the fair with a toddler and an infant. Authors and publishers of Arabic children's literature were so welcoming, even when my infant was crying at a book-fair event, for instance. The first Arabic YA novel I read was around that time, Fatima Sharafeddine's Faten [The Servant], and I just loved it. I love YA in English, too, but for a long time YA was a secret 'guilty pleasure'. Then Dr. Sonia Nimr – who is far more serious and accomplished than I'll ever be – told me in a very straightforward way that she writes YA because she's still perpetually a kid, and I thought, Yes, yes, why not? 

In a recent interview, I saw that translator Huda Fakhreddine said: 'Striving to recreate that requires a translator who not only masters both languages but is also well-read in both languages, and has creative and critical stakes in both literary traditions.'

I think kid lit – particularly chapter books, middle-grade, and YA – is a place where I have a critical and creative stake in both literary traditions.

What sorts of cultural things have to be spelled out in translation into English from Arabic? What nuances might escape the English-speaking reader?

There are probably many moments when one thickens a translation – adding a slight contextualizing gloss – without noticing. In a sample I did of Haya Saleh's شقائق النعمان, which I'm calling Wild Poppiesthe children are playing a circle game (a bit like duck, duck, goose) with a green hat. It's only briefly telegraphed in the Arabic, just as you'd say 'duck, duck, goose' in English and a reader could picture what you meant. But, to picture the game, I thought YA readers would need more context. I watched some YouTube videos of Syrian kids playing this game before I fleshed out the description, and then sent it to the Arabic publisher to look at. People have different historical and cultural knowledge, and sometimes the reader needs a little boost to see the wider picture. In the first book of the Thunderbird trilogy by Sonia Nimr, Sonia helpfully pointed out that kids reading the English might not understand it when Dr. Samir refers to '48 vs. '67 Palestine, and she wrote a suggested extra bit to flesh it out. I'm so glad she did, because honestly it hadn't occurred to me. (I blame my ten-year-old editor, who should have picked that up!)

I love what Katharine Halls said in a recent interview about asking questions to see the space beyond the book, and I think the translator ideally has this glacier of underlying understanding: 'I often find myself asking questions about details which aren’t even in the text. Ok, the protagonist knocks at an acquaintance’s door: Where is that door? What kind of building is it in? Is it in a darkened stairwell or on a bright street? Does it lead to a large flat or a tiny studio? The reader will never know these things, but I like to know them so I can orient myself properly towards the text.'

What are some of the specific difficulties caused by the peculiarities of Arabic or English in these translations? 

Arabic has a different (and more flexible) relationship to verb tense, and tenses can shift the way they do when we're speaking. In English, we're pretty rigid about verb tense. I find this, sometimes, difficult to negotiate.

Do you ever make choices in favour of 'transatlantic' English? 

Oh, yes. Maybe because, in many cases, I find it jarring if a translated text sounds too colloquially American or British. Or maybe I'm used to simultaneously reaching English-language audiences in India, Australia, Canada, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and of course the U.S. and U.K.

Do you find any untranslatable nuances or language play that you have to leave out?

I find that lullabies and songs are difficult; the soothing effect of a lullaby on a character is more important than rendering the words exactly, I think. So I tend to write my own song lyrics, more inspired by the ones in the text, rather than trying to transfer the stricter meaning of the words.

Did you find names, including place names, food, and so on, hard to translate? Or do you translate them?

There is a girl in the first Thunderbird book whose name is Andaleeb (Nightingale), and she has an enchanted singing voice. I definitely didn't want to call her Nightingale, but I didn't want to lose that layer of meaning entirely, so I gave it a quick gloss when she's first introduced. I think those sorts of things can be difficult, especially since usually a name is just a name – you wouldn't want Farah to become 'Joy' in the English, just as I don't think my name should be translated as 'Warlike.' As for food, I just leave things as they are: maqlouba is maqlouba. If a kid wants to look up a recipe, there are loads of them online. (I still don't know what 'beef Wellington' is, but it's never fazed me as a reader.)

Then... Maria Dadouch's أريد عيونًا ذهبية ['I want golden eyes'] is a different sort of complicated, since it's sci-fi, and some invented terms need to be re-invented in English.

Cover of Dragon of Bethlehem. (Artwork by Hanane Kai)

What do you hope to translate next, if anything? Or what do you hope will soon be translated?

I have my fingers crossed for Haya Saleh's Wild Poppies, and I'm excited to work on Maria Dadouch's Golden Eyes with the excellent Sawad Hussain. I would love to find the right publishing house for Dragon of Bethlehem [by Huda El Shuwa] Also I'm looking forward to reading all the books shortlisted for this year's Etisalat Award, in all the categories! From the shortlist, I know already that I'd love to see a translation of أخ خ خ  [Brother Kh].

Are there other translators you admire? 

I started to make a long list here, but then I was terrified of leaving anyone off. There are so many brilliant, creative translators who have joined this field in the last 10 years, living all around the world. We are so lucky to have powerful poetic forces like Yasmine Seale, quietly brilliant stylists like Yasmine Zohdi, exceptionally incisive and gifted translator-academics like Samah Selim, and the kind, generous, supremely talented and squapalidaceous Humphrey Davies, for just a few. 

As an editor, do you find you have changed your views on translation at all?

My views on translation are constantly shifting, responding to new thoughts, new ideas, new things I read. When wearing an editor hat, I'm more flexible, I try different things, and I think that's an important mode. But I also think it's important to resist the editor sometimes. One of my core, bedrock ideas about translation is that the author has a moral right to see the spirit of their text fiercely and faithfully represented. I think this is particularly important with Palestinian children's literature – or, in any case, particularly contested with Palestinian literature.

Do you have an ideal project?

I love both MG and YA, and I suppose I lean in on genre literature (fantasy, mystery, SF) although I love anything with memorable characters. I guess my ideal project is that I get to focus on JUST ONE project, and I don't have 600 other freelance gigs nipping at my heels.

* Credit: Feature logo by Jess Stockham


Marcia Lynx Qualey is a literary critic, book editor, and occasional ghostwriter who runs the ArabLit website, which won a London Book Fair Literary Translation Initiative prize. She also publishes ArabLit Quarterly magazine and co-hosts the Bulaq podcast. Her Kirkus-starred co-translation of the middle-grade novel Ghady and Rawan, co-written by Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj, is available via the University of Texas Press (August 2019).

On Twitter @mlynxqualey

ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly 

Follow Arabic translators and writers on social media!

Other Websites 

Arab Kid Lit Now

Etisalat Award


Arablit @arablit

Etisalat Award @EtisalatAward

World Kid Lit @WorldKidLit

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp @RuthAhmedzai

Samar Mahfouz Barraj @samarmahfbarraj

Huda Fakhreddine @FakhreddineHuda

Hanane Kai (illustrator) @hananekai

Fatima Sharafeddine @fatimawriter

Yasmine Zohdi @YasmineZohdi


Yara Bamieh @yarabamieh

Maria Dadouch @mariadadouchauthor

Etisalat Award @etisalataward

Hanane Kai (illustrator) @hananekai

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp @/ruth_ahmedzai_kemp

Yasmine Seale @performingseale

Facebook Pages


Maria Dadouch 

World Kid Lit

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