Any Last Requests?

Saad al-Ashmawi. A headsman, reaper of souls; a murderer authorized by law. After taking hundreds of lives, he has developed an uncanny ability: just as the blade strikes home, as the body crumples to the ground, during that momentary journey down the well into darkness, this supernatural ability opens his eyes to see and understand the thoughts of those who are crossing over into death.

The human soul is the one possession most dear to any person. Death, also, is beyond price. That is why he could see into the minds of those about to die in those final moments of stark terror. He saw amazing things before the day that changed things forever. He asked the traditional question before execution, “Any last request?” He offered to fulfill a final wish, then made the fateful cut, and then he would see their thoughts. This time however, the thoughts were of him. His life from that moment on would never be the same, thrown into complete chaos by his quest for the truth behind this ability. From a world perpetually awash in death in the execution chamber, he found himself in a completely different world of the dead, one far more wild and perilous.

Mars One: No Return

[I haven’t read the book yet, this is a translation of the synopsis above]

Mars One: No Return a project underway in the real world.

Are you bored? Discontented with life on planet Earth? Do you dream of a journey away from the familiar? We can make your dreams come true. All you have to do is apply online.

Be warned: it is a one-way ticket; there is no return trip. Every two years a crew of four will be sent, you could be on the next mission. You need to be fully prepared.

Four individuals decided to undertake this suicidal voyage and to be on the first mission. The public motivation for the trip: Help mankind take a giant leap forward. In reality, each individual has their own reasons and hidden motivations for making the irrevocable decision to depart planet Earth and never return. The project was attacked on humanitarian grounds: How could they go along with sending a human being on a one-way voyage? The cleverest aspect is that some of the project’s profits will come from pay-per-view! There will be a live feed broadcasting the details of the crew members lives on the surface of Mars.

The novel’s events occur between 2005 and 2025, but the seed of the tale was planted while the world was embroiled in events. International conflict, a plethora of intelligence factions, and various organizations forced their way on to the stage along with nations allied with one another and at odds with each other. Let the events of this tale carry you on a unique trip through time, space, and the human heart. From Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Tel Aviv, Crimea, Australia, America, to outer space and Mars. This novel tells the tale of four complete strangers whose lives were brought together by political decisions and worldwide economic shifts. You will gain a deeper understanding of what it means when someone you have never met explains the intricate details of a mission you know had never heard of that has been involved in an important part of your life. This story will present past, present, and future combined with political thriller, romance, horror, comedy, action, fantasy, and the magical world of space.

El Yassob [The Dragonfly]

[translated from the back cover]

Year: 2071

Location: The Kingdom of United Southern Arabia (Egypt, Sudan, and Nubia) – Eastern Desert Sector

The World: Females, males, and … Dragonflies

A new and terrifying world with different classes. Under the rule of a mercilessly harsh queen, a misandrist who hates anything to do with the Y chromosome. She is trying to completely eradicate men through an insane plot to manipulate genes to eliminate the need for males. Women have been promoted, placed in high-level positions, and given all white-collar jobs. University education is exclusively available to women. They have primacy in every arena. The queen selects the strongest, most handsome, smartest, most gifted and outstanding men as her “Dragonflies”, and they are fanatically loyal to her.

Seif, a former Dragonfly, spent fourteen years at the mother colony, the one directly connected to the queen’s palace. He now finds himself on the freeway along the Aswan border. He does not know how he got there, much less where he is, but he knows one fact: He does not want to return to the colony, though it offers everything he could desire … he does not want to be a Dragonfly, though that position comes with all of the advantages possible for a man to possess in that nightmarish world full of terrifying events. Instead, he wants to be a regular man. A nothing who has nothing but poverty, ignorance, and hard labor.

The penalty for treason is clear. The choice is not really a choice: life in the Waterfalls Prison, or going to the submission declaration chamber after serving five years.

At the colony’s prison, Seif found himself among a group of men who had set two goals for themselves: escape from that hellish place, and permanently eliminating the queen in order to return everything to its rightful place. Then the world could go back to its natural order: male and female, and … nothing else.

Will the men succeed in returning things to normal and gaining back their natural rights in the world, including work, education, and even medical treatment?

I haven’t made enough progress

I mentioned that I was looking into translation Yaasoob by Ehab Abdelmawla. I’ve translated a bit, but not nearly as much as I ought to have done. He has come out with two others since then: Mars One: No Return and Any Last Requests (thanks to an Egyptian friend for telling me the significance of the phrase نفسك في أيه!).

I’ve translated the back cover material for both books, I’ll make them into two separate posts in case you want to share or save them.

How much do Arabs read, and what do they read?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated April 23rd as World Book Day. Raseef22 is taking this occasion to reexamine the numbers that are so telling about the status of reading in the Arab World today.

How much do Arabs read?

According to the 2003 “Human Development Report” issued by UNESCO, an average Arab reads far less than one book; it takes 80 people combined to complete one book in a year. In comparison, an average European reads 35 books per year, and an Israeli reads 40.

The 2011 Report on Cultural Development issued by the Arab Thought Foundation stated that Arabs read for an average of six minutes per year, while Europeans read 200 hours annually.

The numbers vary from one report to another concerning the amount of reading in the Arab world. A 2008 report prepared by Synovate, a multinational market research firm, said that Egyptians and Moroccans spend 40 minutes per day reading newspapers and magazines, compared to 35 minutes in Tunisia, 34 minutes in Saudi Arabia, and 31 minutes in Lebanon. Concerning reading books, the Lebanese spend 588 minutes reading per month compared to 540 minutes in Egypt, 506 minutes in Morocco, and 378 minutes in Saudi Arabia. These numbers reflect a more positive situation than those reported previously. The difference is that the latter set of numbers includes reading the Qur’an. The earlier numbers only count reading literature and disregard reading newspapers, magazines, textbooks, files and reports for work, and books in the entertainment category.

How many books to Arabs produce?

The UNESCO report concludes that the Arab world translates 1/5 of the books translated by the small nation of Greece. Nearly 10,000 books have been translated into Arabic between the end of Al-Ma’mun’s rule (813-833 a.d.) in the Abbasid Caliphate and the current age. This number is equal to the number of books translated by Spain in a single year.

In the first five years of the 1980s 4.4 books were translated for every million Arabs (less than one book per million Arabs per year). In Hungary, the number was 519 books per million; in Spain it was 920 books per million.


The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) released a statement reporting that the illiteracy rate in the Arab world is 19.73%, with a huge disparity between men and women; women make up 60.60% of the illiterate population. If we add to this the fact that millions of Arabs live in poverty, and are concerned only with meeting their primary needs and not with purchasing books, some of the factors in the full picture become clearer.

Moreover, there is an idea that connects the desire to read with the nature of the political system in place. It is said that where liberty prospers, the number of readers increases. In democratic societies, the individual citizen is seen as an important factor in public life. So, even if it is only a small amount, individuals care about cultural and political output. That is why the numbers about reading in the age in which political ideology prospered among the educated in the Arab World were far greater than those today. And now, because most Arabs have handed their futures over to fate and feel that participation in the public arena is futile, the concern for reading has regressed.

I translated this article from

Interview with Ehab Abdelmawla

Ehab Abdelmawla has written a few books now, the first of which is اليعسوب, The Dragonfly. Here is the summary from the dust jacket:

Date: 2071

Location: The United Southern Arab States (Egypt, Sudan, and Nubia), Eastern Desert Sector

The World: Women, men, and… Dragonflies

It is a scary new world with different class separations, under the control of a harsh and unforgiving Queen. She has a hatred of men and everything to do with Y chromosome. She is even working to eliminate them completely through an insane program of genetic manipulation. She has placed women at the forefront, making high-level positions, university education, and prestigious jobs available only to them, giving them preferred treatment in all things. She has selected the strongest, most handsome, smartest, and most talented of men to be Dragonflies. They are men who owe her absolute allegiance; she has built them self-contained colonies with everything they could want. This leaves nothing for ordinary men but service, hard labor, ignorance and poverty.

Seif is a dragonfly who spent 14 years living in the Mother Colony, which directly reports to the Queen’s Palace. He finds himself on a highway on the border of Aswan. He does not recall how he came to be at this place, nor where he is, but he knows one fact: He does not want to go back to the colony, where all of his wants are fulfilled. He does not want to be a dragonfly, with all of the advantages available to a man in that nightmare world and its frightening events. Instead, he would like to become an ordinary man with nothing save poverty, ignorance and hard work.

The punishment for insurgency was clear, no other choice was given: life in detention at the Waterfalls Prison, or a visit to the Submission Proclamation Room after five years.

In the Colonial prison, Seif meets a group of men who have set their sights on achieving two goals: first, escape from that hellish prison. Second: eliminate the queen and bring things back to normal: Men and women, and nothing else.

I’m currently reading The Dragonfly. I’ll post a full review when I finish, and with the author’s permission I may provide the introduction and the first chapter or two in English… I will probably translate at least one of his works. I have long thought that the English-speaking world could benefit from seeing (and reading) more SFF written by authors who come from completely different cultures.

What follows is my translation of an interview Al-Seyassah conducted with Ehab.



Ehab Abdelmawla: The “Pay to Publish” principle has brought us to this state of chaos

Cairo – Amal Ziyadah

A novelist whose travels among several European countries have left a deep impression on him dreams of many things for his country, and he is working hard to achieve them. With his desire for enlightenment, to show the opposing viewpoint, and to discuss issues in the open, he refuses all forms of censorship. He has released the novel “The Dragonfly”, in which he discusses things that have been kept silent, as well as a number of national and international issues.

Al-Seyassah met with author Ehab Abdelmawla to talk about the novel and its particulars. Abdelmawla spoke about the “fatal trinity”; dangerous to any who try to address them, and he criticized publishers that are solely concerned with making a profit at the expense of the quality, and his personal artistic and cultural message.

AS:                Why did you decide to concentrate on the lives of the Nubians in Egypt in The Dragonfly, despite their role in people’s imagination?

EA:                The primary, overarching plotline in the novel is concerned with equality and the dispensation of justice and rights. This is because how people understand duty is the real path to national progress. Any kind of segregation, whether based on gender – male vs. female – or denying people’s rights because they are minorities, is completely unacceptable. In the long run, human beings must be protected regardless of gender, color, religion, or race. The worst thing one of these people will experience is the feeling of oppression, making them lose confidence in the justice system. When that collapses, all other systems collapse. If a person is stripped of their rights, if he or she is repressed and loses the ability to produce, they lose their humanity and become animals for others to prey upon.

AS:                You have dedicated a lot of space in your novel to the matter of persecution of women, why?

EA:                There isn’t enough space for me to respond to the issue of persecution of women and restrictions on their rights in society after the appearance of the so-called “State of the Caliphate”. I did dedicate some space to the matter in the introduction to this novel. I will only refer to the last part of the introduction; it might answer the question. I wrote, “I do not wish to dispute the rights Islam has provided to women. I will be satisfied with a single point. In the Holy Qur’an there is a full Surah (chapter) called An-Nisaa’ (Women). Is it mere chance that the greatest expressions of justice in the world and throughout history are found in that very chapter? “Believers, stand firm for justice. Bear witness for God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your relatives, whether rich or poor. God is more worthy than both. Do not follow desire that you may be just. If you dissemble or refuse to speak, God is ever aware of what you do.””

A real issue

AS:                As an engineer, how were you able to expose real issues in your sci-fi creation?

EA:                It was inevitable for real issues to come up when dealing with issues in science fiction; novels reflect reality. I cannot stop short of talking about segregation or fall into that trap by limiting myself to one color within a single novel. Our lives contain all of reality: romance, imagination, terror, action, comedy, tragedy… my novel no less so. It cannot be restricted to one category. Some readers have made comments like this, and it pleases me.

AS:                If we went with you back to the beginning, when you started writing, what would that look like?

EA:                It sprang from my love of the Arabic language. The Holy Qur’an was the first book I read, and I was deeply affected by it. I learned Arabic from the Qur’an. My passion for the art of fiction in literature came from the writings of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and others.

AS:                Is there a cap or any limits to freedom in creativity?

EA:                Some try to create limits by trying to stay away from the trinity of religion, sex, and politics, especially in Egypt and the Arab world. In Western countries, there are no hard lines that should not be crossed; therefore, whether or not this trinity is addressed is based on a given society and the controls that rule it.

AS:                Is what’s right for the West right for us?

EA:                It would not be appropriate for an author to write a children’s book for the Islamic world about Mark playing with a pig in its pen, for example, if the target audience was in an Islamic country with Eastern traditions. The author would replace the pig with a different animal, like a rabbit. That is one aspect. On the other hand, we have to delineate two types of authors. The first type operates from an unlimited vision, the second has a specific plan and he works within the scope of that plan.

AS:                What is the difference between the two?

EA:                The first type of author’s work does not have a specific agenda driving it; the work can talk about anything: sex, homosexuality, drugs, or alcohol in order to attract attention. He goes against the flow, or courts a specific subset of readers in order to increase sales in a world with decreasing education and young people who do not have good Arabic and do not understand the teachings of their religion – other than the grace of the Lord. These people are contributing to the collapse of a fundamentally worn out system, one they live in, for the prospect of profits.

AS:                Have you read something like that?

EA:                Yes, from a young author. In the first few pages of his novel, he described, in mind-numbing detail, an erotic scene between an eager fun-seeker and a beautiful girl. Because of this, I did not finish reading the novel. I don’t care to read this kind of writing. Unfortunately, most – but not all – novels that have gained prominence and gotten famous in the last decade are drenched in this kind of thing, so everyone believes that it is the path to fame and success in the Arab world. This kind of thing is wrongly called art and creativity. Even so, I have seen a certain subset standing up to change this prevailing formula. They have to pay the price, though, in order to elevate people’s taste and to fix what has been corrupted by others.

AS:                What about the other sort of authors?

EA:                Those authors have a vision and a goal in mind. They approach the “fatal trinity” in order to achieve a specific goal. An author might want to tear down something held sacred or sacrosanct, for example, and this goal is clear throughout his work. Only the audience has the right to judge him, to accept or reject his work. At the same time, any author who shows people the error of their ways by examining the issue must also provide the opposing view in order to give people the same freedom God gave them at creation, to choose between good and evil.

Desire for the Forbidden

AS:                Do you support censorship?

EA:                I emphatically oppose censorship in all its forms. I am against the prohibition of things that lure many under the name of “desire for the forbidden”. I stand on the side of enlightenment, of clear thinking, of showing the opposing viewpoint, and argumentation.

AS:                You have visited many European nations; what have you seen there that you would like to bring to Egypt?

EA:                Places are like people. They each have their own personalities and distinguishing features. Just as you might meet a person who affects your life, a place can affect you the same way. There are things I have seen in Egypt that I would love to see in other countries, and vice-versa. Perfection has not come to the world yet, and it isn’t going to. If we look at Egypt, it is a developing country. There is a lot left to do before it can go from developing to “advanced”, but the one thing that I would like to see in the near future would be more education and a reduction in the number of people who are illiterate. Education the key to everything. We need citizens who read and know the value of books. It is sad and shameful devices like the Amazon Kindle, though it supports 33 other languages, including low density languages like Afrikaans, does not support Arabic. The prevailing impression is that Arabs do not read.

AS:                What are the biggest problems authors face?

EA:                In short: publishing and distribution companies. I am lucky to be working with a publishing house that wants to change how most of the publishing world operates: the “pay to publish” principle. This has brought us to a state of “literary chaos”. There are so many titles that are not fit to print out there that the sanctity of books is adversely impacted. People lose confidence in the content of books, and they waste their money.

AS:                How has your publisher changed this concept?

EA:                The founders know that the problem is three-dimensional: the relationship between author and the publisher, the relationship between the publisher and the distributor and bookstores, and finally the attempt to get the author’s name known through major distributors. Based on this outlook, the publisher decided to dive in to this swamp in order to change it. I have confidence in them, and I have confidence in their ability to change this situation.

Structural Division

AS:                What does your writing ritual look like?

EA:                I could not call it a ritual, it is more like a work system. I may have been fortunate in that I was attracted to literature at a young age, but at the same time I like science, geography, and history. I studied engineering. All of this has left its traces on how I work when writing a novel. I start with a working outline from top to bottom that creates structural divisions between every chapter of the novel.

AS:                What is the funniest comment you have received?

EA:                It was a hashtag from a fan on the page: #WeAreAllAbdelmawla.

AS:                What is your most recent writing project?

EA:                I am working on a novel that is nearly complete called “Obscurantism”. In this book, I address the issue of how things that obscure reality in the modern age are attractive, and that they will drag us all into the abyss if we do not change. I chose this title as shorthand to cover the concept of the confusion, disordered thinking, and the randomness of the decisions we all suffer from.

AS:                Will you put out sequel to “The Dragonfly”?

EA:                Yes, I’m writing a sequel to the book, as well as a second and third book for the “Mars Trilogy”; 1, No Return; 2, Possibilities; 3, Ages.

AS:                What message would you like to give the readers?

EA:                I do not need to put it explicitly. Anyone who reads my work will understand that my message lies within the same scope as the various issues in the books and how they are addressed between the covers of a single literary project; a hidden thread binds them all – the one direction I hope we will all go together. But let’s leave that to the reader.

The Sorcerer’s Stone 1 حجر الفيلسوف

Many translators do not care to have their work critiqued in the open, so I want to start by expressing my admiration for this work. Raja Abdallah (رجاء عبد الله ) translated the first two books, three and four by another translator, and each of the others had their own translators. I will not speculate on the reasons for the change, but I would have tried to stick with one translator for the entire series in order to keep a consistent voice. I have not read them all yet, just the first two, so I will have to address that as it comes. There are a few things that jump out at me as a reader from the very beginning of the Arabic version of the book. Most of which are negative and persist throughout the entire translation. Before I go into those things that I do not particularly care for, let is begin with the positive. I am sure no one will mind if I quote the first full paragraph:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Here is the Arabic:

تفخر أسرة «درسلى» والتي تقيم في المنزل رقم 4 بشارع «بريفيت» بأنها أسرة طبيعية.. وهى فعلا كذلك، لا أحد نتصور أن تتورط مثل هذه الأسرة فى أية أمور عامضة أو مريبة!

And finally, a back-translation. I am going to perform these back-translations a bit more literally than I would normally want to do. This is to demonstrate the translation techniques used by Abdallah. I want to reiterate; I have great admiration for anyone who tackles the translation of a book, especially one as well-known and well-loved as Harry Potter. I will be pointing out differences in how I might have done it, but remember that I am not a native speaker of Arabic, and I would not even consider myself a very skilled Arabic writer. That is, after all, part of why I want to go through this exercise. Reading and analyzing these texts will help me develop my own skills. Hopefully I will gain an audience and start to hear feedback on my commentary. Back to the issue at hand:
The Dursla family, which resides in house number 4 on Privet Drive, is proud that it is a normal family.. It really is, no one would imagine that this kind of family would be involved in any strange or mysterious issues!
Here are the things you will notice, and I left them there on purpose to illustrate.

  • Dursla – the translator here follows a convention that I have seen in many places and that I suspect is widely accepted. The Arabic letter ي ya’ in the final position gives the long “ee” sound, as in “Dursley”. The Arabic letter ى, without the two dots underneath, is actually an alif (the ‘ah’ sound), and not a ya’. This means that, were I to have read the Arabic version of the book before reading the English or seeing the movie, I would think the family name was “Dursla” not “Dursley”. As one proceeds, other Arabic words that must end in ya’ use the alif instead (fi, which means “in” is fa, ‘hiyya’, the feminine she or it, is ‘ha’, but these are obvious to any reader). Though it is widely used, I personally do not care for it. The two-dot version of the letter is under the “D” on the keyboard, the non-dotted alif is the letter “N”. No shifting or special characters required.
  • Two dots, but a different kind: You’ll see that the first sentence ends with two periods instead of one. In my head this makes it feel like an incomplete ellipsis. I feel like the whole book is breathless and full of incomplete sentences because of this. This appears to be a publisher (and probably broader than the publisher) accepted form; each of the seven books uses the two-dot sentence ending (more frequently in the first couple of books, less so in the last book of the series). By contrast, the Arabic translation of Hunger Games uses only a single period to end a sentence.
  • On punctuation, the translator seems to love exclamation points. Far more than J.K. Rowling does. This first paragraph ends with one. One could argue, I suppose, that it is for emphasis rather than exclamation; in that scenario the exclamation point takes the place of the phrase “they just didn’t hold with such nonsense”.
  • Quotation marks. I applaud the use of the French-style chevrons rather than English-style quotation marks. I think they suit Arabic text much better, though it is a bit awkward to put them in (in Word and in Open/LibreOffice one must use insert symbol). On the other hand, reading further into the book we find that quotation marks are used around non-Arabic words, but are not used for actual quotations – real quotations have no special punctuation to separate them.

These are the issues in the first paragraph. They are present throughout the entire book; at least it is consistent! Consistency means that the reader’s eyes can adjust to these points, and move on.
Now to the point where I hang it all out here. Everyone feel free to laugh behind your hands or right out loud. Here is how I would translate this. I expect that my biggest problem here is going to be the one that most beginning translators (and, though I consider myself a professional – and have a certification from the American Translators Association – in translating from Arabic into English, I am a beginner when going into Arabic) suffer from: overly literal work.

يفخر السيد والسيدة درسلي، سكان منزل رقم 4، شارع بريفيت، بأنهما عاديين كاملين، وممتنان على ذلك. هم من آخر الناس الذين ممكن تتصورهم يتورطون في أمور غامضة أو عجيب لأنهم لا يقبلا سخافة من ذلك النوع.

Back translation:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, residents of house number 4, Privet drive, are proud to be completely normal, and they are grateful for that. They are among the last people you could imagine being involved in anything mysterious or strange because they do not accept that kind of silliness.
Or, at least, that was what I was going for.

Arabic writers, why so bold?

Arabic writers, why so bold?

I have a bit of a rant.

First, I would like you to do me a favor and go visit this page: It is a technology blog in Arabic. Even if you can’t read it, please just take a look. Now, trot along with me to another page, this one a web forum (nominally dedicated to Harry Potter fandom, but this article is about an interview with John Hurt: And another forum posting here (this time with a light background) about protecting the v-Bulletin admin control panel from hackers:

What do you see? The more “professional” technology blog used a few different fonts, used bold text for titles, and it looked… normal. To me, at any rate. The two web forums? Everything is bold.

Why so bold?

I’ve seen this in Arabic on the internet since I first started seeking out Arabic on the internet in around 1996 (back then you had to use Arabic Windows or the Arabic Language Kit on a Mac to see Arabic, now it just works. Thanks Unicode!). For some reason that I do not understand – and I would really like to hear an answer – many Arab writers seem to prefer bold text. I do not. I think it is the Arabic equivalent of TYPING IN ALL CAPS. I FEEL AS THOUGH I AM BEING SHOUTED AT. I don’t care for it.

I was willing to occasionally complain to friends or coworkers and then let it go, but then I started reading In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation by Mona Baker. The book is very good so far. As I’ve mentioned, I am guiding a book club of like-minded translators through it. We have reached the sample texts in chapter 2:

With the above proviso in mind, we can now look at examples of strategies used by professional translators for dealing with various types of non-equivalence. In each example, the source-language word which represents a translation problem is underlined. The strategy used by the translator is highlighted in bold in both the original translation and the back-translated version. (2011, p. 23)

Sounds good, nice and clean, and easy to follow. In this section, there are examples in Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Greek and a few others. Rather than jump straight to the punchline, I’ll share a German example from page 33 (as an image):

Looks great! I do not speak German, but I can follow right along. The same goes for Spanish, Greek, and the other Latin-based scripts. But for Arabic… Can you guess?
Anyone have a guess as to where put is in the Arabic sentence? If you do not read Arabic, here is a hint: the whole Arabic statement is in bold text. For the curious, here it is (I have used a red box to mark put):
Now, in the first edition of the book – published in 1992 – typesetting mixed Arabic and English was a bit more difficult than it is today. I could forgive the typewriter-like font and bold-appearing text back then; it was just nice to have Arabic samples in an English book on translation. Now, however, things are a lot easier (thanks again, Unicode!). Anyone with a copy of Microsoft Office, OpenOffice (or its sisters), or InDesign (for real DTP) can properly lay out Arabic text. I am not an expert in Arabic typography or DTP, though I am trying to learn more about both, but I can tell a bold font from one that is not. Add to that that the Arabic used in the cover art is broken… It is disconnected (this is from the web page, but the graphic is the same):


The Arabic word here is supposed to be لغة, language (لغة for those who prefer bold…).

Oh, and by the way, I do not read Chinese or Japanese, but I think the book has the same problem for both of those languages. Here is an example:


So, again I ask: why so bold?


Literary Translation, Culture, and maybe Ethics

pigpenI have just started reading the Arabic translation of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, translated by Said Hassanieh, reviewed and edited by the Arabization and Programming Center (سعيد الحسنية and مركز التعريب والبرمجة), and published by Arab Scientific Publishers, Inc. (الدار العربية للعلوم ناشرون).

Before I get into the meat of the issue, let me first be clear: This is not about Islam or any nutjob conspiracy about creeping Sharia or Islamization. This is about translation of a very popular Western novel into Arabic.

I cruised along, enjoying myself – I’ve read the books in English and seen the movies that have come out – until I got to the first flashback scene where Katniss remembers meeting Peeta behind the bakery. Peeta’s family has a pig; this is part of the story because Peta is instructed to throw some bread to the pig – no spoilers, OK?

In the Arabic translation it says:

اعتقدت أنه كان يراقبني في أثناء سيري بمحاذاة حظيرتهم التي احتوت على الحيوان المقزز الذي يربّونه

[I thought he was watching me as I walked along the pen that contained the filthy animal they were raising]

The original:

He must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig

The word “pig” comes up a few more times in the same passage, and each time the translator uses the “filthy animal” euphemism. So, why is it a big deal? I am well aware that Islam considers pigs unclean and forbids eating them. But really, this is a symptom of a larger problem, what appears to be a decision that when translating things into Arabic, anything that might offend Muslims must be toned down. One other example that comes to mind is the Arabic dub of the movie Ratatouille. In that movie, wine becomes juice, even when the characters on screen are becoming obviously intoxicated by it. To see the food critic asking juice recommendations to go with his fresh serving of reality, ultimately to select a fresh, cold apple juice (a red liquid served in a wine glass, from a wine bottle) just boggles the mind.

Certainly observant Muslims would not have wine with their dinner or raise pigs behind a bakery. That is their choice, and their cultural norm. But to make the characters in books and movies who are clearly exhibiting non-Islamic behavior seem to be observant, or to think that one can avoid insult by using a euphemism… Well. I don’t think it is right. Part of why we read non-fiction books is to have adventures in our imaginations, to experience new things and see new points of view.

I don’t think it is right as a translator, regardless of my personal faith. If I were translating a book from Arabic into English, let’s say a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel set in an alternate universe or a future in which Islam is the predominant religion, and there is some off-hand reference to something that would be perfectly normal in Islam, but which might seem odd for a Western non-Muslim audience in the story. Let’s say a group traveling somewhere pauses to pray; though other than these kinds of things there is no overt reference to Islam. As a translator, I would leave it in. No reason not to. On the other hand, were I to westernize the story, I could change that pause to a rest break, or references to the prophet into references to a war hero from long ago or some other type of role model.

It would not be right. To me, the fact that the family is raising a ‘filthy animal’ demonstrates to the reader that they are not Muslims, and the word خنزير (pig) would not make that any worse. Just like the fact that the French characters in Ratatouille drinking wine is a simple, normal expression of French culture that did not budge the film from its “G” rating here in the U.S.

Having said all of that, part of the company name given credit for editing is “Arabization”. Maybe they feel this sort of thing is appropriate; but if so it should probably be “Islamization”, as I know many Arab Christians who enjoy both wine and pork products

Having said all of that, I would welcome level-headed, non-religious debate about whether it is appropriate for translators to change literary devices that could be offensive to their target audience.


Said Hassanieh contacted me through Twitter; I’m thrilled to know he is looking! He said he consciously made the choice to avoid using ‘pig’; and that is good enough. I am simply happy to know that there was real consideration behind the issue. As long as the choice was made intentionally rather than a knee-jerk fear of upsetting the audience, I am alright with the choice they make. Obviously, I am not paying for or performing this translation. I still stand by what I said above; I think one of the biggest things that sci-fi/fantasy offers to all of mankind is the opportunity to place us outside our comfort zones in a safe place – within our own minds and imaginations – but it gives us a way to think about things and, possibly, expand our horizons.