The Arabic Language and Folk Literature. A call for gathering and translating Arab folk tales. Arabic translation jobs
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The Arabic Language and Folk Literature. A call for gathering and translating Arab folk tales.

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A long time ago, during my first days spent in Arab countries, I noticed—as did everyone from the Arabic translators' tribe—the great importance of knowing the colloquial language of the region (al-'arabiyya al-'aammiyya, or al-lugha ad-daarija).

Diglossia in Arabic is almost indescribable. Numerous vernaculars are related to classical Arabic (al-'arabiyya al-fushaa) in the same way as modern Romance languages are related to Latin, and they differ from each other as much as these latter languages differ from each other. Most people understand you when you speak fusha, "modern standard Arabic" (SA—American academics usually use the acronym MSA), but then you sound ridiculous (people smile and even laugh), because nobody uses it in speech, except in certain formal situations. It is almost solely the language of writing and only the educated can use it in oral communication with some ease. It is not a mother tongue, but nevertheless it is taught in schools (B. F. Grimes: Ethnologue—Languages of the World, SIL, Dallas, 13th ed. 1996).

Naturally, the tales Arab grandmothers tell children are anything but examples of SA. I tried to find some of these tales, knowing that they would help me a great deal to learn the language of everyday speech. But, lo and behold—there were no such books. Absolutely none. Not in Damascus, Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait, or Cairo—nowhere!

Year after year I was greatly amazed to find out that throughout the Arabs' homeland there was not a single compilation of folk tales written in their original dialects and published for general audience reading.

As an admirer of folk traditions, I was badly disappointed. There are only a few collections prepared for scientific purposes and a few others compiled by non-Arabs and translated into English, German or Russian. I do not count those that are stylized or, rather, translated into SA, which are numerous; they are not authentic, no matter how very beautiful, important and strongly expressive SA is in itself.

It is obvious that neither the ideology of Pan-Arabism nor the Islamic dogma favors any attempt to promote spoken dialects. In some Arab countries printing a story or a novel (plays and poems excepted) in the "vulgar language" is nowadays against the law. Extremely dogmatic people will even tell you that there is no such a thing as Arabic dialects! They believe that publishing original tales would jeopardize the Arabs' unity. However, in their homes and in the streets, these very people speak in dialect only.

On the other hand, it is clear to everyone that Arab folktales do exist as they always have existed and that they must be something special, bearing in mind the glorious cultural heritage of the Arabs enriched by Persian and Indian influences. I myself have gathered some of them and was enchanted. Little children all over the world—and the children hidden in all of us grown-ups as well—ought not to be prevented from reading them.

In the last two or three decades the Arabs themselves have started, at a slow pace, to take care of their lore in the field of oral literature. Article 7 of the Final Recommendations of the Arab Folklore Symposium held in March 1977 in Baghdad reads: "Encouragement of translating vital selections of the Arab folklore into foreign languages and publishing them all over the world for the purpose of greater divulgation and to help prevent plagiarism and falsification." But there are still no books of original folk tales in Arab bookstores or libraries.

In order to familiarize the peoples of the former Yugoslavia with these treasures, some years ago I translated into Serbo-Croatian and published a compilation of 35 Arab folk tales from Jerusalem, recorded by Enno Littmann (Modern Arabic Tales, Leiden, 1905) from the mouth of a gifted Arab named Selim Ga'anine, whose name is now unfortunately forgotten. The title of the book was An Anthology of Arab Folktales (published by "Vreme knjige", Belgrade, 1994).

It took me many years until I had a good pile of such authentic tales in my hands. My second book of the kind, entitled Ribareva kci ("The Fisherman's Daughter," published by "Zavod za udzbenike", Belgrade, 1998), contains 40 tales (sawaalif sha'biyya) from Mesopotamia, plus 24 anecdotes, all told in the lively Arabic vernaculars of Waadi ar-Raafidayn. This book is my own compilation, based on research in archives, old periodicals and museums, not on fieldwork.

Both of these translations use a kind of language that sounds somewhat "dialectal" and slightly archaic, although it is actually based on modern urban speech. I gave them the final touch by reading each translated tale aloud in the "epic" way used in telling tales to children.

The Fisherman's DaughterAnthology, is a book of about 320 pages, including an extensive study on the relationship between SA and "al-'aammiyya." The book has its Arabic part too: a detailed table of contents with the full names of the tellers and compilers, one complete tale in the Arabic script, its full scientific transliteration (for students of Arabic), and information about my work in this field.

The font used for the above-mentioned transliteration is composed in accordance with the ZDMG system.

Here we come to a matter which is of utmost importance, in my opinion. It is my appeal to every Arab in the world to send me as many Arab dialectal folk tales as he/she can, written or taped, for my further work. This appeal is found in the book itself, but it is of little help as our publisher cannot even afford to put it on the Web—let alone send twenty or thirty copies of the book to scholars abroad.

As far as folk tales are concerned, "translations" into SA are absolutely outside my interest. (I already have hundreds of them.) Only authentic tales in their original dialects—mainly eastern ones—are called for. For further information contact me at any time by e-mail or at the following address:

Srpko Lestaric
11080 Zemun, Yugoslavia, Dobanovacka 83
Phone: (++381-11) 10 30 15 home (after 4 p.m. Western European time)
311 2743 Office

Thanks in advance.

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