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The Language and Translation of Arab Folktales

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Oral literature is as old as man. Being the foundation of all literature, it had existed in the Arabic language many centuries before the advent of the Arabic language standard, whose exact time and protagonists are still beyond our ken. During later centuries of deterioration of Arab culture, up to the 19th century, this literature had been almost the only torch in the dark. Even today, despite the spread of literacy and the penetration of electronic media even into Bedouin camps, it has not yet gone out.1

Among the innumerable genres of oral literature a special position belongs to the prose form called folktale. Folktales, especially fairy-tales (Märchen), are the greatest of globetrotters, as they offer a vision of life we like to imagine, shifted beyond the boundary at which reality stumbles.2 The role they have played from time immemorial furnished the noun story in all languages with the meanings of life and adventure. Folktales (and folk oral literature en général) touch the heart of our collective being.

Telling a tale is essentially a work of myth. The simple spoken language of a folktale flies on invisible wings into the unknown, rediscovering the ancientness of language and of our self inside it. This rediscovery is a prerequisite for the feeling of returning to the state of mythical consciousness. The listener unreservedly, with his whole being, surrenders to a tale. Topnotch literature in a language which has been adapted by intellectual production to fit the high norms of the written word can never possess that something which is narrational per se and which has been kept alive in colloquial parlance.

This ancient expressiveness is preserved in Arabic-speaking territories in numerous regional spoken idioms commonly known as al-3arabiyya al-3aammiyya or al-lugha ad-daarija. Admittedly, the differences between one spoken idiom and another sometimes surpass those between genetically and typologically related but separate languages, e.g. the Slavic languages.3 But they are the only authentic vehicle of Arab oral literature and each differs drastically from the written, “pure” or “eloquent” Arab language (al-3arabiyya al-fuSHa).

Not only does no-one tell folktales in literary Arabic, but it is also certain that they could not possibly have been created in it. Rendering folktales into what is today called modern standard Arabic (MSA) is burdened with a surplus of syntactic details, as the character of MSA is superdialectal. The lively tales, so full of bright humor, are transformed into wooden dummies. Re-telling folktales in the standard languages of the nations that have adopted a living spoken dialect as their literary language does not suffer from the rigidity to the same extent.

Even between pairs of almost identical sentences, colloquial and non-colloquial, we always feel the former as “natural” and the latter as “unnatural” for oral narration. An important role here belongs to sentence perspectives, especially the presentative and narrative ones.4

Regarding such differences in presentation as well as the importance of preserving the invaluable treasures of oral literature, we might think that these aspects have been observed by the Arabs, who showed a great affinity for philology in the Middle Ages. Regrettably, modern Arab science had not, until recently, mustered enough strength to cope with the subject. Foreigners have done much more. Genuine Arab folktales have remained terra incognita to this day.5


Throughout the centuries the attempts to write in the spoken language have been condemned by the Arabs as blasphemy. Any form of literature in spoken idioms has been despised and unrecognized by the intellectual elite. Like a genie from a magic lamp, folktale spends its days sleeping, only to wake up and come out after the stars and the Moon show in the sky, when fires in Bedouin tents are lit and city children prepare to go to sleep.6

Collections of dialectal tales cannot be found in Arab bookshops and Arab schoolchildren miss them as much as would any other children in their place. The grown-ups long at least to read them – if they cannot listen to them any more. Like Wells’s door in the wall, these tales can neither be found nor may souls even hope for it.7

Many a hero of Arab folktales is offered treasures and fortunes just to tell his story; every Arab dimly remembers dozens of tales, solely dialectal, yet people will say with conviction that they are forbidden. But the reputable author of a book on Baghdad past days, offering the reader a handful of genuine tales, warns: “Once the women of the past (Irq. niswaan gabuL) are gone, this folk treasure of ours will be gone too.”8

The western world underwent its series of language revolutions a long time ago. Being familiar with Plato's glossological writings, Rabelais jests when he announces, in Chapter 34 of Gargantua and Pantagruel, “fine evangelical texts in the French language”; he mocks the sterile rigidity and imposed obligatoriness of Latin, whose phonetic, lexical and grammatical norms are almost as far from the French ones as the structure of the language standard set in the Koran is from any Arab spoken dialect.

Littmann’s narrator, Ja’nina, an inhabitant of Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century, knows nothing about scholarly philological disputes and uses no irony; he just gives in to emotions when he stops in his third tale to utter an innocent but serious thought: “My God, how the reader relishes this tale now, how greatly he enjoys this simple speech, for he knows common Arabic, which is far more beautiful for narration than fuSHa!”9 In this sentence we recognize a cry of admiration amidst a dream of a liberated language.

To no avail! A collective dream of a nation’s unity also affects controllable processes in language development and thence the attitude towards folktales. The political and intellectual elites in today’s Arab countries believe that mass publishing of collections of folktales in the dialects of individual states would mean dispensing with the idea of Arab unity and jeopardize Islamic traditions.

I have held in my hands a good number of Arab academic publications whose titles would make one believe they contained genuine Arab folktales. At best, only the titles of the tales and, sometimes, dialogues were dialectal.10

This is not the sort of written record I am interested in. I do not wish to belittle their significance for ethnological investigations and classification of motifs, but they offer nothing to those who take delight in folk speech and unaffected, straightforward narration.

There are few scholarly records of such linguistic fidelity as Littmann’s. Fewer still are accurate phonetic records such as the ones done on the basis of Iraqi “obscene” anecdotes, published by Bruno Meissner.11


A translator’s job is to follow the intertwining of hidden signals of the language of the original and those of the target language in order to achieve the desired adequacy of translation. Good solutions are found only in corresponding narrative and language registers of the target language, its spirit and, sometimes, in mannerism. Equivalence is rarely reached by reciprocal monosemic matching, which is but one of the methods. The expression literal translation implies a text that is impossible to understand. Translations of such verbatim accuracy, however, are sometimes necessary for strict scientific purposes.12 Even faithful translation is a mere metaphor. For a high-quality literary translation much more is needed. When translating tales for a wide readership, a translator must think of the tales he/she listened to in his/her childhood, but must not succumb to challenges of cultural assimilation. A translation needs to be fluent, yet not at the cost of forcing the source text into the substantive patterns of the target language.

In oral communication as well as narration rendered in a spoken idiom, the receptive capacity of the listener reveals its full significance. Whilst the reception of a text in a strictly ordered written language depends on rational reactions to qualitative language signals (partition of statements with blanks between words, a complex system of syntactic and rhetorical rules, punctuation, etc), the semiotic information of live telling lies in prosodic elements and, generally, in frequent quantitative changes such as sentence intonation (interrogation, emphasis, final cadenza). A reader of a dialectal written record achieves a satisfactory level of reception by his/her inner simulation of sound, supplying that which is apparently missing.

There is a great deal of what is “missing”; the older Arabic sentence does not care much for punctuation, even less for assigning a new paragraph to introduce a new thought. Narration is bare. A listener to such a narration journeys through the alluring spheres of our intuitive linguistic and mythical self, experiencing authenticity and a sense of freedom, intimacy and ethereality.

The important question of choosing a particular style in the target language is solved in the translator’s subconscious during the reception of the original. I believe it is a natural process. Raising the question to a rational level before the very act of translation would be unnecessary – were it at all possible. The dialectal wording of the source should all by itself  project into a literary hybrid, colored by a somewhat archaized lexis and a “fraudulent” use of other typical instruments of popular narration. These are hidden in the expressiveness of the target language and its grammar and syntax. If this humbug does not succeed, the translation is poor and should be destroyed. A translation is either on a par with the original on all comparable levels or it is not a translation.

Poetry is scarce in genuine Arab folktales. The abundance of verses in The Thousand and One Nights is another piece of evidence that, contrary to a widespread misconception, the tales from the glorious collection are not closely related to folk literature. On the other hand, some folktales contain whole passages in rhymed prose, which is an ancient but still living tradition among the Arabs. Here the foundation of the rhythmic pattern is made up of both the concord of vocal arrays, repetitions of sounds and words (assonance, alliteration and epiphoras), and of various patterns of morphophonetic parallelism, which produce tonal and syntactic wholes composed of interlinked and hierarchically co-ordinated elements.13

Such a synergy of words should be carefully recast, trying to retain the intended meaning. There is no way to evade this responsibility, or the tales would suffer great losses.


Translation is as old as the contacts between the neighboring groups of human beings. Translators readily say that it is the second oldest trade in the world. Arab folktales, like all others, developed by travelling among peoples and cultures. Every time they were converted from one language into another. Had it not been the case and had not so many peoples taken part in their preservation, they would have vanished. Today, when they are definitely vanishing, they must be systematically collected and translated so that we may pay homage to the continuity of culture. To this day folktales have remained an unsurpassed model for storytelling.

Translation of folktales written in spoken Arabic idioms is an exceptional challenge: there are few good examples, few dictionaries – everything is like in an uncanny chess game in which you invent your combinations of moves from scratch.14 You must observe the rules, but only the remembered sound of true folktales in your soul can solve the equations of their new wording, which is but a peculiar sound projection.

Epic tradition of the Balkan peoples is remarkably rich and the epic style of expression is part and parcel of every individual’s language from early childhood. All of the Arab folktales that I translated into Serbian were finely tuned by being read aloud, in a slightly modernized epic manner. This technique is not a mere cosmetic procedure. The fact that a text is a translation cannot be an excuse for anything to someone reading the tales. In literature, form is the essence of things. The final touch I am talking about is aimed at this essence: what we have before us are folktales. When being read, they should be plucking at the epic strings inside us, provoking in our inner being authentic and secret chords of the language of a living tale.


When translating genuine folktales for the general public, a translator must think of the tales he/she listened to in his/her childhood, but must not succumb to challenges of cultural assimilation. The dialectal wording of the source should all by itself  project into a literary hybrid, colored by a somewhat archaic lexis and a “fraudulent” use of other typical instruments of popular narration. When being read, they should be plucking at the epic strings inside us, provoking in our inner being authentic and secret chords of the language of a living tale.


Srpko Lestaric (1949) studied political science and Arabic language and literature in which he earned bachelor's degree at the University of Belgrade in 1975. He spent almost fifteen years in the Middle East and is making his living as a technical translator and certified court interpreter for Arabic with the District Court in Belgrade. Beside translating works of contemporary Arab writers (Yusuf Idris, Zakariya Tamir, Tayyib Salih, Abdel Sattar Nassir, Salwa Bakr, Fakhri Qaawar, Hadiyya Hussein, etc.), he pioneered in former Yugoslavia the translation of Arab folktales into Serbian (four collections so far, from Palestine, Iraq and Gulf) and the study of eastern Arab dialects.

1  Cf. Shamy (el-), Hasan: Tales Arab Women Tell and the Behavioral Patterns They Portray. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999, pp.42–49.

2  They are called differently throughout the Arab lands. In Levant: Hawaadiit (<Hadduuta); Iraq: suwaalif (<saalifa); Saudi Arabia: SabHuunaat; the Sudan: ‘aHaajii (<Hujwa), etc; the most frequent academic term is al-Hikaaya al-xuraafiyya.

3  B. Grimes (Ethnologue, 13th ed., SIL, 1996) lists as many as thirty seven Arab languages.

4  The clause One day Juhha filled his pockets with peaches in the spoken dialect of Baghdad (taken from a real tale) reads: fed yoom chaan juHHa maali jiyuuba xoox; in MSA the same would be kaana juHHa dhaata yawmin maali’an juyuubahu xawxan. The contents are the same, but the two presentations differ in sensibility. (cf. Lestaric, Srpko [ed., tr.]: Ribareva kci [The Fisherman’s daughter], Zavod za udzbenike, Beograd, 1998, p.219.)

5  El-Shamy offers a rich bibliography of relevant works (op. cit., pp.525–532).

6  Tales in which supernatural beings are mentioned must not be told until dark; the reasons for this are many: il-yiswaalif bi-n-nehaar yinbaag lbaasa bi-l-lieel (= [the one] who tells tales by day, at night his pants will be stolen); it is also believed that horns will sprout in the one who tells tales during the day once he/she moves to the other world, or, all of his/her money will turn to iron, etc. There is no people among whom a mere mentioning of supernatural or dangerous beings is not felt as their invocation. The Bedouins avoid uttering the word “snake” by using “rope” (Habul) instead. Among Serbian people a word used for snakes is nepomenice (the ones not to be mentioned) and for a wolf it is strašivoća (fearfulness); these are not common words, but sublimates of mythical consciousness.

7  “[…] a “man” is not permitted to tell Märchen, for the group norms assign this type of activity to women, and his violation of the norms brings about punishment.” (el-Shamy, op. cit., pp.8). The eyes of some of my Arab friends filled with tears while they were listening to or reading in my home, not believing their own senses, the precious tales they only remembered from childhood.

8 Hajjiyya (al-), 3aziiz jaasim: baghdaadiyyaat, 6 vols., baghdaad, 1967–1991; vol.1, pp.150: as-saaluufa. Al-Hajjiyya took after the famous al-Kirmili (1866–1947), whose Taftaaf (al-3alaama al-‘ab ‘anastaas maarii al-kirmilii: diiwaan at-taftaaf aw Hikaayaat baghdaadiyya) contains an unknown to me number of tales from Mesopotamia; the manuscript is perhaps still kept in Museum of Irak (No.1580/32 and 937/33).

9  Littmann, Enno: Modern Arabic Tales, Leiden 1905, pp.26.

10  For example: Suufii (al-), ‘aHmad: Hikaayaat al-mawSil ash-sha3biyya, markaz al-fulkluur al-3iraaqii fii wizaarat al-‘irshaad, 1962; juhaymaan (al-), 3abd al-kariim: ‘asaaTiir sha3biyya min qalb jaziirat al-3arab, daar ath-thaqaafa, bayruut, 19671970; salluum, daawuud wa Sabrii Hamaadii: al-qiSaS ash-sha3biyya al-3iraaqiyya, 2 vols., markaz at-turaath ash-sha3bii bi-duwal al-xaliij al-3arabiyya, qaTar, 1988; duwayk (al-), muHammad Taalib: al-qaSaS ash-sha3bii fii qaTar, markaz at-turath ash-sha3bii bi-duwal al-xaliij al-3arabiyya, 2 vols., 1984. As for the suspicions this doctoral thesis arouses see muraaja3a ad-duktuur daawuud salluum in al-ma’thuuraat ash-sha3biyya (Doha), 3/86, pp.139150. It should be added that merely five tales in the whole collection in Vol. II may boast dialectal accuracy. An English translation of forty-eight authentic tales (Stevens, Ethel S.: Folk-tales of Iraq, Oxford, 1931) has been back-translated into Arabic (sic!) half a century later (muhannaa (al-), 3abdullaah & daawuud salluum: qiSaS sha3abiyya 3iraaqiyya, daar kaaZima, al-kuwayt, 1983.)

11  Meissner, Bruno: Neuarabische Geschichten aus dem Iraq: gesammelt, übersetzt, herausgegeben und mit einem erweiterten Glossar versehen. Leipzig, 1903; Weissbach, Franz Heinrich: Beiträge zur Kunde des Irak - Arabischen, Leipzig 1908; Artin, Yacoub: Contes populaires du Soudan égyptien. Recueilis en 1908 sur le Nil Blanc et le Nil Blue, Paris 1909; etc. Some editions are still older, cf. Prym, Eugene, and Albert Socin: Der neu-aramaeische Dialekt des Tûr ‘Abdîn: Syrische Sagen und Märchen aus dem Volksmunde, 2 vols. Göttingen, Vanderhoech,1881. (Muhawi, Ibrahim and Sharif Kanaana: Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales, Berkeley, 1989. and the critical edition of the original tales in ibraahiim muhawwii wa shariif kanaa3na: quul yaa Teer, mu’assasa ad-diraasaat al-filasTiiniyya [Institute for Palestine Studies], Beirut, 2001.) As many as twenty excellent examples can be found in older issues of the Baghdad periodical at-turaath ash-sha3bii, especially No.10/1972; in R. J. McCarthy, S.J. and Faraj Raffouli: Spoken Arabic of Baghdad, Part One, Part Two (A) – Anthology of Texts, Publications of the Oriental Institute of al-Hikma University, Librairie Orientale, Beirut, 1965, a number of splendid, both original and translated tales and anecdotes are given for language practice. Göttingen based Enzyklopädie des Märchens collects tales from around the world, but vernacular accuracy and narrative style are not the main concern of this prominent institution.

12 In such cases, any extratextual additions have to be scrupulously marked.

13 In the Iraqi tale iS-Sxieela wi-s-sa3luwwa (The She-Goat and the Sa’luwwa) the goat, looking for her lost young, knocks on every door in the village, whilst the villagers reply from inside: min(h)u il-yidugg ib-HaTabna il-meyxaaf min 3atabna (Who is the one who knocks at our door, who fears not our rebuke?) Here she shouts: aani iSxeelaaya imSiHlaaya 3andii igreenaat imHilfaaya (I am a goat with harsh voice, I’ve got horns determined [to punish]). But in the Serbian rendering these lines are rhymed: Ko nam to na vrata bije, zar srdzbe nam strah ga nije? / Ja sam koza mukla glasa, od mog roga nema spasa! (cf. S. Lestaric, op. cit., p.88.)

14 Certain questions can be answered only by the people from the areas in which the tales were collected. When translating Iraqi tales, I found such assistance in Baghdad, where people from all regions live; the honorable ‘umm ‘aHmad, from the 17th lane of 3arasaat al-hindiyya where I was living, and a linguistically gifted car mechanic, Husayn, offered relief a few times when well-known men-of-letters, gathered for tea and dominos in maqha Hasan 3ajami in the Rashid street, could not get beyond mere guesses.

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