Inter-Lingual Translation as Pedagogy: Arabic Text Simplification

My ultimate objective is to bring different manifestations of Arab culture closer to learners, to keep them interested in the language.

This interview marks the beginning of an ongoing conversation led by Asymptote’s new educational branch about the role of translation in the classroom. In addition to its Educator’s Guide released every quarter, Asymptote for Educators will soon host its own blog where readers and educators can find more classroom resources, lesson plans, contextualizing materials, and articles discussing the benefits and challenges of integrating global literature in diverse classrooms. Stay tuned! And if you’d like to participate in this new project, or tell us about your experience teaching literature in translation, do get in touch!

Claire Pershan (Asymptote for Educators) met Laila Familiar at NYU Abu Dhabi, where Laila was Claire’s Arabic language instructor. Among her many projects and accomplishments, this interview focuses on Laila’s innovative work as editor of abridged contemporary Arabic novels for Arabic language learners: Hoda Barakat’s Sayyidi wa Habibi: The Authorized Abridged Edition for Students of Arabic (Georgetown University Press – 2013). Sayyidi wa Habibi [My Master and My Love], by celebrated Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat takes place during the Lebanese Civil War, tells the story of Wadie and his wife Samia and their flight to Cyprus. Laila’s adaptation provides introductory materials and exercises that develop linguistic and cultural competencies. (Free audio files of the author reading from her work as well as a recorded interview are available on the press website.) Additionally, she is project manager of Khallina, an open source website dedicated to the teaching and learning of Arab cultures through audiovisuals. The topics of Khallina’s cultural modules range from calligraphy to the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila. Check it out!

The interview below is from their email correspondence.

Claire Pershan (CP): What do you call this practice of adapting novels into language learning resources? Do you consider it a form of translation or editing?

Laila Familiar (LF): The practice of adapting novels into language learning resources dates back to the 1930s. There is evidence in the scientific literature that this was done to help learners of French advance their language skills. Some call these works “adapted” texts, but they are also named “abridged” or “simplified” versions. There are differences in the meaning and connotations of each term, but I would not call it “translation” because the new version is in the same language as the original and the plot is usually the same. When a series of texts is adapted within the various proficiency levels of language learners, we call these Graded Readers. It is definitely a kind of editing.

CP: Where did this all begin? What inspired you to begin simplifying Arabic novels?

LF: I think there are two experiences that influenced my own practice: First, the fact that I used to read simplified versions of English classic literature when I was in high-school. I remember enjoying this as a summer pastime, away from the boring textbook we used in class. Second, my experience using literary texts to teach Spanish at the Instituto Cervantes in Cairo. I always observed joy and excitement in the classroom whenever we discussed short stories or poems.

Then I started discovering what research says about reading literature in the foreign language classroom and the many benefits of extensive reading. Essentially, by exposing learners to comprehensible input, we can help them develop their reading fluency and autonomous reading habits. Literary texts, in particular, have also shown to be a great medium to raise students’ sensitivity to language patterns. All these findings encouraged me to specialize in this area.

CP: Had you ever seen this done before? 

LF: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, the practice of adapting literature is not new in European languages, but in the case of Arabic the first publication of this type is a simplified version of Tales from Kalila wa Dimna (1989), by Prof. Munther Younes, a classic work that unfortunately did not have a continuation with other titles. Then in 2013, I published Sayyidi wa Habibi as the first adaptation of contemporary Arabic fiction, and now it is going to be followed by Saaq al-Bambuu.

CP: You quote John H. Schumann in your research, saying that language is “an emotionally driven process.” This seems to be an important part of your pedagogic philosophy. Can you expand on this idea, and how it has inspired your work in the classroom, your work with Arabic novels, or your website, Khallina?

LF: The idea that language is an “emotionally driven process” presupposes that people’s motivation for learning foreign language is to interact with others. This ties to the concept of “social distance” introduced by Schumann in the 70s that says that positive attitudes towards the native speakers of the target language can promote language acquisition. The way in which I try to foster this is by sharing with my students cultural texts that can stimulate an appreciation of different cultural values and a genuine desire to explore Arab culture(s). This is essential if our goal is to promote understanding, empathy, and respect towards the Other. This is one of the reasons I created Khallina and why I work on abridging Arabic literature: to bring Arab culture(s) closer to the student.

CP: How did you decide to work with Hoda Barakat’s novel, Sayyidi wa Habibi [My Master and My Love], and with Saud Alsanousi’s Saaq al-Bambuu [The Bamboo Stalk]

LF: I first decided to abridge an excerpt of Sayyidi wa Habibi when Lebanese author Hoda Barakat visited the University of Texas at Austin in 2009. I was teaching 3rd Year Arabic and my students were going to meet the novelist for an informal discussion, so I wanted them to read something written by her in order to have a meaningful conversation. That is how I picked Sayyidi wa Habibi and simplified the first 25 pages. Students had an extremely rewarding experience talking to a well-known living author and Hoda Barakat herself found it fascinating that learners of Arabic in an American university could read an abridged version of her work. So that made me think that there is a significant gap to fill in the field of teaching Arabic.

As for Saud al-Sanousi’s work, I had been following the International Prize for Arabic Literature, and the minute I read about Saaq al-Bambuu I knew that it would be a great reading for learners of Arabic because the story sounded very compelling. I fell in love with the story, so I contacted the author and I found him very welcoming of the idea of creating a simplified version for students. This is a book that contains many of the elements that make up a good story for college language learners, because it’s a coming-of-age novel that tackles central human themes in a very engaging plot.

CP: In general, how do you select a text to work with? What makes it a promising pedagogical tool? Is it the content, or the subject, or the style? What are you looking for in a text? (Do you think novels are better for this simplification than other genres, like poetry, for instance?)

LF: The central principle that I follow is the attractiveness of the story. If a text does not provoke the reader, in whatever fashion, then I know it is not going to motivate learners. Pedagogically speaking, the novel has to tackle interesting themes that allow for the design of exercises and activities that can advance students’ linguistic and cultural skills. A strong and fairly straightforward plot contributes to keeping the reader engaged more easily, because we need to remember that foreign language learners are naturally at a linguistic disadvantage and many of them come to the Arabic classroom not having read much literature in their own native language. On the contrary, novels that are extremely complex in structure or language are very difficult to abridge, if not impossible, and you risk ruining the style of the original author which is vital to maintain in the simplified version. Finally, I would like to say that I prefer contemporary fiction over modern or classic works, because they usually deal with topics that are closer to the learner’s life, which ultimately makes them connect more easily with the text.

As for literary genres, I believe that novels and short stories are best suited for this type of adaptations due to their structural and lexical nature. Poetry, in my opinion, is unsuitable for producing simplified versions due to the difficulty of dealing with poetic imagery. Personally, I have not come across abridged poetry and whenever I want to expose my students to these types of texts I search for simple but original pieces.

CP: When you begin to adapt a text, what is your process? What strategies do you use, and where did you develop these from?

LF: To adapt a text you need to control mainly two aspects: amount of information and language (syntax, vocabulary, and sentence length). So the first thing that I do is read the text for pleasure. If I like it and I see it suitable for learners of Arabic, I re-read it and I start simultaneously simplifying the text linguistically and eliminating unnecessary passages that don’t add much to the story, as long as it does not affect the textual structure or the story itself. Sometimes I even eliminate characters that are not very relevant. Once I am done with this process, I start over again and I re-read the simplified version several times until I come up with a version that is readable for learners at a specific proficiency level.

I started doing this by intuition and using my experience as instructor of Arabic, especially to decide what constitutes comprehensible input to learners at different proficiency levels. But in my last book, Saaq al-Bambuu, I introduced corpus linguistics tools to help me decide what vocabulary should be removed or substituted in the novel, which was very helpful.

CP: What are some of the biggest challenges of text simplification? What do you think is at risk of being lost or altered the process? What are you careful to maintain when you are adapting a text?  

LF: I think that the biggest challenge is to write an abridged version that retains the voice of the original author. This implies respecting the plot and main events of the novel, and preserving the literary style as much as possible. In this sense, I am very proud to say that both Hoda Barakat and Saud al-Sanousi liked my simplified versions and that they felt their own.

In addition, there needs to be a careful control of the language to ensure that learners of Arabic are exposed to comprehensible input, which requires an awareness of what students are capable of at different proficiency levels.

CP: What is the process of working with authors? What is your relationship with the original author during the process, and afterward?

LF: Before embarking into abridging a novel I contact the author to explain what I do and the purpose of simplifying his/her work pedagogically speaking. Doing it the other way around puts you at risk of not obtaining permission to publish the work because there are some authors who are very sensitive to the idea of producing simplified versions of their novels. If I obtain the green light to work with the original text, I proceed as described above and once the work is finished the original author reads it along with the designed activities and makes suggestions if s/he has any.

CP: I’m curious about how your background in linguistics influences the decisions you make working with these novels. And the same with your experience with traditional translation.  You translated La tía Safeyya y el Monasterio, by Bahaa Taher, from Arabic into Spanish. How have these other practices influenced your work? 

LF: For me translation is a very different practice from simplifying literary works. Both tasks require a sensitivity towards the aesthetics of language, but in the case of translation you are also required to possess a deep knowledge of different cultures; whereas for abridging novels it is crucial to understand what students are capable of at different proficiency levels. I think that working for several years on developing an official Arabic proficiency test helped me a lot in this area. Other factors that are useful in order to adapt fiction are: being familiar with different teaching materials available in the market, having access to data pertaining to vocabulary frequency, and ideally using corpus linguistics tools. As I said, these played an important role in simplifying Saaq al-Bambuu at the lexical level.

Looking back, translation was for me a fun mental exercise, because I am bilingual (Arabic-Spanish). Nevertheless, it taught me that nuances matter; and this has reflected in the care I put when adapting novels and, specially, when choosing lexical substitutes.

CP: When you use these texts in your own teaching, what is the role of the original text?

LF: The original text rarely plays a role, except if I want to show my students how authors use language to convey particular ideas or cultural expressions. But that tends to happen at the end of the semester, once learners are completely familiar with the plot and have acquired a decent amount of vocabulary that allows them to take a step further into reading comprehension.

CP: How do you integrate these novels into the rest of your curriculum? 

LF: I like to use abridged novels to supplement the language textbook because it challenges students to go the extra mile. But my dream is to teach several adapted texts in an extensive reading course and to convince many of my colleagues in the field that this is very beneficial for students. This approach has a stronger impact in terms of vocabulary acquisition, cultural competencies gain, and reading fluency development.

CP: In addition to your teaching, your research, and these adaptations, you’ve also created an amazing online language resource called Khallina, a tool to engage language learners through contemporary culture. Do you see your literature adaptations and Khallina as part of the same project? How do they work together for people learning the Arabic language?

LF: My ultimate objective is to bring different manifestations of Arab culture closer to learners, to keep them interested in the language and to expand their understanding of different artistic and intellectual manifestations. Given the current global political situation and how Arabs are being portrayed in the media, we need to work hard to raise empathetic and critical thinking individuals in the area of Arabic studies, especially knowing that Arabic language is still being used as a weapon.

CP: Do you have any new project ideas right now? What would you like to adapt next? I certainly hope to see more books from you, and from others! Have you found anyone else doing similar work?

LF: I am currently finishing my PhD dissertation, part of which consists of collecting a big corpus of contemporary Arabic novels. These will be analyzed at the lexical level so we can know what is the most frequent vocabulary used in fiction, and this will ultimately guide us in adapting more novels and short stories.

In the meantime, I have a few novels in mind that I would like to abridge, but I hope that others join me in the task. In Saaq al-Bambuu I opted for collaborating with a colleague to develop the pedagogical activities, and this is what I am planning to do in future works because I truly believe that cooperation is essential if you want to produce quality teaching materials.

I am also very happy to see some colleagues at New York University at Abu Dhabi launching a similar project for young learners to make literary texts more accessible to them. It is exciting to see a growing awareness in our field of how necessary these type of materials are to improve the way we teach literature to students of Arabic.

Laila Familiar (B.A. Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; M.A. the American University in Cairo) specializes in the design and development of instructional materials for Arabic as a Foreign Language. Recipient of the 2014 Texas Foreign Language Teaching Excellence Award, Laila Familiar was lecturer of Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin (2008-2014), Director of the Arabic Summer Institute (2012 and 2013), and Academic Director of the Critical Language Study Abroad Program in Fes-Morocco (2011). Previously, she taught Arabic at the American University in Cairo, the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program in Egypt, and Middlebury College. Laila is the translator of La Tía Safeyya y el Monasterio, a novel by Egyptian author Bahaa Taher. Laila is currently working on her Ph.D. in corpus linguistics as it relates to designing materials to teach Arabic literature. Alongside Laila’s abridged novels, Arabic language learners and educators can find stimulating materials on her website, Khallina

Saaq al-Bambuu [The Bamboo Stalk], is Laila’s edition of the novel by Kuwaiti author Saud al-Sanousi, and is targeted at intermediate-advanced level readers. It is a coming-of-age story about a Filippino-Kuwaiti teenager who returns to his father’s Kuwait and explores his Filipino and lower class identity in a new culture and among wealthy relatives that he does not know well. Laila’s adaptation includes chapter exercises that develop linguistic and cultural competencies and glossaries of literary terms and devices.


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