I was fascinated to listen to the interview with the lovely Palestinian-American writer Ibtisam Barakat at the Bookseller Children’s Conference. She spoke in a vibrant, poetic fashion, so it is no surprise she won the Sheik Zayed Book Award. As I was listening to her, I thought: “If she can express herself so beautifully in her second language, I wonder how lovely she must sound in Arabic!”
As diversity and representation in children’s literature were present in the conference, the role of translated literature should not be neglected. Languages, in many ways, function as indicators of problems within a society. Barakat used her book The letter Ta escapes – a story about morality, democracy, rebellion, and belonging – as an example. It is extremely important that stories reach people around the world, as storytelling teaches us empathy and develops our sense of justice. One of the things that touched me the most in the interview was Barakat saying how writing and conversing with people has helped her to build bridges between people, and how she wishes to help those who might feel ‘disconnected from humanity’ in order for them to ‘feel at home again’. And this really seems to be a common theme in her writing – home.
We all have a mother tongue, and our ability to use language is one of the defining factors when building our identity and expressing ourselves. ‘I cry in the letters of the alphabet’, Barakat explained, and one could see and hear the passion in her expressions. To her, and to several other people like her, writing is a therapeutic experience as well as a way to create something beautiful. It is crucial that we promoteauthors who write in a language other than English, as their stories will speak to a large audience – whether they feel lost or not. More importantly, publishing translated literature teaches us to be open-minded about other cultures and sheds light on languages that are discriminated against.
Barakat brought up an interesting point of viewing translation only as a third option: when translating, it is impossible to convey the entire meaning of, for example, a single word. She encouraged people to learn other languages instead of simply relying on translations. I agree with this, as translations can never fully capture the beauty and richness of the original language. When reading translations, there is always something missing; perhaps a pun, or a word that does not have an equivalent in any other language apart from the original one, or perhaps the words reflect deeply-rooted societal injustice. As someone who has studied Arabic (though far from being fluent in it!), I will add Barakat’s books to my reading list – in their original language, of course. Indeed, Barakat’s interview works as an important reminder of the significance of communication and storytelling, especially during this year of shared solitude. Without a doubt, her words will reach both children and adults all around the world.