Tuesday, 1 May 2012

"Like being at home in a strange land" (Philip Pullman)

Globe and books
Image: Surachai / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
So here I am, at the beginning of the Blogathon and having picked a theme with plenty to write about. But why children's literature in translation? Partly because I know about it, partly to raise awareness of it, partly because there's more of it out there than you might think.

Translating children's books shares the same challenges as translation for adults when it comes to tricky cultural references, "untranslatable" words and concepts, ambiguities, grammatical structures and so on. It also brings extra dimensions of its own, however. Two factors pointed out by Riita Oittinen in Translating for Children are that children's books are often illustrated and often intended for reading aloud. I stumbled across both these issues in my early forrays into translating for children.

For a student project, I worked on a translation of Janosch's Post für den Tiger (German link). When the Bear and the Tiger invent postboxes, my reaction was to say "and they painted them red" instead of yellow - the books aren't set in any particular country and red would be more familiar for British children. But turn over the page and there's a lovely big picture of them putting little yellow boxes all over the forest. So yellow they had to remain.

Another example: I translated Fips' Birthday before I had children. I read the translation through to myself and it sounded fine. Once fils aîné came along, though, and I found myself regularly reading it aloud to him, I realised that it just didn't flow. Quite embarrassing. I have now rewritten my translation for reading aloud, should the publishers produce a new edition.

Boy reading under tree
Image: jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
On the other hand, translating for children also has many benefits and advantages. Children are generally hugely interested in everything. They can be much more willing than adults to explore new worlds and ideas. Philip Pullman has written a foreword to Outside In, Children's books in translation, eds Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini (Milet Publishing), which can be read here: on the TES website. In it, he says that reading translated books as a child was "like being at home in a strange land":

"There are children today in this country who will find a book, or books, in this guide satisfying a hunger they didn't know they had, and exciting a passion they had no idea they were capable of feeling. We don't know who they are, and we don't know which books will have that effect; but if we DON'T offer children the experience of literature from other languages, we're starving them. It's as simple as that."  Source: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=2137315


  1. Dear Rachel,

    In my opinion translating children's books can be even harder than translating books for adults. In the later example, translator can count on readers' education and common knowledge when it comes to cultural references or "untranslatable" words or puns, sayings etc. Your post gives a great personal insight of what I just said.

    Translating children literature sounds like a challenging word. I'm looking forward to read your posts regarding this subject on daily basis.

    1. Thanks Aleksandra! I hope you enjoy it.

  2. Interesting post and thank you for the Pullman link. I was intrigued by the range of original and beautiful Spanish and French (and Catalan) children's picture books available on a trip to Barcelona. Was very tempted to buy them untranslated....

    1. Yes, there are so many more beautiful books out there!

  3. A lovely (and FREE) resource of children's picture books and chapter books in many languages is the International Children's Digital Library http://en.childrenslibrary.org/ - so many beautiful books, many with multiple languages available!

    ICDL is always looking for volunteer translators to expand their offerings, so spread the word.

    Looking forward to Blogathonning together!
    **Katy M
    Recommending YA books beyond the bestsellers at
    Follow me on Twitter @BooksYALove

  4. Hey, Rachel! Sounds like you've got a really interesting month of posts ahead. I look forward to reading them.

    Your honesty about your early translation of a children's book not flowing when read aloud was much appreciated! The first short story I ever published in a lit mag is so full of things I would change now that I never crack the cover to look at it. But it's only through experience, trial and error, that we learn and get better, right?!

    1. Thanks Lisa. I look forward to reading your posts too.