Translating Children Books: Difficulties and Reluctances
Babar, Pippi Longstocking, Emil and the Detectives, Heidi, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and even Asterix and Obelix or Tintin (comic books meant for adults more than children) are works we are familiar with. Some of them have marked our childhood, and those books are available to all thanks to the wonders of translation. Yet how many more translations do you know? They can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and most of them are not recent. They are the exceptions that have managed to make their way into the intense world of Anglo-American literature. But did you know that translations only represent 3% of publications in the UK and the US, and that fiction only makes less than 1% of this figure?
To encounter global and international literature in the UK and the US is a difficult task. Translations are rare and English-speaking authors dominate the market. This issue has been raised in the literary world for a few decades yet it is not noticed by the public. What is the current situation? How much is being translated, and what kind of children literature? Does the shortage of translations express a lack of cultural openness, or are they subject to financial restrictions, set by publishing houses? Yet it is essential that a child reads translations in order to develop, build his own moral thinking and embrace diversity and tolerance.
I. The Current Situation: Publishing Trends and Habits
Today in the United States, very few books are imported from abroad and translated into English. English-speaking authors still dominate the sales, and the bracket of translated foreign books is more than limited. Only 3% of books published are translations, and that number includes all translation – fiction and poetry actually only represent 0.7% 1. It is the same situation in the United Kingdom – in 2015, Literature Across Frontiers put together a report bringing reliable data on the publishing of translations in the UK and Ireland 2. The statistics show that the average of all translations recorded in the British National Bibliography in 2012 is around 3%, and 4.5% of this figure represents literary translations.
In 2008, out of the 90.761 publications that year, only 2.207 were translations, about 2.43%. The UK contrasts with its European neighbours: 46% of books published in Poland are translations, with also 12% in Germany, 24% in Spain and 15% in France 3. Why is the UK’s supply of translated works so low compared to other countries? Are the UK and the US more chauvinistic, culturally excessive or less eager to learn other languages, as R. Buss states? 4
Before exploring the reasons behind this reluctance to open up to foreign publications, it is important to look at the current trends in the translations produced so far. First, translation of fiction only represents 1% or less in both countries – official documents, biographies, informative and lifestyle books etc…. are prioritised. If we focus on the young adult section, the number is even smaller as the US and the UK are the lead publishers in that field. There are also more books translated for young children than for older children.
Adam Freudhenheim, managing director at Pushkin Press, says that ‘there are plenty of publishers doing picture books in translation for children aged five and under […] but no one’s looking at books for 5-10 years old, or 10+’ 5. Hence children from five to ten have less access to foreign books and are only presented with familiar environments. This limits their opening to different cultures at a time where their curiosity about the world and their learning functions thrive.
Translated books also tend to come from neighbouring countries, or countries with similar cultural customs, which ties in with the idea of presenting a recognizable world to the child and limits the ‘international’ market to only a few privileged countries. In the UK, the most translated languages into English are French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish 6, due to their proximity with the UK and their ‘common’ European background. Non-European languages include Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew and Chinese but leaves out developing or ‘less familiar’ countries. Sticking to closer countries not only diminishes the cost and the difficulty of the translation, it also doesn’t risk too much as it does not present something too different or ‘exotic’ that either the child or the parent deciding for the child would get confused by.
Furthermore, it seems that the promotion of some translated books do not reinforce the foreignness of the text, often deleting the name of the translator from the cover. The book is therefore sold as just another story to appeal easily to the local market. It presents an idea of childhood that is not so different from what UK children experience which limits the country’s opening to cultural plurality. Hence the few translations made in the UK are already limited in their practice, their openness and their impact on the public.
II. The Reasons: Gatekeepers, Obstacles and Reluctances
The numerous limits placed on the small amount of translations produced start to explain why the UK is behind other countries regarding its openness to foreign (children) literature but there are also many economic and cultural factors to take into account. First, many gatekeepers stand in the way. Torben Weinrich developed a model defining the categories of people that influence the choice of books children will read. The first ones to act upon the international book market are the publishers, followed by librarians, booksellers, teachers and parents and finally the child. If one of these does not choose to circulate or buy translations, the child has no access to foreign books. Since the publishers are the first ones to choose, they impact the other categories’ choice and prevent customers to engage with a large range of translations.
Publishers are the first gatekeepers as they decide which books to invest in and distribute, following strict budgets. One of their main reasons for not translating is the cost – as Walker Books publisher Jane Winterbotham says 7, it is an economically harder thing to do so the publisher must truly believe in its benefit. Emer O’Sullivan states that since Harry Potter, children publishers choose works with a large potential for merchandising and profit 8hence will not invest in small translations but in established authors, prize winners and books from similar cultural areas, which again limits the spectrum of choice.
Sometimes, they will choose works written in a language known by staff or editors; yet very little British editors speak another language, as the children’s literature expert Michael Rosen highlights 9. They will rely on translators yet give them little time to produce the translation. After, they will edit it according to their customer’s preferences and to limit the cost and number of pages. The original book is therefore changed, its difference lessened. The translator works under stressful conditions and with little economic or creative reward, hence the quality of the book diminishes in order to meet the publishers’ financial standards and almost guarantee commercial success.
Librarians and booksellers also help circulate books and open the child to translated works. Yet Klaus Flugge, founder of Andersen Press, points out that there is a lack of librarians nowadays, due to money shortages 10. He believes that for this reason, and because teachers and parents can’t or won’t always spend time over a book with children, libraries stock more books children can enjoy on their own such as ghost, classroom or humorous stories. Translations are regarded as too ‘alien’ or difficult for children to understand on their own.
Critics also have their impact on the transmission of books and they can help the teacher, parent or librarian select children literature appropriately. But in many cases, as Herbert Lomas highlights 11, there is hardly a review or comment about the translator’s work. ‘A great silence proceeds, not only from the great British public but from the small literary world’. The critics have limited access to translations but they also fail to highlight the work behind a translation when they encounter one. How can these works be made accessible to librarians, teachers, parents and children if critics do not acknowledge their foreign aspect? How can a translator carry on without recognition or reward?
Another issue is the difficult and uncertain nature of the translating process. Publishers do not want to take the risk of producing bad adaptations that result in low sales, incomprehension but also problems with the original author. Edits on translated books are more delicate to make than on original manuscripts as the work has already been accepted in another country. Yet edits are essential in order to adapt to the local public, but they remain very subjective. The Jewish editor who translated Jules Verne’s work eliminated anti-Semitic passages, convinced they were harmful to children. The translator of Robin Crusoe, being Catholic, suppressed the Protestant moral of the book and adapted it to a Spanish context. Where to draw the line between personal choice and adaptation for the public? How far can one adapt without changing the original too much? Should localisation, the adaptation of a text to the reader’s familiar environment, prevail? Publishers do not want to worry about these questions, so they do not invest.
To translate for children is also challenging language-wise. Children are still learning to read and understand, so translations have to be carefully crafted. This can cause problems with specific words or grammar. M. Matsuno states that the use of certain native words for a younger audience can complicate their understanding. This limits the interest towards countries with different alphabets and non-Latin/Western roots.
Yet language is not the only delicate thing to translate – concepts, characters and different customs can be hard for a child to grasp, even from a neighbouring country. Some countries have different conceptions of childhood. One can allow children to learn more crude things than another. For example, Nothing by Jane Teller is very bleak – while it was a Danish success, it was badly-received in Germany. The author says that Scandinavia likes to tell young people how things are as preparation, whereas Germany is more protective. Hence the book was only taken by one small publisher. Children books are representative of the pedagogical, moral and political values of their countries which can clash put in a different context, and discourage publishers and customers to consume them.
The difficulty of language is not the only reason behind the reluctance to translate – there is a great lack of interest in foreign books from the public. The global dominance of English makes both countries largely self-sufficient (the UK can also rely on imports from ex-colonies and the Commonwealth). Lomas argues that the famous British authors (from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll) made their works about Englishmen and American authors did the same, depicting the American community and reflecting its history(from Steinbeck, Toni Morrison to Fitzgerald). Adaptations perpetuate this tradition because people want to read about themselves, or close to, hence foreign books are either avoided or made less ‘different’.
The lack of interest is also more generally about books – M. Schildt 12 says that before, the only way for the world to come to the child was through books. Today, children have access to internet, television and travel, generally speaking. With technologies, a new childhood grows in Western countries and the child has more in common with the adult (knowledge of computers or consumerist behaviour, for example). Children have more tools to explore the world from home, and books are no longer considered the best medium to do that. Therefore publishers are less inclined to invest into translations.
III. The Importance of Translations: Children’s Encounter with the World
It looks like they are many reasons for the UK and the US not to invest more in translations. Yet they are essential for human bonding and identity building, especially for children, and it is important to make them more accessible. Foreign books further the understanding and emotional experience of cultures, linking people together ‘imaginatively, intellectually and culturally’. The earlier the child is exposed to foreign cultures, the more open-minded he becomes, preparing to take part in a global world. He opens to diversity and people, respecting and embracing differences. Hence translations help the child become an ethical being, acquiring a set of moral values that welcomes cultural plurality and tolerance.
Although internet, travel and media help learn about different customs, literature can have greater impact. Books tell stories – their potential for the unreal and their freedom in creating exciting narratives nurture the child’s curiosity. He is not confronted with real, fixed images but can imagine in his head the world depicted on the page and grow a personal relationship with it. He therefore participates much more as he actively visualises this world to understand it better, completely immersed. That is why the passion and delight for reading still persists. Children are newcomers to sounds and rhythms – they have an intense awareness and sensual relationship with language. For Astrid Lindgren, this allows them to accept the most distant things. A good translator should push their imagination, even beyond his own, for them to build tolerance and shape their own understanding of the world. Therefore books stimulate the child’s moral development, more than other forms, and opening the child to foreign books sensitizes him to cultural diversity.
The lack of interest from publishers and customers, the translator’s poor working conditions, the difficulty of adapting and accepting new languages and the fear of cultural clash explains why the UK and the US do not invest much in translations. Yet they risk to miss out on countless treasures and to confine the UK and the US within their own cultures exclusively. In a global world where people with cultural differences learn to work together, it is essential to invest in books that teach about the world in an intimate way, making the reader actively participate in his learning. This is even more important for children as they are at a stage of individual moral development – to read translations from across the world will open the child to empathy and understanding, traits that contribute to the growth of an ethical being.
What is the future of translating children’s books? No one knows really, but the market has to open up. It will continue to flourish in European and Scandinavian countries, but needs to develop in other countries as well. By diversifying their imports, the UK and the US could give a voice to the misrepresented too, as well as developing their literary scene and supporting their arts and culture financially. Interest for African, Latin American and Asian literature (other than the already successful Japanese manga) could increase, and with a bit more money, these countries could strengthen their literary market and also invest in translated books from both European and non-European countries. With the rise of internet, the translator’s role has changed – but could the internet be used as a positive tool for translation, making the process quicker, cheaper and easier to spread the works across the globe? Only the future will tell.
- Dr. Donahaye, Jasmine, ‘Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland’, Making Litearture Travel (UK: Literature across Frontiers, 2012) <http://www.lit-across-frontiers.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Publishing-Data-and-Statistics-on-Translated-Literature-in-the-United-Kingdom-and-Ireland-A-LAF-research-report-March-2013-final.pdf> ↩
- Büchler, Alexandra and Trentacosti, Giulia, Publishing translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland 1990-2012 statistical report (UK: Literature Across Frontiers, 2015.),<http://www.lit-across-frontiers.org/wpcontent/uploads/2013/03/Translation-Statistics-Study_Update_May2015.pdf> ↩
- Flood, Alison, ‘Pushkin launches new imprint for children’s books in translation’, The Guardian (2013)<http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/07/pushkin-imprint-childrens-books-translation> ↩
- Buss, R, ‘Rates of Exchange’, (UK: Times Educational Supplement, 1994), quoted in Thomson-Wohlegemuth, Gabriele, Children’s Literature and its Translation, An Overview (UK: University of Surrey, 1998), <http://homepage.ntlworld.com/g.i.thomson/gaby-thomson/ChL_Translation.pdf > ↩
- Flood, Alison. ‘Pushkin’. The Guardian. ↩
- Büchler, Alexandra and Trentacosti, Giulia, Publishing translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Literature Across Borders. ↩
- A World Beyond Alice, BBC Radio 4, 12 February 2015, 11.30. ↩
- O’Sullivan, Emer, ‘Why Translate Children’s Books’, lecture given at the 2012 IBBY Congress, London ↩
- A World Beyond Alice, BBC ↩
- Flugge, K, ‘Lost Opportunities’, Times Educational Supplement (2 April 1993), quoted in Thomson-Wohlegemuth, Gabriele, Children’s Literature and its Translation, An Overview. ↩
- Lomas, Herbert, ‘Why translate?’ (1981), Books from Finland: A Literary Journal (January 2015), <http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/2015/01/why-translate/>, accessed 6 January 2015. ↩
- Schildt, M, ‘On “The Translation of Children’s Books” from the Viewpoint of a Swedish Children’s Book Editor, Translations of Children’s Books, quoted in Thomson-Wohlegemuth, Gabriele, Children’s Literature and its Translation, An Overview. ↩
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