Book Blogger Appreciation Week – Forgotten Treasure

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Today, as part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, writers across the blogosphere are highlighting “a book we wish would get more attention by book bloggers, whether it’s a forgotten classic or under marketed contemporary fiction. This is your chance to tell the community why they should consider reading this book!”

I’m interpreting this slightly more broadly – what I wish to highlight are children’s books, especially picture books, originally published in a language other than English.

Can you imagine a childhood of reading without Pippi Longstocking, The Moomin Family or Tintin, to say nothing of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the delights of Miffy or the wonders of Barbapapa? Wouldn’t our adventures borne of reading be immensely impoverished had these books, all translated from languages other than English, not been published for an English reading audience?

Despite this, the number of children’s books, especially picture books, which are translated into English is shockingly small. Whether in the US or UK, it seems that only about 2-3% of all published books are translated from other languages (this figure is more like 1% if we restrict ourselves to fiction rather than including translations of non-fiction and techincial work!). This despite the fact that 90-95% of the world’s population speak a language other than English as their first language.

You might wish to argue that the US and UK have a particularly flourishing, high quality children’s literature industry that doesn’t need further input. But, given the figures how can it be that we are not missing out on riches from other languages and cultures if we continue to under-represent authors and illustrators whose first language is not English?

What worlds ripe for exploration are we and our children missing out on because more the the best German, Spanish or Japanese books are only rarely translated? Philip Pullman has the following to say about the dearth of translated children’s literature: ‘You never know what will set a child’s imagination on fire…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: foreword to Outside In, Children’s books in translation edited by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini, also available online here.)

Why are so few children’s books translated? Arguments I’ve seen put forward include the expense of commissioning a translation, the claim that “what delights the young readers of one nation may have no appeal at all to those of another” and the apparent “instinctive suspicion” English readers have of translations (Source: Children’s Literature in Translation by Anthony Gardner, available online here).

Just in case any publishers are reading this little blog of mine here are my reactions to these statements.

How about translating more picture books? By their very nature there is not much text to translate (although it may still be a challenging text to translate) and so costs should presumably be lower. The illustrations would not need “translating” and so a large part of the book would already be market-ready. You could even take this a step further and make it a speciality to bring wordless picture books from other cultures to an English reading audience.

Next, is it really the case that children are only “delighted” by what is familiar and recognisable from home? Are children really so parochial? To what extent is it the case that children cannot relate to stories set in cultures other than their own? Or is it the case that, for example, French children (about 23% of children’s books in France are translated) are simply much better at identifying with other cultures than English speaking children? No, of course not.

Children are naturally curious, are fascinated by settings and experiences far removed from their own experience of life. Why else would the fantastical be such a popular children’s genre (think of fairy tales)? Why else would the stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder remain hugely popular in the UK where the pioneer lifestyle is very far removed from most children’s experience of life? Why would so many children be interested in Dinosaurs or Ancient Egypt? Mummification is certainly not something I’ve ever known a child to have first hand experience of in the normal run of things.

Of course kids do love the familiar. But this doesn’t mean they don’t want to read about things which are unfamiliar. In fact my experience of kids is that they love learning new things and being able to explore new territory, particularly as they grow older. What’s your experience of this?

As to the “instinctive suspicion” of English (UK) readers I wouldn’t deny as a nation we can be quite insular, but I’d love to put this suspicion to the test. Are the parents to be found today in the kids’ section of my local bookshop deliberately steering clear of books which are translations? Are they even aware that books about Miffy or the Rainbow fish are translated? I’d be willing to lay a wager that they are not.

If you are interested in finding children’s books translated into English here are some places to start:

Prizes for children’s books in translation

  • Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation
  • (Mildred L.) Batchelder Award

  • Publishing houses which specialise in children’s books in translation

  • Winged Chariot Press. Click here for a great article about this UK based publisher.
  • Kane/Miller
  • Gecko Press

  • Outside In is an organisation set up to promote, explore and celebrate world literature and particularly children’s books in translation. Outside In is also the title of comprehensive and lively guide to UK children’s books in translation. A US book that includes details of many (but not exclusively) translated children’s books is The World Through Children’s Books.

    USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) produce an annual list of Outstanding International Books. Not all have been translated into English, but many have. Click here for a compilation of these yearly lists.

    If you can make it to London for September 30th there is a great sounding event exploring children’s books in translation, aimed at teachers and librarians set up by Booktrust. Click here to find out more.

    Booktrust also has an interesting couple of videos of translator Sarah Ardizzone, illustrator Axel Scheffler and publisher Klaus Flugge along with Alex Strick, of the organisation Outside In discussing the need for children’s literature in translation. Click here to view them.

    In the upcoming November issue of the Horn Book Magazine, Leonard Marcus has a column about the cycles of translated picture book publishing in the U.S. – if any of you subscribe to this magazine I’d love to hear what you think of this article when it gets published.

    Photo: mclib

    Thanks to everyone on the Rutgers Child Lit list who helped me gather much of the information in this post.

    So, let’s not be insular. Let us make the next children’s book we get from the library, treat ourselves to from the bookshop, or blog about a book in translation! What book are you going to choose?

    12 Responses

    1. Lynn

      What a great post, and an original take on the BBAW theme! I admit that I haven’t read many of the books that you mention in the beginning, even. My son and I have been picking a country to casually learn about each week, and I like to get a fiction book about the country if I can find it. Maybe I will make a stronger effort to find translated works from these countries when I can.

    2. jojoebi

      great post!
      we have she a mixed bag of books to be honest I don’t even know which ones were originally English/Japanese unless they are by some famous author. I don’t know the percentages but I see a lot of books translated into Japanese.
      A while back I was give about 50 Japanese picture books, what struck me the most was the difference in illustration style, I blogged about it here
      I suspect that many non-English speaking countries have a larger percentage of translated books because they don’t have the vast market which is available in English.

    3. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Lynn,
      I think the book The World Through Children’s Books would be a really good book for you with your project of learning about a country a week. I see on that you can get a second hand copy fo $10 if your library doesn’t have it.

      Hi Jojoebi,
      I love the illustration of the old woman peering down the drain on your post. Yes, I do think there are differences in illustration styles around the world, but I think people who are interested in books would love to see these differences. I take your point about non-English speaking countries, and I do think (based on the little I know) that children’s literature has had a longer history in the English speaking world than in some other countries where other languages are spoken, so that would explain some of the level of translation into the given language other than English.

    4. Bernadette

      Check out the International Children’s Digital Library for *free* books from around the world that you can read online.
      All of the books available have been previously published in print. Many of them are available in more than one language. The books are translated by ICDL volunteers and they are always looking for more help!

    5. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Bernadette,

      Thanks for reminding me of the ICDL. I feel silly for having forgotten it because it is a great resource! I particularly like it for being able to look at different illustrations although I’m not a fan of reading onscreen, especially to my kids.

    6. Zee

      What a fantastic take on the topic! And I couldn’t agree more with you that much more children’s literature should be translated. I would hate for children who do not speak Swedish to miss out on Astrid Lindgren, and I really wish that more of her books had been translated.

    7. Sam

      Great interpretation of the topic.

      I must admit I don’t have too much experience with translated works. We do read quite a bit of Caillou, which is a French Canadian phenomenom now available in (at least) English and Spanish, though we often read it in the original French.

    8. Natasha @ Maw Books

      Great post! And a lot of think about. A thought? A lot of picture books are built around verse and rhyme. I don’t know how translation really works with books but would there be something lost in the rhythm and rhyme?

    9. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Zee,
      Yes, more of Lindgren’s books have been translated into German and Dutch, but not into English, which is such a shame

      Hello Sandhya,
      Thanks for the great links. Yes, I’m only too aware that there must be so much more out there that I don’t know about because of my own cultural background. But that’s a great thing about a blog – it can become collaborative and people like you can help spread the word about great kids’ books from parts of the world I don’t know. I really appreciate that.

      Hi Sam,
      I don’t know the Caillou books but I shall go and find out some more in just a minute!

      Hi Natasha,
      Of course translating rhyme is challenging, but it’s certainly not impossible. I know, for example, that The Gruffalo has been translated into other languages. Maybe it hasn’t been translated with rhyme – that would be very interesting to find out!

    10. S. Krishna

      I totally agree – works in translation help us learn about other cultures. Isn’t it most important for children to be accepting of other cultures?

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