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
Publishing houses which specialise in children’s books in translation
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.
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?