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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Children's Literature in Translation



Try to imagine for one minute how impoverished the children of the world (and we as adults) would be if certain works of literature had never been translated. We would be deprived of some of our richest and most interesting imaginative literary friends: Collodi's Pinocchio, Jean de Brunoff's Babar the Elephant, Hergé's Tintin, Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, Aesop's animal creatures,
and all of Charles Perrault's fantastical Mother Goose Tales, including Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss 'n Bootos, and Cinderella. We would be unaware of the Arabian Nights: Schererzade's telling of Aladdin's Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, and the many colorful and intriguing characters from the Thousand and One Nights. We would not know the Grimm Brothers' Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, Red Shoes, Ugly Duckling, and the Princess and the Pea would be strangers to us! The adventure of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the delight of Joanna Spyri's Heidi, and the sleuthing of Erich Kästner's Emil and the Detectives would have passed us by. Yet, these stories and characters have inhabited our minds since we were young, and it is thanks to translators and translations that they have.


Despite these familiar authors, much loved characters, and compelling stories, fewer than 2 percent of titles currently on our bookstore or library shelves here in the USA are translations. In France, translated works count for 23 percent. If it's true that English-language works for children are among the most beautiful, vibrant, and creative, it is also true that without world literature, we cut ourselves off from a source of
enchantment, wisdom, and knowledge. The dominance of the English language worldwide is often a sore sticking point in the current debate on translation. Why should one language dominate the global cultural landscape, detractors argue. Others say, why bother to translate when we have such a wealth of our own literature?


Philip Pullman, author of the award-winning fantasy triology, His Dark Materials, expressed it well in his introduction to Outside In: Children's Books in Translation by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini: "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." I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment. This book aims to celebrate and actively promote an interest in international children's literature has generated some badly needed enthusiasm as well as an organization, Outside In World, dedicated to promoting and exploring world literature and children's books in translation. I like to think that John Newbery, often viewed as the first publisher of children's literature and whose leitmotiv was to "combine instruction with delight," would have been a big supporter.


The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) was founded after WWII with the objective of promoting international understanding through children's literature. In 1956, it established the Hans Christian Andersen Award for a living author and illustrator whose works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature. In 1978, it added an Honour List to include a category for acknowledging excellence in translation. It also publishes a journal, Bookbird, a journal of international children's literature, which reviews and recommends books for translation.


Stateside, the American Library Association (ALA) established the Mildred Batchelder Award in 1966, to be given to the American publisher of the most outstanding translation into English of books originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States. The award promotes the translation of children's literature, seeking "to eliminate barriers to understanding between people of different cultures, races, nations, and languages." The 2009 Award winner was for Arthur A. Levine Books' Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, written by Nahoko Uehashi, translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano. And the two 2009 Honor Books were translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, and from the German by Anthea Bell.


A propos, ever heard of Asterix? Of course you have. Ever heard of Anthea Bell? Probably not. In the world of translation of children's literature, she's the equivalent of a rock star! In 1996, 2003, and 2007, she received United Kingdom's Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation, an honor that goes to the translator rather than to the author. In her vibrant translation of the Asterix bandes dessinées, she did an phenomenal job of keeping the original playful puns intact, receiving high praise for her creatively innovative translation. When interviewed, she once said that a translator becomes another author while at the same time having to get under the skin of the original author. She has translated the wildly popular Inkworld triology by Cornelia Funke. Her translations have won for her publishers the Batchelder Award four different times, and the Batchelder Honor three different times to date, most recently in 2009 for Amulet Books' Tiger Moon, written by Antonia Michaelis, translated by Ms. Bell from the German.


As an advocate for the translation of children's literature, I believe the purpose of books in translation - besides the sheer pleasure of discovery and reading - should be to acquaint children with other cultures. As Anthea Bell put it in a 2006 interview with Writer Unboxed, "The more widely children read, the more open-minded they will surely get to be." An arduous yet exhilirating task, translating children's literature is what I love. Seeking the words and phrases that will convey original meaning is better than solving the most challenging puzzle. If the work of translators breaks down barriers of language and race and geography leads to a greater understanding of other peoples and their culture, might translators be working for world peace?


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