As children, we like books for their stories and pictures, and for the special times and feelings we associate with reading or being read to. When we grow up and look back on our childhood favourites, it can be quite shocking to open a book you once adored and discover that you now consider it dated, sexist, racist, or boring. The story and the pictures are the same as they always were, but you, the reader, have changed, and the world you live in has evolved. In a similar way, translating children’s books can be shocking too.
My first translations of children’s books were the picture books I read with my own children when they were little. They would choose a book and I would read. If they chose a book in a foreign language, then I would read the words in that language and tell them the story in English. It was fun! It also taught me three important things when translating children’s books. First, that the storytelling is crucial. Children quickly lose interest if the storytelling isn’t right. Second, that it’s essential to edit appropriately for the audience. Does the praying mantis have to be so gleeful about eating her husband after they’ve mated? Third, that if you can do the first two, then you can probably translate just about any children’s book.
However, not everything that can be translated can be published. For a while, my son was crazy about the television series Black Cat Police Chief 黑貓警長 and we read-translated-edited the books that accompanied the series at home. A few years ago, I showed some images of the front covers of those books during a lecture at the Annual Chinese Teaching Conference in London. There was a lively reaction from the young teachers in the audience. But when I said I didn’t think the books would ever be allowed in UK schools or libraries, there was a confused silence. They remembered enjoying the books themselves, and it was only when I pointed out the motorbike-revving, the gun-brandishing, the ever-angry expressions, the violence and police brutality that they began to see them from a different perspective.
We want children to enjoy books. Some books entertain, some books educate, and many books do both. But when we are translating children’s books across languages and cultures, we have to be aware of different tolerances. Sometimes a draft translation can feel wrong and it can be helpful to look objectively at a direct, or literal, translation and consider if it conveys the author’s original intention. Perhaps the impact is stronger or weaker than the author intended, or the tension in the storytelling feels awkward, or the joke just isn’t funny in English. Children’s books can be packed with cultural complexities—try translating a nursery rhyme and see if you can retain the fun, the rhythm and the compact cultural references all at the same time. It’s not easy!
Why did my children choose particular books? Well, they were little, and at that age, it was the visual appeal of the books, the quality of the printing and production, the illustrations and the story. It wasn’t about translation or where the stories came from. It was about the books.
But when children in the UK go to a library or a bookshop, they generally don’t have much choice when it comes to foreign or translated titles. Helpful staff may offer to order them in for you, but they seldom have the books there on the shelves. And because the staff rarely see translated children’s books, they probably don’t know them and aren’t in a position to make recommenations. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation and means you really have to want to find these books and often have to order and pay for them without seeing them first. Personally, I think it’s a bit dishonest to blame the lack of translated children’s books on a lack of demand.
In fact, many of the favourite stories for children in English are adaptations of stories from other countries that are so domesticated now that it’s often assumed they were English to start with. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast were translated from French by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century. Snow White, Rapunzel, The Frog Prince, and Hansel and Gretel were translated from German by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century. The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina were translated from Danish by Hans Christian Anderson, also in the nineteenth century. Many of these stories came from even older folk tales, and who knows where they might have come from originally. They survived because they were good stories and were told over and over again.
Looking at lists of books with multiple translations, it’s striking how many of them are children’s books. Although these lists are probably not wholly reliable, the figures are still remarkable. To give a few examples: The Little Prince (253 translations), Pinocchio (240), Alice in Wonderland (159), Anderson’s Fairy Tales (159), The Adventures of Asterix (114), The Adventures of Tintin (112), Pippi Longstocking (70), Harry Potter (67), Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (67), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (65), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (60), Heidi (50), Winnie the Pooh (50), The Moomins (44), Miffy (40), Paddington Bear (40), The Tale of Peter Rabbit (36), Anne of Green Gables (36), Charlotte’s Web (35), Totto-chan, Little Girl at the Window (35).
I’ll end with a more recent ‘international children’s classic’: The Gruffalo, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Since it was first published in 1999, it has been translated into over fifty languages, including Chinese, as 咕噜牛. And it was inspired, says the author, by a Chinese story, probably 狐假虎威, which I assume she must have read or heard in English. In other words, The Gruffalo was inspired by an adaptation of an account in the Strategies of the Warring States (战国策) compiled well over two thousand years ago!