Translation of children’s literature: is it child’s play?

By Cristina Ponte, Quality Controller at Nóvalo

I am mom to two little girls, ages 7 and 5 years. Both of them are “eager readers” because us, their parents, have strived hard to make them “love reading” since they were little. In their bookshelf there is a little bit of everything, even books in other languages that our traveler friends bring from every imaginable destination.

Until now, while the girls could not do it by themselves, I have been their private storyteller. Not only that, I have also been in charge of choosing their reading matters and they have the books I have wanted them to have. This parental choice is not trivial as it significantly impacts the children’s literature industry. In the process that covers from the creation of a book for children to the moment the book sits on a child’s bookcase, parents are the last in a series of players, following the author him/herself, the publisher and the bookseller; and, for books written in other languages, the translator also joins this process which is not but a succession of choices that ultimately determines the books that reach the child audience and, furthermore, the extent to which the translations respect the source texts. It is true that all these players try to choose with the needs and wishes of children in mind but the fact is that they are not children and, therefore, they do not think, act or see the world as children do.

The definitions of childhood, child and, by extension, children’s literature have changed greatly over time. In Europe, there were times when the child was considered an incomplete adult who had to gain as soon as possible the moral values and others characteristics of adulthood and, to help children achieve these, the world was presented to them right as it was, without sweetening or masking it in any way. However, in the early twentieth century, the prevailing idea was that the child was an innocent being who had to be protected from the cruel reality of the world and, to protect children, some books were extremely adapted (even unhappy ends were changed), just to spare the children the harshness and pain of life.

Today, the definition of these concepts also differs between cultures. There are cultures that protect children still; in others children just cannot break the rules set by adults; others think that children should not identify in the book anything foreign to them, their world, their environment; all must be familiar to them or otherwise they will lose interest in the story.

Johnny likes peanut butter. Four words. A direct statement. It could not be more straight forward. Well, how would you translate this short sentence? Think about it and keep reading. We will see if when done reading you would do it otherwise.

“The translation of children’s literature is very easy. What challenge could pose the translation of a couple of lines that do nothing but complement a picture whatsoever?” This idea is shared not only by people completely outside the translation industry, but also by translators specialized in other fields and even adult literature translators.

Easy? There is nothing further from the truth. Even the simplest sentence can pose several challenges, apart from those common to any translation. Countless papers have been written on translation of children’s literature and currently there are different theories advocating for diametrically opposed approaches.

In practice, in a given country, the translation of children’s literature is typically restricted to books coming from closely related cultures, with which the readers can feel identified because the socio-cultural structure they reflect is very similar to theirs. Thus, once the whole set of literature from completely different cultures has been dismissed, the challenges the translator faces, in the form of cultural references, are still plenty.

With specific regard to the currently agreed aims of translation of children’s literature, these are contradictory: to widen the children’s understanding of other cultures and environments, to make more literature available to children, to contribute to the development of the children’s set of values and to offer the children a text they can understand given their limited knowledge. The first aim, and maybe the second too, would justify fidelity to the source text, while the third and fourth would ask for some degree of adaptation. Why wouldn’t a young reader from Spain understand that Johnny, a boy who lives very far away and speaks English, likes peanut butter, some sort of spread paste made from peanuts? But, on the other side, what is the need for stopping reading to ask how the boy’s name is pronounced or what peanut butter is, if the sentence “A Juanito le gusta el chocolate” does not affect the plot or the end of the story?

Some theoreticians believe that translators of children’s literature can allow themselves more freedom than their colleagues specialized in literature for adults, provided they stick to the following two principles:

  • Liberty to adjust the text so that it is appropriate and useful to the child, and always in accordance with what society deems “good for the child”.
  • Liberty to adjust the plot, the characters, and even the language to the child’s level of reading abilities and comprehension.

In Spain, several studies have been conducted in order to establish which one of the two approaches is more appropriate, if respect for the source text or adaptation to the target culture. If they asked me, I would declare myself in favor of children knowing other cultures, of course; and I have no problem answering the questions my girls may have regarding what children in other parts of the world eat, as I answer their questions on Spanish meals and other things they do not know about either. However, this empiric study (in Spanish) drew my attention. It was conducted in two schools, in Granada and Madrid, with three groups of 7-year old children. Each group read one of three versions of the same book: a foreignisating version (totally loyal to the original text and, therefore, to the source culture), a domesticating version (completely adjusted to the target culture) and a combined version (translation published, from which the two other versions were created manipulating the text in one or the other direction). Children then answered two questionnaires, one on reading comprehension and another on motivation and memory, both of them focused on people names and nicknames and other cultural references such as meals and currencies. The study conclusions, mentioned below, make me reconsider my first impulsive answer:

  • Reading texts where people names have been translated boosts the child ability to recall what was read, and the identification with the target culture.
  • Reading translated texts with unknown (foreign) cultural references hinders the overall comprehension and memory process in younger children.

Johnny likes peanut butter.