Friday, 23 December 2011

The devil and the didacticism

Before coming back to university I had never really thought about how you would answer the question as to what children’s literature actually is. I (like many others presumably) would naturally assume that this most common of terms liberally bounded about would have a straightforward meaning. After all, in nearly every bookshop shelf space is dedicated to this most vague label of literary category. How wrong I was to originally assume that this was an easy question to answer.

Varying definitions spring forth from all corners within the literary, psychological and legal domains as to what a child is, which must of course be answered before one can assign any form of literature to this particular stratum of society. I wonder, what with Prof. Gillian Lathey’s talks on translating children’s literature and the prominent issue of authors, editors, publishers, parents, and teachers being those who are the key decision-makers on matters of suitability, readability and eventual consumption, whether all child-oriented literature ends up becoming a broader genre which Sandra Beckett(2009) and Rachel Falconer (2009) call crossover fiction.

Tales written by Charles Perrault originally written for the French court at Versailles eventually ended up in the children’s canon as well as literary canon in its broadest sense and this is exactly the point. Millennia old themes of tragedy, heroism, paganism, gods and demons, comedy, adventure epics, new worlds, fairies, fantasy lands were and are common in tales intended for both adults and children. These themes can be traced back through the mists of time to antiquity and its literature such as The Odyssey and the Iliad which have inspired in their wake such literary and historical epics such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s many plays, and the Icelandic sagas which have themselves spawned a new impetus in writing fantasy epics since the Victorian era. The list seems endless when one begins to count the literary classics such as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and the twentieth century’s hefty tomes in the forms of The Lord of the Rings, The Gormenghast Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Earthsea Series, His Dark Materials Trilogy, and the king of them all when it comes to academic research and commentary, the infamous Harry Potter.

These modern novels have their roots in these recurring plots and age-old themes and could be argued to be reworks, or if one will allow the expression ‘spin-offs’. However one trait they have in common is that an element of adventure and the ‘unknown’ is present. One can easily imagine the original verse being recited around a fire with whole communities listening in, being absorbed by its moral messages and didacticism. Adults created, recited, promulgated, disseminated and passed down these tales by oral tradition for many generations as if they were sacred texts that must be remembered forevermore. They were, and indeed still are, an integral part to many cultures (perhaps in the form of nursery rhyme). They are there to teach, inform, and demonstrate the consequences of actions.

As adults we reminisce about these tales stories which I would say is an indicator of a long-lasting appeal and that these tales should all be considered crossover fiction. As my post suggests, it’s maybe time to move on from labelling genres with vague terms and perhaps start viewing the translation of children’s literature as translating the moral messages to be passed down to the next generation; messages which all of us can live by. And who doesn’t like a bit of adventure mixed in for good measure anyway...?

Adam Kirkpatrick translates from French and Swedish into English and is currently studying towards the MA in Literary Translation at the UEA. He is particularly interested in fantasy fiction, historical texts and the work of J.M.G Le Cl├ęzio. He can be contacted at

Friday, 16 December 2011

History and Translation

We have nearly finished this year’s Case Studies module of the MA, and it seems to have gone alarmingly quickly, in the way these things do. We have looked at translating children’s literature, drama and crime fiction, but have also touched on the translation of historical fiction. I found this particularly interesting, as I’m currently working on a (sample) translation of a Dutch historical novel, and being mentored in the process by a much more experienced literary translator, which is nice!

In a talk to the class about historical fiction, Philip Wilson mentioned the phrase ‘the tyranny of fact’. What this means for the translation of a historical novel, for example, is that the story cannot be relocated, which would not apply to translating some other genres of fiction. This fact was revealed to me in my translation when I tried to change the name of one of the characters – doh! Carelessly, I had changed ‘Cathrientje’ to ‘Catherine’, thinking this would be easier to pronounce for an English reader. My mentor pointed out that it was ‘unusual to change names in this kind of novel’, which is of course true, as Cathrientje would have been a real person.

Having established the fact that you can’t change the facts, because this is history, it's important to make sure you don't go too far back in history in your eagerness. In my translation, a character enters a room holding a candle in a candleholder. Anxious not to repeat the word 'candle', I initially had my character holding a sconce, but as my mentor pointed out, ‘this word sounds almost medieval’, and is definitely not correct for a book set at the turn of the 20th century. And I thought I was being so clever …

So, just because it’s history, that doesn’t mean we have to switch automatically to Ye Olde Englishe. However, we do need to get the period right. In my translation, I had a character studying 'oude talen' in Dutch, which I merrily translated as 'the Classics', until my mentor suggested this terminology might not be correct for the period. I rethought and decided to go for ‘the classical languages’.

Incidentally, a useful tool for getting the correct terminology for a particular historical period, and one I didn’t know about before, is the option to search in books only and to narrow by time period in Google. I found this helpful in establishing details about Liberty shantung silk dresses - wonder why they ever fell out of fashion? They would certainly brighten up the playground on the school run …

Finally, no historical research would be complete without becoming fully acquainted with the sexual practices of the day. At least that's what you can tell your partner when then happen upon you reading something dubious: 'It’s research, darling'. In my translation, I had a rather emancipated young character ‘sitting astride’ the object of her affection, but my mentor pointed out that this might be rather anachronistic. I haven’t decided what to change it to yet, but as I can feel this blog post turning into an episode of Carry On Translating, I think it’s time to stop …

Rebekah Wilson is a translator from French, German and Dutch. For more information, go to

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Translation vs. Authoring

As a result of my decision to spend a year studying literary translation, I switched camps. Well, in a way.

With the unprecedented amount of contact between people of different language backgrounds, translation is growing in importance. On the one hand, this circumstance finds reflection in the increasing numbers of translators of all kinds. They can be called practitioners. On the other hand, there is no denying of the abounding courses and programs meant to supplement, if not quite substitute, the existing practice with a distinct profession in its own right. If academic preparation and specialized knowledge define the concept of profession, by signing up for a bit of formal education, I have conceded, at least to myself, that what I mean to be is a professional, a practicing one, mind you. And yet, as much as virtually all professions today imply certain concomitant “soft” skills, I cannot help but think that, in doing their job, translators have no choice but to fall back on much more than any specialized training can provide.

A case in point would be Daniel Hahn and one of his latest literary undertakings, the translation – or is it authoring? - of the text of the children's picture book Happiness Is a Watermelon on Your Head.

As Daniel came to our class to impart some experiential knowledge, I cannot say I felt surprised listening to him reveal one by one the steps that he had taken to arrive at the text in its final form. Rather, one ought to feel impressed with just how many tasks and responsibilities managed to creep into the assignment initially proposed to Daniel as a translation gig.
His sense of judgement and decision-making had to extend well beyond the realm of language and working with it. In several places, feeling the need to make the text complement the images in a more effective way, Daniel changed the layout of the text. These rearrangements demonstrated that his approach was to ensure an illustrative way of reading of the book, so that each textual statement had an immediate pictorial counterpart on the same page. I might have opted for a different strategy where the illustrations would slightly trail behind the text and in this way create the space for children first to imagine what they heard and then look at the actual pictures. The point is, however, that ultimately Daniel had to pay attention to the elements not quite constituting the field of translation, his area of specialization. Whatever his level of familiarity with desktop publishing and graphic design might be, whatever the appreciation for visual culture he might generally have, he had to call on his sensitivity and awareness of these in order to benefit his translation.

And of course translating any piece of children's literature demands that a special kind of sentience guides translators in their navigation through texts. Given that no common notion of children's literature exists, instead of looking outside for pointers and guidelines, translators have to tap into their consciousness. Thus, an ability to trust validity of personal world views is crucial for the translator's profession. So, in translating a children's book not only did Daniel adopt the role of graphic editor but also he acted with the implication that personal views can sometimes serve as specialized knowledge that usually belongs with experts.

Therein lie the beauty and the challenge of being a professional translator. No amount of schooling in translation on its own will ready one for taking on the reality in all its multiplicity, which is one way of seeing the task of translating.

Olessia Makarenia is currently working on her MA in Literary translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. Captivated by the magic of English language and the wonder of Russian literature, she is determined to do her bit by introducing some of the latter into the former and pass occasional sensitive judgement on the work that others have done so far.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Translation/Adaptation: Is there a difference?

I’ve been reading a lot about drama and theatrical translation recently for our case studies class and for one of my essays. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is where ‘translation’ ends and ‘adaptation’ begins, and whether distinguishing between these two terms is useful or not. Before I started actively engaging with issues of/in translation I always associated ‘translation’ with the act of transferring a source ’text’ from one language to another or perhaps even recreating it in another language. While ‘adaptation’ I saw as being transference or recreation across media or genres (stage to screen, novel to play etc.). However, I began to find that this distinction is too narrow and several questions began to plague me, as they do: Doesn’t cinema have its own language? In which case couldn’t we argue that say that Jane Eyre, the 2011 film is a translation of Jane Eyre, the novel? And what about Omkara, Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2006 excellent rendering of Othello? To call it merely an adaptation of Shakespeare seemed limiting to me because it seemed to ignore the act(s) of linguistic translation that would have been an integral part of the process of writing the screenplay for that movie.

While I was pondering these questions I came across some definitions in one of the readings for our case studies class which I felt would be a good place from which to start thinking about some of these issues in greater detail. In relation to theatre, ‘translation’ is defined as a ‘faithful, literary rendering into another language’, ‘version’ is ‘translation that takes performance requirements into account’ and ‘adaptation’ as a term that has been ‘used to disguise all manner of unacceptable textual and staging manipulations’ (Santoyo quoted in Zatlin, 2005:79). I find these definitions interesting for several reasons. First, they use words I find problematic: faithful, literary, unacceptable, disguise, manipulation. The first three are words that are open to interpretation based on personal preferences. As for ‘disguise’ and ‘manipulation’ they are used her in a prohibitive manner and I can’t help but find the lexical choice odd given that we are talking about theatre, which at its core is based on a recognition of its own ‘artifice’. Of course, at this point I have to say that I am reading and analysing Zatlin’s translation of Santoyo’s definitions, so perhaps there is something ‘lost in translation’ (another film reference, I know!).

The second thing that I find interesting about this set of definitions is that the author posits a dichotomy with ‘translation’ (the good method) at one end and ‘adaptation’ (the bad method) at the other. ‘Version’, then, in this schema becomes a sort of practical compromise. This suggests, to me, that for the author the written ‘text’ is more important than its performance. I suppose then, that how person answers the question ‘What is drama?’ has an impact on what they view as translation and what as adaptation.

For me, drama is both the text and its performance, whether on stage or in the ‘theatre of the mind’ (to borrow a phrase used by Herbert Grabes). Even when I read a play I visualise some form of a stage and actors in their costumes entering and exiting the stage as required. So when I set about translating a play I am translating a performance, whether it is one I’ve seen or one I’ve imagined. And I have seen, on more than one occasion, a Brecht play being performed in Hindi, having been ‘translated’ to know that ‘literary faithfulness’ is not enough, for the performance to be successful. I know I need to tread carefully here, after all what is ‘successful’, but that would take me on a tangent. My tentative conclusion then is that when it comes to theatre/cinema/dramatic works of art being rendered from language to another the degree to which translation and adaptation are one and the same thing depends on the translator’s perception of drama and the degree of difference between the source and target cultures. After all that is the main difference between Jane Eyre and Omkara, one is a translation in the same culture across media, whereas the other is a ‘transadapation’ between cultures. I do also feel that ‘translation’ is at the heart of ‘adaptation’ – all forms of it. This, at any rate, is my rationale for doing the course ‘Adaptation and Interpretation’ next term, and who knows maybe I will end up changing my mind.

Anandi Rao translates from Hindi and Arabic to English. She is doing her MA in Literary Translation and is interested in theatre and women’s writing. She can be reached at