Wednesday, 9 January 2013

What is equivalence for children?

I never thought before starting the MA in literary translation about translation so much. It literally invaded my life! I cannot read a book or the newspaper, watch a film or tell a story from France without thinking about domestication, adequacy or equivalence. I cannot help myself thinking: ‘This does not work.’… ‘They did that well.’… ‘What would be the best way to translate this?’ or ‘What theory is behind that?’ And I realised that translation theories could be applied not only to literary translation but also to every communicational instruments. That realization stroked me, when I thought about people in France who spend their lives surrounded by translation results; about one book published out of six is a translation and most of the films, programs and adverts of television are dubbed, but they do not really think about it or realise it. I personally think that being able to translate is opening a door on a new writer, a new story, a new style to another culture and other people.

I would like to discuss a translation I have done myself for the MA. The book I translated into French was the children’s book The very hungry caterpillar by Eric Carle. I came across several issues with this translation. What theory should I work with? Children’s literature is different from the rest of literature; it is addressed to a very specific audience, with particular needs. Children do not care in what language and what culture the book is from, so I decided to go for a translation following the principal of dynamic equivalence. As Eugene Nida explained in his essay ‘Principles of correspondence’, ‘the relationship between receptor and message should be substantially the same as that which existed between the original receptor and the message.’ The story must seem as natural for the readers of the target text as it is for the readers of the source text.

So my first issue was the fact that the caterpillar in the original version is a male caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. The problem was that in French noun have an already predetermine gender and in that case, caterpillar in French is feminine ‘une chenille’ and a butterfly is masculine ‘ un papillon’. I remembered as a kid making the association between the gender of the signifier and the representation I was making of the signified, so ‘une chenille’ in my head was a girl, and ‘un papillon’ was a boy. Because the butterfly is used only once in the whole book and the story is actually about the caterpillar, I decided to change the original male caterpillar into a female caterpillar. I thought it would be more relevant or familiar for children.

The second concern I had was with the listing of food there is at a point in the story, the caterpillar in the source text goes through a lot of different types of food that are quite common for French people but I thought that some changes would be needed in order to make it sound natural for a French child without changing the illustrations. So the aliments I changed even though the words are known and used in French are ‘salami’ and ‘cupcake’. I know these words as an adult but I was not sure that every child would know them. So I replaced them by words close to the original ones but words that I was sure children would know better. I used ‘saucisson’ (which is a type of dry sausage very famous in France) for ‘salami’ and ‘muffin’ (even though it is an English word it is commonly used in France) for ‘cupcake’.  The other touch I thought would make the children go ‘I know that’ was to add ‘de Strasbourg’ (from Strasbourg) behind ‘sausage’ as ‘les saucisses de Strasbourg’, which are a famous specialty from that city that kids often have in canteens.

Even though I took liberties for these examples, I tried to stay as close as possible to the original with the idea always in the back of my mind that children do not really care if it is a translation or not, they just want to hear a nice story with which they feel familiar and comfortable. This is the reason why I thought dynamic equivalence would be the best solution for this translation.

Charlotte Laruelle translates from English into French, currently studying for the MA in literary translation at UEA. Can be contacted at

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