Thursday, 25 April 2013

‘Foreign lands’ in translations for children

Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad on foreign lands.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Before studying it on the MA in Literary Translation, I hadn’t really given much thought to the issue of translating for children. Which is strange, perhaps, given that one of the stories I loved most as a child was a translated one: Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives (also a favourite of the writer Michael Rosen, who is due to give a talk on the book at the Brighton Festival in May.)

The fact that Emil and the Detectives had been translated from German really didn’t matter to me when I read it as a child. What I was interested in were the characters, and the twists and turns of the plot. I certainly don’t remember being put off by what was ‘foreign’ in the story. The question of foreignness in a translated text and how it impacts upon young readers is one I find fascinating, having now explored some of the issues surrounding children’s literature and translating for young readers in more depth.

Do children dislike foreignness in texts, tolerate it, or positively relish it? And is that even a valid question to ask, since it lumps all children together under one umbrella? Children’s reading tastes vary enormously, just as adults’ do; some young readers are more willing to tolerate uncertainty than others, some love strange names or made-up words, some like fantasy and some like football stories. Factors such as age, gender and reading confidence may well come into play here, and a translator needs to bear these in mind when thinking about the target audience for any given translation. But even an individual child’s reading tastes can vary from week to week or from book to book. We should not assume we can always predict what children will enjoy or want to persevere with. Author Gillian Avery celebrates ‘the encouraging thought that you never know what [a child] is going to make of the material with which you confront him’ (1976:33).

Translators for children need to be careful, then, not to jump to conclusions about which elements of a source text their target audience will be interested in or able to cope with. This includes elements specific to the source language or culture – such as names of people or places or historical or literary allusions – that could potentially be unfamiliar to young readers in the target culture (what Ritva Leppihalme refers to as ‘culture bumps’, 1997). When I translated part of a German children’s book called Jette (aimed at readers of twelve and over) I came across several culture-bound elements which I felt might pose a problem for English-speaking readers of my translation.

Names of people and places didn’t actually fall into this category – I retained most of the characters’ original German names unaltered in my translation, knowing that children ‘can and do take delight in the sound and shape of unfamiliar names’ (Lathey, 2006:7). I did adapt the spelling of a couple of names – for instance, I changed the protagonist’s name, Jette (pronounced ‘yetter’), to Etta – but I only adopted this strategy when I felt that the spelling of the German name would cause major pronunciation difficulties in English.

However, when it came to some of the other culture-specific aspects of the text, I felt that a little more intervention was needed. The historical references found at several points in the book were a case in point. The extract I translated contained references to Hitler, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ‘Ossis and Wessis’ (nicknames referring to the citizens of East and West Germany in the era of the Iron Curtain). I was determined not to delete the references altogether, even though I knew they would quite possibly prove challenging for English-speaking child readers. My feeling was that part of the value of translating this particular book was surely to give English-speaking children an insight into Germany past and present. Göte Klingberg maintains that ‘one of the aims of translating children’s books must be to further the international outlook and the international understanding of young readers’ (1978:86). While I don’t think that this necessarily holds true for every translation, I felt that in this instance the historical references were so central to the text and to an understanding of Germany that it wouldn’t be appropriate to remove them.

Equally, though, if I’d retained them in translation exactly as they were I would have been failing to acknowledge an important fact: that the historical events in question are unlikely to be as familiar to UK children as to German children. I therefore decided to make some additions which would to help explain the references, and make them more accessible to my young target audience. At the same time, I didn’t want to turn an exciting story into a history lesson. I needed to work the explanations into the narrative unobtrusively. It is perfectly possible to do this in translation: Gillian Lathey notes that ‘[a] neatly disguised insertion conveys the necessary culture-specific information without jarring the narrative or alienating the young reader’ (2010:179). I inserted extra information ‘disguised’ as dialogue and free indirect discourse, in the hope that this would prevent the translation sounding too didactic while still helping readers to understand the cultural allusions.

Van Coillie and Verschueren point out that today ‘more and more translators, out of respect for the original text and because they want to bring children into contact with other cultures, choose to retain a degree of ‘foreignness’ in their translations’ (2006: viii). To me this shows an encouraging faith in children’s ability to tackle what is new and unfamiliar. Yes, ‘foreignness’ in a text may present a challenge – but it may also appeal to children’s curiosity, fire their imaginations, enable them (to borrow Robert Louis Stevenson’s words) to ‘look abroad on foreign lands’. And that is an opportunity I don’t think we should deny them.


Romy Fursland translates from German and French into English. She is studying for the MA in Literary Translation at UEA and is currently translating a selection of contemporary German poetry for the Translating ‘Live’ Poetry project organised by UCL and Poet In The City (



Avery, G.  in Fox et al (eds) Writers, Critics and Children, 1976

Leppihalme, R. Culture Bumps: An Empirical Approach to the Translation of Allusions, 1997

Lathey, G.  The Translation of Children’s Literature: a Reader, 2006

---- The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers, 2010

Klingberg, G. in Klingberg et al (eds) Children’s Books in Translation: The Situation and the Problems, 1978

Van Coillie, J. and Verschueren, W. Children’s Literature in Translation: Challenges and Strategies, 2006

Thursday, 18 April 2013

“What if ‘adapted from’ in literature could also mean ‘translated from’?”

I would like to write about the experience I had working on the essay for the module Process and Product. When I started the MA in literary translation, I had a fixed idea on what was a translation and what was not. In my naïve opinion, translations had to be perfect mirroring reproductions of the source text and it was not the translator’s job to include her or his subjectivity. After spending two semesters working on translations, I slowly realised that the perfect translation was impossible. The awareness of this impossibility became the liberating factor that allowed me to call my children’s short story adaptation of Jacques Attali’s book, A brief history of the future a translation. Why? Because it was apparent to me that the process of my adaptation was identical to the process of any other translation. Even though the target text was far more creative than any target text I had ever done, I have never written a more meaningful and purposeful translation.

Attali is a French economist and author, he wrote in this book, published in2006, about the next fifty years of the planet. He explains basically what will happen according to him, what plausible future our behaviour is leading to. But he also makes clear that there is no way to know for sure what is awaiting us but he writes: ‘Finally, I want to believe that the horror of the future predicted here will contribute to make it impossible.’ (personal translation from Attali 2006: 391) In my researches I discovered that three French men have written a series of graphic novels adaptation for adults from Attali’s book. They created a whole story line with plot and characters but it is all based on the future Attali describes. Somehow, this very economical, political book had become very accessible even enjoyable and Attali’s words had spread. When I read the book with the intention of translating it, it seemed evident to me that I wished to translate it for children and therefore I would have to make it accessible to them.

What better audience than children? They will be the first affected with what will happen and yet they are so hard to address to with such complex issues. However, Jean Boase-Beier and Michael Holman (1998: 17) wrote in The Practices of Literary Translation: Constraints and Creativity that ‘the constraints imposed by the presence of a source text empower and enhance the creativity of the translation act by placing the translator in a position of striving to overcome them.’ For this challenging translation, I had to produce a voice and a story that would be enjoyable and relevant for readers between the ages of 11 and 13 and to keep real traces of Jacques Attali’s work. So I created the story of Amy a 12-year-old living in 2073 on what is left of England who finds in her granddad’s study a mysterious paper diary. This discovery leads to a conversation between the little girl and her grandfather about his life and the adventures he had as a transhuman (Attali’s concept of an altruism movement which will help the world to survive what he calls the ‘hyperempire’ and ‘hyperconflict’). Papy, the granddad was born in 2001, which is approximately the year of birth of the readers, so there is a double connexion between the readers and both characters. I had to explain, with accessible words, concepts and ideas from the source text. Papy’s character was very useful as he allowed me to employ words and structures of sentences that 12 year old would not say but would understand. He was definitely a bridge between the source text and the target readers.

In this exercise, maximal relevance was required, as Boase-Beier defines it, ‘Maximal relevance, when applied to the reading of a literary text, suggests that the way the text is formulated will be seen by the reader as especially significant.’ (2006: 49)  Even though relevance was a challenge, I also had constraints from the source text and the author’s intentions, as well as having to take into account my target readers’ background and expectations. All the difficulties encountered in the process of this piece of work made me view literary adaptations as translations more than ever before.

Charlotte Laruelle translates from English into French, currently doing the MA in literary translation at UEA. Contact:


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Suitable for ages 3 to 103: when children’s books aren’t just for children

I love Winnie the Pooh. There, my secret’s out. I even have two pairs of Winnie the Pooh pyjamas (though on second thoughts, maybe I should keep that one to myself). A. A. Milne’s tales of a bear and his forest companions were a big part of my childhood and when I recently settled down for a nostalgic return to One Hundred Acre Wood (please don’t judge, it’s a stressful term), I realised that Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are books for adults too.  It’s actually quite common in Britain for writers to create children’s books with dual addressivity (think Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit). The humour of Winnie the Pooh is specifically aimed at adults as well as children. In fact Winnie the Pooh has a cult status among many young adults (I’m not alone!) and is one of Britain’s best loved children’s books. Emer O’Sullivan wrote an article for New Comparison in 1993 explaining that the book’s charm comes from representing ‘a utopia’, ‘a safe world in which the main occupations are eating, exploration and visiting friends’ (1993: 114). Furthermore, A. A. Milne pokes fun at real life by parodying it through animals.

What O’Sullivan’s article then goes on to examine is of crucial importance for translation: how do you keep this duality in translation? Especially if the target culture does not have a tradition of writing children’s books aimed at anyone apart from children (although how one defines a child and at what age childhood ends is a whole other kettle of fish). O’Sullivan concentrates on the translations of these books into German which have completely ignored the dual element of the texts and aimed them only at children. She says that the first German edition which was published in 1928 and translated by Edith Lotte Schiffer ‘was never more than a moderately successful children’s book [...] it seems reasonable to claim that the comparative lack of status of this translation is a consequence of the way in which aspects which appeal and are addressed to adult readers were translated into German’ (2005: 116). For example, instead of being bitter and sarcastic, Eeyore is reduced to a sad, moaning creature (1993: 117-118).

On the other hand, the Spanish translation by Isabel Gortazar from 2000 seems to have tried to maintain these elements, aiming to make adults laugh as much as children.  When Pooh and his friends go on an ‘expotition’ (Pooh’s word) to find the North Pole, Eeyore says in typically sarcastic fashion, ‘we can look for the North Pole or we can play ‘’Here we go gathering Nuts and May’’ with the end part of an ant’s nest. It’s all the same to me.’ The Spanish version has ‘por mí, podemos ir a descubrir el Polo Norte o dedicarnos a jugar a policies y ladrones. Me da exactamente igual.’ (We could go to find the North Pole or we could play policies and robbers. It’s all the same to me). In the original Eeyore compares going to the North Pole with the idea of playing ‘gathering nuts and may’. But he subtly equates the trip with an absurd version of the game using the ant’s nest. The Spanish makes a play on the game cops and robbers by using ‘polices’ which means nothing in Spanish but is close to policía (police) and obviously looks like a funny plural form of the English ‘police’ which is incorrect. Eeyore remains highly ironic throughout the translation. At a party held for Pooh Bear, Eeyore gets the wrong end of the stick and thinks it’s his party. Upon discovering that he is wrong he says: ‘‘After all, one can’t complain. I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘’Bother!’’ The Social Round. Always something going on.’’ In Spanish he says: ‘’Después de todo, no sé de qué me quejo. Tengo amigos. Ayer mismo alguien me dirigió la palabra. Y no hace ni una semana que Conejo chocó conmigo y dijo, ‘¡Canastos!’ Una intensa vida social." (After everything, I can’t complain. I have friends. Yesterday someone spoke to me. And not even a week ago Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Oh gosh!’ Such an intense social life).  It’s clear that Eeyore’s humorous pessimism is alive and well in Spanish.

Generally speaking adults are the ones who buy children’s books and they may well read them aloud to their children, while some may be uncomfortable with the power of adults over the world of children’s literature (they write the book, translate it, publish it and review it) it is undeniable that for a children’s book to garner success it must appeal to adults in some way. Another reason why it is so important to keep any dual addressivity is because it raises the status of the subsystem children’s literature within the wider literary polysystem. Children’s literature is woefully overlooked in translation, especially anything more than picture books and so getting adults involved is a key strategy.  When translators efface certain elements of the source text they’re stamping the text with what Riita Oittinen calls their child image – the ideal child, based on their own childhood and children today, who they have in mind when they write the book. However, some translators of children’s literature need to think about their adult image too. There’s more to consider than the child tucked up in bed waiting for their bedtime story, as translators we can’t forget the adult charged with reading it aloud. When I have children they’ll be hearing Winnie the Pooh whether they like it or not!

For more information see:

O’Sullivan, Emer. (1993), ‘The Fate of the Dual Addressee in the Translation of Children’s Literature’ in New Comparison, no. 16, pp. 109-119.

O'Sullivan, Emer. (2005), Comparative Children's Literature. London and New York: Routledge.

Emily Rose translates from French and Spanish into English and is currently doing an internship with the BCLT. Contact her here: