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

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