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:

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