Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Che gelida manina! – baby-talk in translating Where the Wild Things Are

It’s a Saturday night and I have decided to translate Where the Wild Things Are. Sometimes people debate on which books can be considered classics in children’s literature, but about Sendak’s masterpiece there’s absolutely no doubt. And this is the reason why I wanted to translate it on the first place. It’s no secret that I aspire to combine translation with my other great ambition to become a writer, and translating classics for children is my starting point.

What interests me the most are not only the reasons why some children’s books become classics (oh, the list is long…) but also the way authors use words and language. I have a passion for words that words alone cannot describe. Let me put it this way. You know the old ice-breaking game “what would you bring with you to a desert island?”… I would bring a dictionary. Preferably one with synonyms, etymology and collocations. I am mad for words. Give me neologisms to translate, and I will be the happiest translator on Earth.

I approached my first draft of Là dove stanno le cose selvagge with certain boldness. While I was working on it, I had that feeling only translators know: this is the right direction. I was happy with many of the choices I made, every sentence seemed to fit like a glove, but. But.

At some point, I realised that there was something that sounded wrong, almost out of key. I read and re-read my translation, looking for unconvincing verb tenses, superfluous possessives, well-conceived grammatical discrepancies. What was it? What is it that sounds so wrong?

Ohhh. Got it.

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye […]


Le cose selvagge ruggirono terribilmente e digrignarono i terribili denti,

e spalancarono i terribili occhi e mostrarono i terribili artigli,

ma Max salì sulla sua barca e fece ciao con la manina […]


Here’s a gloss of the last sentence, where the off-key note is.


ma Max  salì   sulla  sua  barca  e    fece  ciao  con  la   manina […]

but   Max  stepped  on-the  his     boat    and    did      bye    with   the   little-hand DIM.


La manina. The little hand. It’s back.

Don’t get me wrong, I love diminutives and all kinds of alterations. But I have become very sensitive to using them when addressing to children since I have worked for the British Council in Milan as young learners’ assistant. One of my duties was to walk my caterpillars (pre-primary school children) to the toilet during classes, and one day it happened that I asked one of them to give me their manina (little-hand). My supervisor had heard me and she kindly urged me not to use diminutives with children. After all, what from our point of view is a cute little child hand, from their point of view is… just their hand. Proportions, uh?

I had forgotten about this, but then the manina came back in my translation of Where the Wild Things Are. I did a little bit of research on the topic, and I found that the debate on what expert call “baby-talk” is lively. On one side, “baby-talk” seems to be encouraged because it bonds a strong relationship between parents and children (it is also called parentese), and because it also contributes to children’s mental development; on the other, it is strongly criticised for giving the child a limited repertoire of words, and therefore can inhibit the child’s speech development.

What should the translator do?

Personally, I’ve decided to put away the little hand. Partly because my supervisor’s argument seemed strong enough to me. Then I also thought: what if by using diminutives we contribute to build a wrong child image in children’s literature? How would an Italian child describe Max’s hand? And even if s/he said manina, how can we be sure that s/he has not been influenced by the baby-talk employed by adults that surround him?

I have no answers for these questions, not at the moment. Anyway, I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Where the Wild Things Are is a book to be read aloud by parents to their child, and if they really want to say manina instead of mano, certainly I won’t be the one preventing them from doing that!


See also:

How can child-directed speech facilitate the acquisition of morphology?, by Vera Kempe, Patricia J. Brooks, and Laura Pirott. 2001. Research on Child Language Acquisition: Proceedings of the 8th Conference of the International Association for the Study of Child Language. 1234-1244)    


My name is Elena Traina, I graduated in Lingue e Letterature Straniere at the Università degli Studi di Milano, now I’m studying Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. I translate from English and Spanish into Italian. My main literary interest is children’s literature, but I also like to write and translate poetry and short fiction. I can be reached at elena.traina39@gmail.com.

If you are interested in the MA in Literary Translation, or would like to study at UEA, I also recommend that you take a look at my Italian blog: http://www.elenainuk.blogspot.it