Thursday, 10 April 2014

Translating Arkady Gaidar’s The Blue Cup: the complex nature of children’s literature

For the past few weeks, I have been absorbed in the translation of children’s literature. Before looking into this area of translation, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected it to be easy to translate children’s literature, as any literary text will pose its own particular set of problems, but I certainly hadn’t expected it to be one of the most challenging and complicated areas of translation.  

First of all, defining what does and doesn’t constitute children’s literature is problematic; should we define it as literature that has been written for children? Or as works of literature that children choose to read for themselves? What is a child? Can we come to a complete definition of a child, and therefore firmly conclude what children’s requirements are with regards to literature? Furthermore, when we translate cross-culturally, what may be considered appropriate for children in one culture may not be considered appropriate for children in another, how can translators deal with such instances, while avoiding the manipulation of their readers?

I have been working on a translation of The Blue Cup by Arkady Gaidar, a children’s story written in Soviet Russia.  Many aspects of the text have been heavily influenced by the Socialist Realist doctrine of the time; it presents the reader with idealisations of work, industrialization, the Russian countryside and of the Red Army, for example, and some could consider such a text unworthy of translation into English for Western children, as the underlying ideology of such a text is not fully convergent with the ideology of Western culture, and may therefore be considered harmful and manipulative.

However, what prompted me to translate this particular text is its fragmentary nature; despite being heavily influenced by the ideology of its time, this text is predominantly subversive and, I would therefore argue, valuable for children. The Blue Cup is a story about a Russian family (a mother, father and daughter) on holiday at a cabin in the countryside. The mother takes to nagging the father and daughter (Svetlana) about all kinds of chores, not allowing them to play and enjoy themselves whilst on holiday.  The final straw comes when she accuses them of breaking her blue cup and in an act of defiance they decide to leave for an adventure across the Russian countryside. It is through Svetlana and her father’s close relationship that this text comes to be subversive, as the father introduces Svetlana to the emotional complexities of the adult world; through allowing his daughter to come into contact with a variety of people and discussing issues such as war and anti-Semitism, and by confiding in her his doubts with regards to the mother’s love for him. Furthermore, and most importantly, in their defiance of the mother, the father teaches Svetlana to challenge over-bearing authority.  In these instances I therefore paid particular attention to the nuances of the language used by Svetlana and her father when addressing each other.

It was extremely difficult to decide how to deal with aspects of the text that were conventional for its time, as children would not be aware of the socio-historical context and could consequently be open to manipulation; I had therefore considered changing or even removing some aspects of the text. However, I have come to the conclusion that it would be short-sighted to alter or remove these aspects. Precisely because Western children will lack the socio-historical context that would allow these images to be understood as part of a certain ideology, these idealisations will be no more harmful than the idealisations of work and the British countryside in children’s stories such as Thomas the Tank Engine or Postman Pat. Furthermore the underlying ideology will not be consistently supported by surrounding discourse; and therefore these depictions will do little more than allow children to come into contact with ‘the foreign’, displacing them for a short time from their own culture. I have come to believe that translating a variety of children’s literature is therefore necessary and vital to encourage a multiplicity of world views within children, and not to simply limit them to the confines of their own.


Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is

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