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How many children’s books can you think of which have been published in the UK but were originally written in another European language? Do a Google search and some will easily be found but most of us probably couldn’t instantly recall many of them.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on translated books for children called “A World beyond Alice” with David Almond. Being World Book Day today I thought it was a very relevant topic particularly as the broadcast had prompted me to think about how little regard I give to where an author has come from. I could argue that it doesn’t matter. As long as the book is of high quality and can entertain and teach my children (and often myself) a thing or two about life, imagination, reading and writing, do I really need to know which country the author originates from? However, after listening to this discussion I realised that to dismiss it could mean my family and I are missing out on a whole new perspective and way of thinking about the world and to actively seek and experience these books could challenge our outlook and force us to ask questions we have not previously considered.
So why are so few well known over here? One reason may be that the number of children’s books published in the UK with foreign origins compared to the number of those that are originally written in English is minuscule. In fact the radio discussion quoted a meagre ”3% of children’s books in the UK has been translated from other languages.” Barr a few specialist publishers out there, this is largely due to the UK publishers focusing on exporting our books opposed to importing others.
We would be totally naïve and even arrogant if we thought this lack was due to only UK writers earning the prestigious awards. The talent is universal so why aren’t these books being translated? To introduce more foreign writers to the UK could be a means of bringing people together by creating a better understanding and acceptance of different cultures and teach children the value of other cultures from an early age. Foreign authors will have experienced different historical influences and culturally accepted norms which can only lead to new outlooks and expectations which they can pass on through their books. So it is they who are in a prime position to offer fresh interpretations, lead original stories in an unexpected direction and maybe even challenge our own cultural views and questions.
Although every country is comprised of unique individuals, within that same country each unique individual still shares a degree of common characteristics with the others and it is these common characteristics which define their country’s culture and makes it what it is. Then there’s love, hope, fear and friendship which are the basic needs and feelings common to all humans regardless of race, background and cultural beliefs. It is through these united desires and emotions that foreign books can appeal and create a wider understanding of universal similarities and help take down the cultural blockades we have built. Foreign books could show our children how to celebrate the similarities at the same time as opening their minds and encouraging them to understand that differences are ok too.
There are some classic examples of instantly recognisable authors from outside the UK who have proven to become an accepted part of our childhood book culture and continue to be enjoyed by many today but at the same time whilst compiling this list below I found the examples were not exactly tumbling off the bookshelves in droves!
Hans Christian Anderson (Danish): The Emperor’s New Clothes (translated by Naomi Lewis) and Thumbelina (translated by Erick Haugaard).
Tove Jansson (Finnish): Moomin series (translated by Elizabeth Portch, Thomas Warburton and Kinglsey Hart).
Astrid Lindgren (Swedish): Pippi Longstocking (translated by Edna Hurup). A new edition has recently been translated by Tiina Nunnally and illustrated by Lauren Child.
Alf Proysen (Norwegian): Mrs Pepperpot series (translated by Marianne Helweg).
Rene Goscinny (French): Asterix (translated by Derek Hockridge & Anthea Bell).
The reasons why they are not being translated is certainly not so easily identifiable. The Radio 4 speakers discussed the reluctance within the UK book chains to stock translated books which evidently makes it increasingly difficult to spread the word and there’s no escaping the fact it is a more costly route but the reasons appear to stem far deeper than mere monetary concerns. It has already been mentioned that past experience has shown very few of these books live on to become timeless classics so maybe the cultural differences just don’t translate so well.
A successful translation needs to convey the spirit, the humour, the essence and the meaning of the original book. This is no mean feat and if it is written in rhyme this imposes a whole additional set of limitations to negotiate. So is it that the true message of a book is in danger of being lost in the translation? In terms of translating a picture book opposed to a full text book the translated story can often come into its own in this instance as the illustrations can serve to enhance the translation by expressing feelings and beliefs and intentions which otherwise may not translate as poignantly into words.
Cornelia Funke the German author of the Inkheart trilogy made an interesting comment on the Radio 4 programme. It turns out that it is not just a case of the UK publishers shying away from publishing them due to marketing limitations but our European counterparts are also not actively promoting their books to us either. Apparently it is not typical in Europe to have an agent like we do in the UK and it is usually the agent who takes on the role of seeking foreign language rights.
Whatever the reasons are, there’s no doubt there is an element of risk involved in introducing more foreign books to the UK market as it would inevitably be a step outside of many people’s comfort zones and expectations of a what a children’s book should be like in the UK and until we become more accepting of a new approach it is probably not going to be pushed by publishers on either side of the water.