Children’s Books: An English Translation

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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!

The Emporer's New Clothes Moomin pippi longstocking Mrs Pepperpot Asterix

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).

B_UZ_VSMarcus Pfister (German): The Rainbow Fish (translated by Alison James).

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.

Inkheart TrilogyCornelia 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.

A Sensitive Ban or a Senseless Plan?


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Last week the Daily Mail published an article saying the Oxford University Press had banned the mention of sausages, pigs or anything deemed pork related from their children’s books. Shock, horror! What monster would demand that our children can’t read books like Peppa Pig or Olivia anymore? On its own this might seem ludicrous but this is by no means a new censorship. It has not only been in the OUP’s guidelines for some time already but this topic has been in and out of the newspapers for years. For example this 2003 article in the Guardian talks of pig books being banned in schools for exactly this reason and it was the Muslim Council of Britain who was quoted as trying to stop the “well-intentioned but misguided” ban.

Furthermore The Express in 2007 reported a Church of England school was told by a music festival panel that they could not perform the Three Little Pigs unless they changed it to Three Little Puppies for fear of offending any Muslims in the audience, (anyone familiar with Islamic teachings on the subject of dogs would understand the irony of that one!). Again it was Muslim Groups who were quoted as saying “their religion only stops them eating pork or touching a pig – not singing or talking about them.”

Of course last weeks revelation again prompted a whole barrage of articles from several newspapers on how ridiculous this sounded and in the OUP’s defence the Telegraph reported “a spokesman for the OUP said” (hang on shouldn’t that be spokesperson!) it was introduced to “encourage some authors of educational materials respectfully to consider cultural differences and sensitivities.”

Ok, let’s look at this from the publisher’s point of view. Why do publishers “consider cultural differences and sensitivities” and not allow complete freedom of speech? The mere nature of the publishing role demands that a book should not only be well written, interesting and entertaining but also needs to be a marketable product. This means that for it to be financially worth publishing it needs to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and remain eligible for selling with foreign language rights. It makes logical sense that a book will only be produced if it is likely to be bought. So it is inevitable that these topics have to be considered from both a moralistic and practical point of view if each book is to remain a positive experience for all potential readers, opposed to a negative one. It’s classic censorship, upholding the publisher’s responsibility to our children. The point being that of course individual beliefs and values should be taken into consideration, but nobody is questioning that. What is being questioned is where the line should be drawn and has it been taken too far in this instance? From the reaction received from many Muslims and Jews it makes me wonder whether this kind of ban is respecting their beliefs or inadvertently trivialising them. Perhaps these bans have touched the fine line between respecting cultural differences to that of being overly cautious and ending up making a huge issue over something that was never there in the first place.

To my mind (as quoted in the Daily Mail article above) a spokesperson for the Jewish Leadership Council put it perfectly.

“Jewish law prohibits eating pork, not the mention of the word, or the animal from which it derives.”

Banishing the word pig or sausage from a book is not going to eradicate its existence from our world and as far as I know they haven’t started eating Peppa Pig in the stories yet – which incidentally would be horrific – I know she likes spaghetti but I very much doubt she likes sausages!  Anyway isn’t it a bit like me saying it’s against my ethics to eat a dog so maybe I’ll stop my children reading books which mention the word dog? Then again perhaps I should suggest meat-based cookery books should be banned on grounds of being offensive to vegetarians!

So I will leave you to ponder over some well-known and much loved classics which at some point have been banned or challenged over a politically correct debate either prior or post publication.

Where the Wild Things AreWhere the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Reasons: psychological issues with “how Max dealt with his emotions” and later for images “promoting witchcraft and supernatural events.”

The LoraxThe Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Reasons: being “anti-consumerism, supporting environmentalism” and “criminalising the forestry commission.”

the Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Reasons: being an “ungodly” influence and “depicting women in strong leadership roles.”

Alice in wonderlandAlice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Reasons: sexual references, talking animals being an insult to humans and the fear that it would encourage drug use.

The giving TreeThe Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Reasons: “sexist” and a “vicious, one-sided relationship.”

Winnie the PoohWinnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne

Reasons: Piglet “might offend Muslim students and their parents,” being “pro-Nazi” and “an insult to God.”

James and the Giant PeachJames and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Reasons: “too scary for the targeted age group, mysticism, sexual inferences, profanity, racism, references to tobacco and alcohol, promoting disobedience, drugs and communism.”

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Reasons: “talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural,” and on grounds of pigs being offensive to Muslims.

And Tango Makes ThreeAnd Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson

Reasons: depicting “homosexuality and same sex parenthood.”