Diapers and Mailboxes: Busting myths about children’s literature in translation

By Mohini Gupta

Lawrence Schimel and Daniel Hahn are both celebrated writers and translators, and have made significant contributions to the world of kid-lit through their prolific work. Schimel has written over 120 books ranging from graphic novels to children’s literature, and is the winner of the Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Hahn is an award-winning translator from Portuguese, Spanish and French and has published wide range of books for young readers in translation, from picture books to young adult novels. Their candid conversation with writer and translator Lyn Miller-Lachmann on 2nd June 2020 covered the joys and challenges of translating for younger readers, as well as tackled sensitive issues related to critical global socio-political movements.

This session, titled ‘Children’s Literature in Translation’ was a part of the ‘Translating the Future’ series, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A video recording is now available here.

Here are some of the myths about children’s literature in translation that they busted during this session: 

Myth #1: Translating for young readers is harder because they understand fewer cultural references 

Sweeping generalisations have never led to good things. While it is easy to assume that young readers may not understand as many cultural references as adults, there are finer nuances to consider, especially when categorising them according to different age ranges.

While speaking about young children, Schimel and Hahn introduced the concept of ‘dual readership’ that needs to be taken into account while translating. In Hahn’s words, “it is not the 3-year olds who will go to the bookstore and give their credit card to buy the books”. Children will always be accompanied by an adult while reading—a parent, a teacher or a librarian—so one can rely on adults to explain concepts that they are in a position to do. It is not necessary, then, for translators to over-explain or simplify as much as one imagines they would have to do with young readers.  

Even when it comes to teenagers, it is no longer safe to assume that they are not aware of global, cultural trends due to their access to the digital world. This questions the assumption that translating children’s literature involves different challenges, due to their lack of knowledge about the world—you will find that almost always, the truth is quite the opposite.

Myth #2: Picture books are universal, and transcend cultural boundaries 

While it is tempting to believe that picture books transcend national borders and language, the reality reflects something different. “What comes out of New York is considered universal, and what comes out of Madrid is considered provincial”, observed Schimel. He explained that images such as an American mailbox or New York black-and-yellow taxis are considered universal since they belong to dominant cultures. These are not translated or re-illustrated for other cultures, and even though Spanish children have grown up seeing white taxis, translated picture books make sure they grow up in New York. Power structures and global trends are replicated in the world of children’s literature as well.

This works differently while translating into English. Schimel quoted an example from his translation of a Brazilian book where the parking sign alphabet had to be changed to ‘P’ once it was translated into English. These issues create difficulties in translating picture books across cultures and impact the openness to publish these texts as well, especially amongst Anglophone publishers.

Myth #3: Picture books are easier and less expensive to translate

A huge challenge while translating picture books is to do with the faithfulness demanded by the illustrations. Hahn gave us an example of My Pictures After the Storm, a book he translated where a character was to pronounce words with a blocked nose. For instance, the word ‘orange’ was pronounced as ‘or-ij’. The picture of the orange within the text makes it impossible to stray from the original joke and take liberties, which makes the translation even more difficult.  

While getting the text of a picture book translated may turn out less expensive for a publisher, printing illustrations is way more expensive and requires a lot more investment. This makes it difficult to pitch picture books to publishers, who realise that the book sells on the art work, and do not pay as much attention to the translation of the text. Another issue for translators of non-English texts into English is that they always have to present a sample translation while pitching the translation to a publisher, which is not required in the reverse process.

Another obstacle is in the form of aesthetics—be it colour palettes or the way artists draw human figures in books. Visual and aesthetic styles of illustrators vary from region to region, and this sometimes becomes a reason for their non-inclusion into mainstram English publishing. It is sometimes rejected at first glance due to unfamiliarity. Even the amount of text on every page of an illustrated book can be different across cultures, and becomes a factor that determine its publication in another language. 

Myth #4: Kid lit is not impacted by global, socio-political issues 

In a world where social divisions and political movements have entered our daily consciousness like never before, the session pointed out how children’s literature dynamically interacts with these movements. Hahn mentioned that there are publishers around the world who are asking difficult questions in books, especially to young children. Schimel pointed out how dangerous it is to normalise absences in children’s literature—it is important for books to represent the diversity that exists around them. As a personal commitment, he attempts to translate one author of colour every year. 

Hahn gave us an overview of books that have confronted issues ranging from sexuality to dictatorship with immense charm and lightness; Schimel spoke about an Icelandic book on body positivity that does not shy away from nudity. Hahn also quoted examples from Nordic texts that have been addressing issues of sexuality in books for young readers for the past two to three decades now. He mentioned that these conversations exist in the literary space, without any censorship, and need to be taken into many other cultures and languages. 

Myth #5: Gatekeepers of children’s literature are enemies

Translators comes across varying levels of gatekeeping throughout the translation and publishing process. Countries face different bottlenecks—for instance, the public library system is a crucial factor to be considered while making publishing decisions in the US, but not in the UK. Hahn also mentioned that some publishers have seemingly arbitrary rules about what is acceptable for young children and young adults, and there are possibilities of mitigating words that are taboo in the receiving culture during the translation process.

While admitting that some text may be softened in the target language, Hahn quoted the example of Sendak’s book for children, In the Night Kitchen. Apparently, some librarians felt the nudity in the book was unacceptable, and drew diapers on the toddler in the book! Schimel also spoke about beach scene illustrations being offensive in some cultures, or even the presence of a Christmas tree in a non-religious text. 

Another interesting aspect to consider is the expectation of language in children’s books, as books are also meant to teach them the correct usage of words and language. Schimel talked about the difficulty of using gender-neutral language, especially while translating from English in which words are not as infused with gender as they are in Spanish. In adult books, he mentioned that sometimes the suffix ‘e’ is used instead of ‘o/a’ to denote gender-neutrality (eg. ‘tode’ instead of ‘todos’ or ‘todas’), but these variations may not be acceptable in books for the young who are still learning the rules of language itself. In fact, many languages may not even have existing equivalents or systemic vocabulary to express this. 

After discussing various stages of gatekeeping, the final word of advice given by Hahn was to make gatekeepers your allies, not enemies, since they are the only ones who can be enablers in the process of encouraging young children to read books in the first place.

***

In conclusion, both Schimel and Hahn stressed on the importance of reading extensively while translating for children, especially because diverse cultures have different parameters for assigning age ranges to texts. Something that might be categorised as ‘young adult fiction’ in Spain might be considered middle-grade in another country, and this provides a lot of leeway for translators in the way they approach their work. 

The ultimate aim is to recreate the reading experience for your target audience, and both Schimel and Hahn have been excelling at this for years now! 

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Mohini Gupta

Mohini Gupta is a writer/translator based in New Delhi. She has been the Charles Wallace India Trust Translator-Writer Fellow in 2017, and a translator-in-residence at the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency in 2015. She has written for publications such as Huffington Post, The Caravan, TheWire.in and Scroll.in. Her English-Hindi translations have been published by Tulika Publishers. She now runs the digital multilingual Indian language poetry collective for young readers, Mother Tongue Twisters, and curates conversations on languages, literature and translationFollow her at @mohinigupta28 and @mttandmore.

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