Translating Children’s Books

Translating Children’s Books

After several fiction and non-fiction books meant for grown-ups, I’ve recently started translating children’s books. More precisely, I had the opportunity to work on two books meant for smaller children, of 7-8 years old, and two other books for older children, let’s say a comfortable +10-years old. Although this does not qualify me to give advice, as I have yet lots to learn, I think I can draw some conclusions.

These are things I came to realise after watching two kids trying to read out loud the stories translated by me. One of them was only 8 and reading a book for slightly older children, while the other was 9, but living in a foreign country, so his vocabulary might not have been as developed as that of a child living in Romania and using the Romanian language full-time. However, they understood the plot, remembered all the details, asked pertinent questions and tried to work out their own scenarios, which is to say they really took pleasure in the book. However, they also had some difficulties, which I don’t know if I should attribute solely to their beginner’s reading skills.

This led me to think about things we take for granted, but which, in children’s case, must be managed cautiously. So here are some common misconceptions about children’s books, and the truth behind them:

  1. They are fun and easy, hence easy to translate.

It’s true that most children’s books are fun, but this is both good and (I’m not going to say ”bad”, but) challenging. It’s nice to work on something interesting and different and amusing, because then your work becomes interesting, and different, and fun. However, while humour makes you feel good, it also means that you have to do your best to render it in the target language so as the children get it. As we all know, humour is not easy to translate, especially since in many cases there is no direct equivalent for a source joke or pun. Therefore, the translators are compelled to create jokes or puns of their own, so as to have the same effect on their young readers.

      2. It’s enough to know how to translate in order to translate a children’s book.

Having experience with translation is useful, but not sufficient. When translating children’s books, we need to keep in mind at all times who the target audience is and what that means in terms of vocabulary. I’ve noticed that sentences are usually short and organised in brief paragraphs, to make reading easier. But what about the words themselves? There’s a bit of a conundrum here: one the one hand, too many difficult or new words may discourage the children from reading or prevent them from fully understanding the text, on the other hand, how else are they supposed to learn new words if not from books? I guess a balance should be reached, the objective being to have a text that is clear, easy to read, with mostly familiar vocabulary, and obvious humour.

    3. Grammar is the same, irrespective of the book or audience.

Yes and no. Of course there are grammar rules everyone needs to observe, but in children’s case, some flexibility is required. I have two examples in mind, to explain what I mean. The first one refers to verbal tenses. In Romanian, there is a tense (perfectul simplu) used primarily for narrations, in writing (just like the French passé simple), and only in a specific region of the country (Oltenia) and in specific circumstances is it also used orally. Although I used to like the way it sounded in books, having grown up with it, and even sometimes preferred it to the more common past tense form (perfectul compus), I realised that children have a hard time reading it. That’s only natural, as they haven’t heard it used before or, at least, not as frequently as the past tense usually employed in every-day speech. So, I think that in children’s books (although this is becoming a trend even in grown-ups’ books), a simple and current language is obviously better.

MUP, Roald DahlThe second example has more to do with creativity. A few days ago, I was reading BFG, by Roald Dahl, which a friend offered me in English. I was so fascinated by the funny, crazy, invented language of the giant, that I simply had to buy the Romanian edition, as well, just for the pleasure and curiosity of comparing the original and the translation. I was happy to discover that the Romanian translation sounded just as great (my friend told me that the German one had seemed to her even funnier than the original, if that’s even possible!). I admired the translator’s resourcefulness and flexibility, and admitted it must have been tremendous and really difficult work to purposefully break the grammar rules and coin words and invent a whole new language, while still keeping it intelligible.

These points may be applicable to all kinds of literature and translation, but I think they are even more important when translating children’s books, because the recipients, in this case, are even more sensitive and imaginative and we want to draw them to this wonderful world of books when they’re young. We have a say in this and even a responsibility not only as adults, parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts, but as translators, as well.

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