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As It Happened: PEN American Center “Translating Books for Youth” at the Brooklyn Book Festival

By Savannah Whiting

At the Brooklyn Book Festival, the PEN Translation Committee brought together three translators and one publisher of international children’s books for a conversation about the importance of bringing books from non-English speaking countries to young readers in the United States. Committee co-chair Alex Zucker moderated the panel that included Claudia Zoe Bedrick, Brooklyn-based publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, and translators Mara Lethem, Julia Heim, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann, chair of the PEN Children’s Book Committee.

Zucker started off the discussion by asking why it’s important to translate books for youth. Noting that many publishers don’t mention the original language or the translator’s name, he added, “And why is it important to acknowledge these books as translations?” For many of the panelists, the relationship between text and illustration was key to this question. Bedrick argued that besides introducing children to new perspectives, picture books from other countries broaden children’s sense of aesthetic diversity by exposing them to different types of illustration. As for the importance of giving translators their due, Lethem said: “Word count doesn’t do justice to the challenges that translating books for children presents—there are allusions, illustrations . . .” She spoke of a passage in the Argentinian book Macanudo that baffled her as a translator, in which a rhyme in the original Spanish called for an illustration of a cat with a vacuum cleaner—a rhyme difficult to reproduce in English. 

Bedrick also noted that international children’s books tend to touch on darker and riskier subjects that are very real to children but aren’t represented in children’s books here. “American literary culture is insular, and it’s one of export rather than import,” Lethem chimed in. Translation, the panelists agreed, is a way of remedying American cultural impoverishment. “Many of the folktales children read are translations,” Miller-Lachmann added. “But we don’t see them that way; if we don’t expose children to books from other cultures, they will become second-class citizens in a global world.” Children who grow up in a multicultural world “can work anywhere and with anyone,” Miller-Lachmann said. “Parochialism closes off our options.” Lethem gave an animated response to this: “I was lucky, growing up in Brooklyn,” she said. “I didn’t have to wonder why I’d want to learn a foreign language; I wanted to be able to eavesdrop on the bus, but any time it got good they’d switch to Spanish!”

As the conversation shifted to the differences between translating for adults and for children, the panelists turned to the question of whether translated books for children are or should be Americanized. Heim, one of the English translators of the Italian Geronimo Stilton series (Scholastic), had a lot to say on these points. For adults she translates mostly theoretical texts, so her translations for kids are entirely different. “There’s lots of onomatopoeia, puns, fart jokes . . .” she said. “Italians expose children to difficult language, whereas Americans dumb down the English.” The Stilton series is an extreme example of this. Once Heim hands in her translation to the publisher, Scholastic sends the book to an “Americanizer,” who converts measurements, changes punctuation, shortens sentences, and also makes sure the text fits American cultural norms. “That’s the one thing that gets to me,” she said. “Geronimo in Italian is full of so many types of cheese—it’s camembert this, gruyere that. There’s too much cheese. But in English, what is it? American and Swiss. That’s it. Kids should know about all the cheese!”

Miller-Lachmann also gave an example of Americanization from her own work, holding up the American and Portuguese editions of a book she translated, The World in a Second (O Mundo Num Segundo), each open to an illustration of a barber shop. In the Portuguese, the walls of the barbershop were plastered with pinups. In the American version, the women were replaced with car and travel posters. Flipping to another page in the book, Miller-Lachmann also pointed out a scene that was improved in the American edition to show greater ethnic diversity, a change that was later incorporated back into the Portuguese.

The discussion wrapped up with the question of who the gatekeepers are in children’s literature. An impassioned Lethem urged translators to own their role as ambassadors of international literature. Bedrick agreed, saying we shouldn’t worry too much about pleasing the official gatekeepers: “They’re keeping all kinds of things out. When they disagree with something, it may just be that they’re not asking the right questions. They didn’t read enough books in translation as kids!” As for the dumbing down of language in American children’s books, Bedrick had another compelling answer: “Everything is new to a five-year-old. If you give them complicated words or ideas, that’s just part of the newness of everything.”

Published Sep 30, 2015   Copyright 2015 Savannah Whiting

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