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Children’s Books Found in Translation

By Georgia de Chamberet

Folk Tales and Fairy Tales . . . Outside In: Children’s Writers Found in Translation . . . Win a weekend to see Father Christmas in Lapland! . . .” the promotional flyers for Sian Williams' The Children's Book Show, which first went on tour in 2003, are packed with promise, as they open up new worlds and cultures to children. Every fall, the best children’s writers and illustrators from the UK and abroad hold workshops and talks in venues across the country: John Agard and Grace Nichols, Stefan Casta (trs. Tom Geddes), Fabio Gedda (trs.  Howard Curtis), Erik L’Homme (trs. Ros Schwartz), Michael Morpurgo, Christine Nöstlinger (trs. Anthea Bell), Daniel Pennac (trs. Sarah Ardizzone, illus. Quentin Blake), Michael Rosen, Posy Simmonds, Jessica Souhami ...

Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,” which has a particular resonance when it comes to children’s books since they are written by adults. Strong characters and a good story, well told, matter most. When books are associated with school and endless tests, it kills the pleasure and desire. According to the OECD, reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining academic success. As we sit savoring a pastel de nata in Café Oporto, Williams says, “Children embrace everything that is new. Their imagination is free of preconceptions. The international ambience of The Children’s Book Show is to show children other ways of living. I hope their lives are enriched by it.” Her words echo the spirit behind the Writers and Readers Cooperative, founded in 1974 with her then husband, the late Glenn Thompson. Williams has worked tirelessly to promote literature and translation. In the 1990s, with funding from the Arts Council, she organized promotional book tours with overseas writers. Her own translations include Lalla Romano's The Penumbra and Dacia Maraini’s Isolina. She is currently working on a children’s book by Italo Calvino, La Foresta-Radice-Labirinto.

More than any other area of publishing, translation has always needed visionaries and activists to get the message out into the wider world, even though most readers are not too concerned about where a book comes from. It is paradoxical that a good translation should read as though it was originally written in the target language, yet cultural differences are important since they open the reader’s eyes to a different world. Anthea Bell, grande dame of literary translation, says, “When you are young, you get the meaning by osmosis.” So it does, and does not, matter, that classics like Le Petit Prince and Babar were originally French; Pinocchio, Italian; and Pippi Longstocking, Swedish. I ask Bell how she reconciles this paradox. She says, “You are walking a tightrope the whole time, you can’t describe it without metaphor. It’s like acting.” Her personal favorite of all the children’s books she has translated is Asterix ― particularly the later ones of the “middle period” before René Goscinny died. She sits snug in an armchair surrounded by her beloved Birman cats. “I like to say my translations range from Sigmund Freud to Asterix the Gaul. I would add that when translating puns in Asterix, you are trying to do on purpose what the unconscious mind does by accident.”

Bell comes from a family of sharp-minded wordsmiths. Her father, Adrian Bell, wrote books about the countryside. She wrote the introduction to a recent reprint, Apple Acre, because, “I was just old enough to remember the things he wrote about.” He also composed the first ever Times crossword, which he went on doing for the rest of his life ― “Every clue in his Golden Jubilee crossword had something gold in it.” Her grandfather was deputy editor of the Observer in the early years of the twentieth century. As a child, Bell was an omnivorous reader, “I remember Heidi, about a country girl in alpine meadows, and I was a country girl in the flat East Anglian plain. I did not even know it had been translated from another language, but it opened up a different world―you get that through translation.”  She disliked the ethos of boarding school where she was sent, age thirteen. “Mad keen to get at” the foreign books in the library, she read fast in order to master the language. The first one she read properly―with a torch under the bedclothes―was Theophile Gauthier's Le Capitaine Fracasse.

Translating happened by accident, “Someone came into the National Book League in Albemarle Street asking for someone to give an opinion on a book.” From Ottfried Preussler's The Little Water Sprite, Bell went on to translate numerous children’s books including Goscinny and Sempé’s Le Petit Nicholas, tales by E.T.A. Hoffman, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm “who got some very, very good storytellers such as the former countryman’s wife Dorothea and an old soldier who gave them stories in return for second hand clothes. He was responsible for the big group called the Soldier’s Tales . . . Andersen’s story "The Tinderbox" is based on one of them.” Why it is that some classics travel and some do not remains a mystery. Asterix was a struggle to get published initially as it was deemed “too French.” She is surprised that Phaidon sold American rights to Le Petit Nicholas since the gang of little boys operate in such a different world.

The translator of "adult" classics by Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and W.G. Sebald, Bell also relishes working on contemporary literature and shows me Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light, a saga about three generations of an East German family. Another saga about which she is particularly enthusiastic is Rafik Shami’s The Dark Side of Love, a 1001 Nights of the mid-twentieth century largely set in Damascus. Bell is looking forward to translating Franz Oliver Giesbert’s La cuisinière de Himmler for Atlantic and three children’s books by Erich Kästner for Pushkin Children's Books.

Books for young readers have been used throughout history to propagate new ideologies and sweep away the old order. In the early years of the Russian Revolution, a group of avant-garde artists and poets in Petrograd visualized and wrote about a Brave New World for children―after 1935, the purge of "non-Soviet elements" would extend to them. Inside The Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times ed. Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya is a gorgeous, truly unusual book recently released by Redstone Press. In the Foreword, Philip Pullman writes: “For a few years Russian children’s books were free of the darkness that descended over the Soviet Union, and the light they shed, a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun is here in this book.”

The chilly November weather invites cozying up inside for hours, or else a return to carefree family fun before we are buried under the demands of Christmas. At the end of the Folkestone Book Festival, curated by Geraldine d’Amico, fifty kids from Boulogne, (with no English), will cross the Channel to join fifty kids, (with a little French), from Folkestone Primary School. Award-winning translator, Sarah Ardizzone, will take them through her version of Marjolaine Leray's Little Red Hood using slides, role play and discussions about the challenges of translation, to reveal how a book crosses the English Channel. Vive la différence!  

Published Nov 19, 2013   Copyright 2013 Georgia de Chamberet

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