Under the covers of children’s literature translation

Have you heard of Tintin? How about Asterix or the Moomins? These are all classic books from our childhood, but did you know that they are also all translations? If you were asked to name any other translated children’s books, would you be able to?

If you answered no, then don’t worry, you’re part of the majority. Less than 3% of all books sold in the United Kingdom are translated fiction, and of that even fewer are aimed at children. You may be wondering what the big deal is, with the likes of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar to keep our kids occupied. As great as these books are, they do not offer the rich cultural and geographical insight which comes with translated fiction. Children aren’t offered the same chance to explore other countries and peoples through their reading, missing out on an experience which is as educational as it is entertaining.

Let’s look at Asterix for more on this. Originally written in French by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, the series has been translated into over 100 languages and sold over 325 million copies worldwide. Each issue of the comic was set in a different location across Europe, using puns and illustrations to both create humour and to teach young children about the different cultures of the world. This is probably why Asterix translations are popular not only here in the United Kingdom, but across the whole of Europe.

What makes the Asterix translations even more impressive is the fact that Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge were able to keep many of the puns and jokes from the original French. A great deal of word-play relies on coincidences or concepts from a specific language and culture, meaning the humour or sense of a sentence can be lost through a literal translation. Bell and Hockridge instead focused on creatively translating the text, to make sure that the stories were as entertaining and informative as the originals, while also making complete sense to a young British reader.

We see similar creative translation in the Adventures of Tintin comics, translated into English from the original Belgian pieces by George Remi. Tintin has been translated into 70 languages, with over 200 million copies sold – and counting. Remi included a lot of word-play and puns to keep his young readers laughing as they followed the stories of their favourite Belgian reporter, but again these jokes are difficult to translate. The British publishers of the series worked closely with Remi to ensure that the original humour and style was also present in the English, so that the likes of Professor Calculus, the intelligent yet partially deaf scientist, would gain the laughs that they had done previously. Again, this is a tricky process and isn’t possible with automatic or computer-generated translations.

Fortunately, the numbers of translated children’s books are on the rise. Publishers like Pushkin Press and Gecko Press are beginning to release growing numbers of translated works of children’s fiction, recognising the usefulness of literature for teaching our kids about the different cultures and countries of the world. So the next time you’re out shopping, why not pop into a book store and see what you could pick up for your child?