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Five Translators on the Joys and Challenges of Translating Children’s Books
Words without Borders (April 3, 2019)
Emma Ramadan interviewed five translators of children’s books into English—from Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Dutch. According to the translators, their job is the best job in the world. I always thought being a children's librarian was the best job in the world. I guess it depends on whether you prefer solitude or hubbub.
Emma Ramadan: I had translated rhyming poetry before and was up for the challenge of a rhyming picture book. But with rhyming poetry, you can generally permit yourself to adjust a particular image or word choice to maintain the rhyme scheme, while in picture books, the original images correspond to the original text in ways that you might disrupt with even a minor change in translation.”
May there always be a melodious multitude of human languages, if only because translating children’s books sounds like such a wonderful occupation. Could it require such nuanced skills that it won’t be taken over by AI? Puns? Wordplay? Nicknames? Invented languages? Most adults are terrible at these, never mind robots. And wherever book publishing puts profit first, a sameness of content and style evolves. A children’s book from a different country, language, culture can provide readers with new ways of seeing and understanding.
Still, I wonder if a translation of a rhyming picture book can ever be more than a best effort. My rhyming picture book Antarctic Antics was translated from U.S. to British English, seven words changed in all. I agreed to the changes but I’m not happy about the results. My voice, along with subtleties of rhythm, plunge off tiny cliffs. Therefore it’s probably best that I can’t completely appreciate—or even read—the translations of my picture books into other languages. When I receive author copies in Spanish or Danish or Japanese or Korean, I set one copy on a shelf and donate the others to the library.
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat"
(Random House, 2017). Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
*Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus.
The Great Dictionary Caper, illustrated by Eric Comstock (Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
**Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Wild About Books, illustrated by Marc Brown. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). New York Times Bestseller, ALA Notable Book, and winner of the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award.