Meaning or Music - or More?
On translating children's books.

by The Midwife (a.k.a. Martha Baker)

Martha Baker (also known as The Midwife) is a collection development
librarian. She has been actively interested in the issues of translation
for many years. Still in mid-life, at mid-career, she is occasionally to
be found in mid-flight across the mid-Atlantic, due to long-term
residence in mid-Europe.

"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter VI (Humpty Dumpty), 1871.

"A translation is no translation ... unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it."
John Millington Synge, The Aran Islands, 1907.

" (A literary work's) essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations. But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information—as even a poor translator would admit—the unfathomable, the mysterious, the "poetic," something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?"
Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator" (Introduction to his translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens) 1923.

Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty was apparently quite unconcerned about the actual meaning of any one word, but exulted only in his mastery over words. (It may also be noted, by the way, that Humpty Dumpty was prepared to pay a word extra when he made it "do a lot of work" and mean a great deal—which is perhaps not entirely irrelevant to today's commonly underpaid translator).

J.M. Synge, on the other hand, seems to have been not merely concerned about the words of a poem but with the music conveyed by the whole.

Is that all that is at stake in a translation? The meaning of each word and the aesthetic quality of the whole work? Does this apply to literature for children, too?

Surely now, nearly 500 years after Gutenberg's revolutionary introduction of printing, the major literary languages of the world offer their native speakers abundant reading matter (leaving aside for the moment all those new-fangled talking pictures) to last a lifetime. They encompass works chock-full of linguistic variety, cultural meaning(s) and aesthetic quality. And writers from most countries can travel around the world with ease today, bringing back stories, motifs, and folktales to tell their readers at home.

Why bother with the translations? After all, ever since a mere confusion over words put an end to the construction of the great tower of Babel, hasn't it been clear to everyone that different tongues are meant to keep people separate and apart? The process of translation is in fact a continual reminder of differences between linguistic and cultural systems.
Indeed, the process of translation is a complicated one involving not just translators, but editors and publishers as well. First of all, the translator may choose to delete details, references or whole episodes in order to satisfy the needs or expectations of his or her audience (whereby these could conceivably vary for the child reader and the adult reader-cum-mediator). One example is Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking (Swedish original 1945; English translation 1950). In one of the "modifications" of the German edition—unlike the original or the English translation—Pippi decides not to give her friends Tommy and Annika each one of the pirate pistols she finds in the attic chest. In an added sentence, she declares that children should not play with guns (though she herself does so)!

Secondly, some translators find it wise and appropriate to add details that are lacking in the cultural system of the translator's intended audience. In some, but not all cases, these additions can be justifiably criticized as going too far. A recent example of adding necessary explanations is Cathy Hirano's translation of Kazumi Yumoto's The Friends (1996), in which the Japanese school system must be explained or the status-related use of a Japanese form of the pronoun "you" must be conveyed in different terms. The arguably inappropriate addition of information is described in an article by Emer O'Sullivan, who points out two interesting cases supporting her thesis that "the implied readers of these translations are not identical to the readers of the originals…." Besides other serious changes to the style and tone of the story in the first German translation of John Burningham's Grandpa (1984; Mein Opa und ich, 1984; Grosspapa, 1988) there is even a picture caption for the closing, originally wordless illustration of an empty armchair after Grandpa has died; in the U.S. edition of Michel Gay's French-language picture book Papa Vroum, 1986 (Night Ride, 1987) the translator has not only added further details to the text but substituted a narrative for direct speech, thus taking away an important device in the book, namely the variance between what is shown in the illustrations and what is said.

Thirdly, a story from a different language or culture can be transferred wholly into the geographical realm of the intended audience by removing idiosyncratic elements of the original setting and characters. An example is Peter Härtling's Ben liebt Anna (1979; Ben Loves Anna, 1990). While Anna is from Poland in both versions, the U.S. translation is set in the U.S., thereby avoiding any reference to the social status of Polish migrants of German descent who return to Germany on state-subsidized repatriation programs. The English translation has Anna knowing Polish and Russian rather than Polish and German. Notably, the French, Spanish and Turkish translations of the book retain the original German setting. While this third strategy of "translation" is unusual in literature, it is being increasingly employed in the film versions of literary works. Not only was Erich Kaestner's Das doppelte Lottchen transferred twice to the U.S. (The Parent Trap), but also Roald Dahl's Matilda and The Witches and even Ted Hughes' The Iron Man were moved from the United Kingdom to the U.S.A.

Critics and mediators of children's books usually welcome translated literature on the premise that such works promote "internationalism" or "cultural understanding". Advocates cite numerous reasons why children need to read literary works from countries other than their own. Internationalism generally implies "international exchange", but, as in the political and economic state of world affairs, there is clearly an imbalance of exchange to be found in international children's literature.

The benefits attributed to reading international children's literature go beyond mere pleasure and enjoyment and usually include the transmission of cultural values and attitudes—whether explicit or not. Children's books are hence regarded as an educational tool. In addition, as products available on the market, they are also commodities. Given these two qualities, books in translation might be like Trojan-horses-in-print, bearing between their covers considerably more than just "meaning" and "music".

The original Trojan horse, which was used to transport the bravest, i.e. the very best warriors secretly into the inner enclave of an enemy city, was brought into Troy under the mistaken belief that it was a gift. Might translated authors be suspected of bringing unanticipated, unforeseeable danger into the hands of the young reader? Although there are no explicit warnings against reading translated authors, could the relatively low number of foreign and translated works available in English-speaking countries be understood as an unspoken resistance to foreign influences?

Despite the lip-service to international understanding as a step toward achieving world peace, the potential role of translations as an instrument in this process involves many unresolved issues that will benefit from on-going study, conceptual clarification and debate about the different approaches.

Walter Benjamin, the critic and translator cited above, posits that the essence of a literary work is more than mere "information" that might "serve the reader." In his view, it is the poetic quality of a literary work that should be of primary interest. Is Walter Benjamin's caveat relevant to children's literature? Although his approach disfavours the instrumentalization of literary works as described here, his stance coincides in spirit with that of one staunch advocate of an international outlook on children's literature. In Mary Ørvig's Arbuthnot Honor Lecture in 1972 she acknowledged the natural existence of many barriers to human communication and outlined ways to achieve international understanding. Though she suggested that the linguistic barrier may be one of the easiest to overcome, she stressed that "the world of children's books is not one; there are many."

Are translated books the means or the result of seeking international understanding? In any case, let us hope that the topic of translation—the words, the music, and the (for lack of a prettier word) sub-texts—will keep on inspiring new discussions among the world-wide community of people involved in reading, writing and judging books for children.

Coming up in a future column: how are translated works treated in the
review media? Comments, observations, questions from readers are most
welcome! Please send them to The Midwife

Bibliographic Information

Bell, Anthea, "Translating Verse for Children," Signal, No. 85 (January 1998), p. 3-14.
On the matter of musicality, rhythm, metre, and word-play.

Gunpowder and Sealing-Wax. Nationhood in Children's Literature. A collection of essays edited by Ann Lawson Lucas. Harborough: Troubador Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1899293116.
Papers read at a 1996 conference of the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL) on the question of identity transmitted in literature.

Hirano, Cathy, "Eight Ways to Say You: The Challenges of Translation," The Horn Book Magazine, January/February 1999, p. 34-41.
The linguistic barrier seen from the perspective of a translator for Japanese into English.

Joels, Rosie Webb, "Weaving World Understanding: The Importance of Translations in International Children's Literature," Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 30 (1), 1999, p. 65-81.
A synthesis and commentary on the key writings that formed last century's discussion of the trials, hazards, and stumbling blocks of translating.

O'Sullivan, Emer, "Translating Pictures," Signal, No. 90 (September 1999), p. 167-175; and in European Children's Literature II. Ed. By Penni Cotton (Kingston University, 1998, 109-20).
Two examples (John Burningham and Michel Gay) of how asymmetrical communication in and around children's books plays a role in what content of the original work is or is not translated.

Ørvig, Mary "One world in children's books?" Top of the News, June 1972. p. 399-422.
A wide-ranging consideration of the historical and sociological aspects of children's literature from an international point of view.

Tomlinson, Carl, "Introduction" in Children's Books from Other Countries, edited by Carl Tomlinson. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998. ISBN 0810834472.

Vandergrift, Kay E. Translation and Children's Books.
An extensive bibliography of books and articles on general and specific issues.


Martha Baker

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"Meaning or Music - or More?"
© Martha Baker, 2000.
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