Hands, Alligators (or Crocodiles?), and the Invisible: Theory and Practice in Translating Children’s Literature
Dr B J Epstein, University of East Anglia
Hosted by the Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies, University of Leicester
18th February 2021
What is children’s literature? Where do you start when you begin to translate a book for children? Are there useful theories translators can explore and apply? Are there any challenges specific to children’s literature? And what does translating a book for children look like in practice?
A host of fascinating questions that Dr B J Epstein would delve into during an online seminar hosted by the University of Leicester’s Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies. I was intrigued by the mysterious hands, alligators (or crocodiles?) and the invisible in the title and couldn’t wait to see Epstein’s examples from her own award-winning translations of Swedish children’s books. It promised to be a well-spent Thursday afternoon away from my own translation work.
Epstein first came to Swedish children’s books when trying to learn Swedish during a period spent in Sweden. Unable to sign up for language classes, she decided to teach herself Swedish at the local library with the help of children’s books. It wasn’t as easy as she had imagined, however. She soon realised that the text didn’t necessarily explain the pictures, that the language was often more complicated than she had expected, and that Swedish kidlit was very different to her native US kidlit. As her Swedish improved, friends asked her to translate a website, thus launching her into the field of translation. Curious about how the Swedish view of children and children’s literature differed from the American context, Epstein went on to write her PhD in the UK on the translation of Swedish children’s books.
What is Children’s Literature?
Perhaps the first question to answer is what a child is, suggested Epstein. Not an easy task. Do you define a child by age, brain development, maturity, education, or responsibilities? The answer varies depending on the culture, country, and period in question.
So how do you define children’s literature? Whilst the term covers a huge realm of texts for children from the age of 6 up to teenagers, it is not a genre in itself. Children’s literature contains every genre, just like adult literature: mystery, romance, detective, SF and more. The category doesn't look only at the needs of children, it is also affected by the commercial side and marketing. Adults are often the ones making decisions about the books children read, so marketing strategies try to make things easy for them, focusing primarily on the age range, as opposed to what individual children may enjoy. Power issues also affect categorisation and children may be underestimated. Certain topics may be acceptable in one culture, but a taboo in another.
Particular Challenges for Translating Children’s Literature
Epstein briefly presented a range of challenges she has identified as specific to translation of children’s books.
Theoretical Approaches to Children’s Literature
Epstein has drawn on several theories in her work as she has developed her own practice and approach. She explained how Christiane Nord’s skopos theory on the function and purpose of the text can be useful when considering children’s literature. The Swedish scholar Göte Klingberg’s work on Swedish children’s books had also informed Epstein’s approach. Ritta Oittinen’s book on Translating for children was recommended by Epstein who stressed that it’s important to remember you are translating for children and not simply translating children’s literature. We all have a child image we need to be aware of. Is it the child you were yourself? Your own child? An ideal child? Or perhaps a group of children you have taught? These are factors that affect how we translate for children. Finally, Epstein explained that she prefers to talk about translatorial strategies (as opposed to translation strategies) as a way of incorporating issues of retention, replacement, deletion, explanation and compensation.
After the theory, it was time to move on to some examples from Epstein’s own work. First up was The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg, longlisted for the Greenaway Award. Hands were important in this picture book about Swedish artist Berta Hansen. Epstein needed to think about the right tone to convey the artist’s longing to touch her mother – who suffered from TB and was not allowed to be touched – and the artist’s longing later in life to keep her mother alive through her artwork. Imagery was present in both the words and illustrations. Interestingly, different versions of the book were published in the US and the UK with different titles. Slight adaptations were required to reflect the audience each publisher had in mind and variations in language usage, such as Mama and Papa v Mum and Dad, or cinema v film v movies.
Mapping the Invisible
The second example was drawn from another picture book about an artist, Hilma af Klimt. Mapping the Invisible by Ylva Hillström and Karin Eklund required Epstein to reflect on how to convey the word trolleri in English which has several connotations beyond the idea of ‘magic’. Discussions were also required with the editors around certain patronising views towards women connected with the use of the word ‘ladies’. Epstein also needed to shift the tense of the book from the present tense in Swedish to the past tense which was more suitable in English.
Alligators – or Crocodiles?
The final example Epstein presented was a very entertaining book titled The Book That Doesn’t Want to be Read by Swedish comedian David Sundin. It contains lots of instructions for adults on how to read the text and wordplay is key in making connections between the text and the images. The author also made up a lot of new words which meant that Epstein worked hard to get not only the same sounds across but also the same story. She shared a couple of examples where the author had suggested his own translations and explained how they had collaborated to produce the final version. The biggest challenge was the image of a crocodile which ate up all the Rs on the page – a very tricky text to translate into English that resulted in an impressively creative solution. Epstein suggested calling the crocodile an alligator – the picture was similar enough – and produced a translation where all the As were changed to Os instead. What a feat!
The presentation concluded with a few tips from Epstein on how she approaches translation in practice more generally.
There were a few minutes left at the end for questions and Epstein generously shared a few more examples of her work, such as an operetta she worked on that required finding the perfect balance between music, rhythm and meaning. She also left us with several pointers on how to start out as a kidlit translator: visit the London Book Fair, network, and contact publishers to let them know you’re available to translate samples.
This seminar was undoubtedly one of the most inspiring I’ve attended this year and I know I’ll be coming back to these tips time and time again in the future.
Now it’s time to get my hands on these stunning – and beautifully translated – Swedish children’s books.
Johanna McCalmont is a literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and has a particular passion for children's and YA books. She also enjoys interpreting at literary festivals. Read more of her reviews and author interviews at WorldKidLit.