Translating Picture Books: Why Don’t We Care?
So I’m having lunch with author Jeff Baron (I REPRESENT SEAN ROSEN) the other day and we’re talking about his play VISITING MR. GREEN. It’s a remarkably popular work, and has had debuts all over the world. The topic naturally turned to translation and Jeff mentioned that he takes an active role in reading and critiquing the various translations of his work. This got me to thinking about translated children’s books. Not the foreign titles that are translated into English, but the American books that are translated into other languages around the world.
The fact of the matter is that the time and care and attention that Jeff has pored into the translations of his staged productions do not have much of a children’s book correlation. American authors, by and large, don’t tend to care what the translated versions of their stories sound like. And even if they do, I don’t think there’s a publisher contract out there that gives the author creative control over translation (you may feel free to correct me on this).
Authors care about the translations of the titles of their books, of course. Jeff Kinney, for example, has gotten a lot of laughs from the fact that DIARY OF A WIMPY KID couldn’t be directly translated into German because there is no German equivalent for the word “wimpy”. Many authors, as it happens, enjoy seeing the different covers and titles of their books worldwide. How many, I wonder, take it a step further and translate back their own books so that they can see how their words have been changed? After all, if you’re going to be known to a foreign nation solely through your writing, wouldn’t you want that writing to be as pitch perfect and accurate as possible?
For a time I had some fun collecting various editions of Harry Potter from around the world. Indeed, I have quite the little collection. My favorite of all these were the various editions of HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS. Why? The anagram. At one point in the story the words “TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE” turn into “I AM LORD VOLDEMORT” (should I have said “spoiler alert”?). In enjoying the various iterations of that anagram my husband and I noticed that in many cases the very names of the characters had changed. Two of my favorites –
Italian: “Tom Orvoloson Riddle” becomes “Son io Lord Voldemort”.
Czech: “Tom Rojvol Raddle” becomes “Ja Lord Voldemort”.
I’ve searched and searched for a website where someone comments on the changes in a foreign edition of one of the HP books but so far no go.
So I’m going to throw this one out to the authors out there, and not just those of the American persuasion. I want to know if in other countries writers care more about their English translations than we do about our foreign ones. Perhaps they don’t. Maybe no one cares. Maybe everyone does on some level. And are there authors here that have offered to personally oversee the translations of their books? Likely, but is it allowed? Will it ever be?
Much to chew on.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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