April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Translation Blues | Consider the Source

Marc 2This semester, I have the good fortune of teaching a class on international children’s books at Rutgers. In April, many of my students will be coming with me to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy. While working on their first assignment, these students made a discovery, which has become a cause I would like to share with you: how—all too often—publishers minimize the origin of a book first published in another country, leaving the translator off the cover, and, in effect, passing the book as American.

Let’s first clear the ground: I understand that very few books published outside the United States are later published in this country—two percent of the annual production of children’s books in the United States would be a generous estimate given my research. I could fill many columns with a discussion of why that is, and how this lamentable underrepresentation is both related to and distinct from the focus of the We Need Diverse Books effort. But my goal today is not to question why we don’t have more books with an international point of view, art style, voice, or approach to history; rather, I want to explore what becomes of the foreign books that are eventually published here and in Canada. A wildly disproportionate share of those titles surely come from houses such as Enchanted Lion, Kane Miller, Eerdmans, North-South, Minedition, and Groundwood, publishers that are clear about the origins of their books and honor the texts’ translators. What about the other publishers?

When my students went to the stacks looking for books in translation, including Batchelder Award winners and honorees and titles recognized by the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY), often they had to turn to the copyright page and bring out the magnifying glass in order to divine where a volume was first published. Translators were invisible, or merely given a tiny bibliographic credit; they certainly weren’t featured. Yet, as one student pointed out, there are two distinct translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. She wanted to compare them. How many patrons understand that there is more than one version of that classic? Another student realized that she had never thought of The Diary of Anne Frank as translated. How might we read it differently with a new translation? We all noticed the difference between books for young readers and those for adults: with adult titles (and, as Dr. Junko Yokota pointed out to us, as in other countries for all books) the translator is often featured. Critics and discerning readers follow translators—and look forward to how a particular person will tackle a book. Translation is understood to be an art, an act of creation, not the mechanical echo of a text in a new language. Are U.S. readers familiar with the names Elisa Amado, Claudia Bedrick, Laura Watkinson, Paula Ayer, and Anthea Bell? They should be. All are well-regarded translators in the world of children’s lit.

Some may ask if the term art applies to the limited words of a 32-page picture book. Necessarily, yes. Each word in a spoken language has a sound, a rhythm, a cultural resonance as well as a literal meaning (a version of this variation is also true of signed languages). A translator must always determine which words are most appropriate in a given instance, factoring in literal meaning, resonance, rhyme, or familiarity in the new language. Ignoring translators suggests that some abstract, omniscient function was able to render one tongue into another. As Dr. Annette Goldsmith told my class (based on a talk given by Elena Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein), translators are “enablers.”

So here comes the question, which leads to the cause outlined below. Why do U.S. publishers downplay translation? Some students speculated that parents might resist the foreign. Or that translation suggests the book will be odd, difficult, or challenging to read. When a publisher releases a title whose creators are unknown in the United States, does the house feel it must focus on the title’s universal appeal? That may be true in retail, but not in a library. Must we always claim that every child feels this or that—rather than that a book depicts a child from somewhere far away and what he or she experiences?

Global awareness is everywhere—beginning with the restaurants we frequent that offer every variety of food. News feeds from around the globe fill our phones, tablets, and computer screens. We all know that weather patterns, diseases, economic conditions from the entire planet shape our lives. Many of us are immigrants, have relatives that live elsewhere, or have neighbors who were born in another country. More and more teenagers study abroad, and families host exchange students. Don’t we want to feature a global perspective in our libraries?

This is the problem: it is very unlikely that a child, parent, or teacher will learn that the book came from outside the United States if the book does not have the translator cited on its cover. But librarians can look at their catalogs, identify translated works, and then create programs that highlight the glorious truth that some selections in their collection hail from elsewhere. Some programming—such as that for a Day of the Dead event—may naturally feature books from other countries. But what about designing programs around international titles?

My students’ encounter with difficult-to-discover book origins was consciousness-raising for me. It reminded me of that day at the American Library Association (ALA) conference in 1997, when Michael Cart organized a panel on young adult books that led to the creation of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. At that time no prize had been established for books published for teens over the age of 14; we fixed that. Translators do not get their due. We, too, can fix that.

As I was writing this column, I learned that the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is launching an initiative to work with librarians. As ALTA explains, translators could, for example, suggest titles to add to collections, in foreign languages and in English translation. In turn, libraries will be able to draw attention to the subtle and caring work of translators. The group would like to host a panel at a future ALA conference introducing translators and librarians working together to build bridges. Anyone who would like to be part of this effort should contact Rachel Hildebrant at rehildebrandt@gmail.com.

It’s time for librarians to help international books strut their stuff—to be visible introductions to ways of thinking, seeing, and feeling that expand our sense of what it is to be alive in the world.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. Marc, so appreciate this post. I agree with you that translating is an art and should be more recognized here in the US. Something that may be of interest to you and your students — some fascinating work that has been done around the translation of Alice in Wonderland. This past fall there was a seminal conference devoted to this at the Grolier Club and a three volume book (years in the works) came out too. You can learn more at http://aliceinaworldofwonderlands.com/

    • marc aronson says:


      Thank you, I will share the link with my class. ALTA is taking about meeting at Annual in June to plan for a larger presence the following summer. If you will be at Annual and are interested in joining us (and that goes for anyone reading this) please let me know.

  2. Rachel Hildebrandt says:

    Thanks again, Marc, for this great article! Here are a few ideas our library-translation group has been discussing. We would welcome your comments on these and any other ideas you may have for raising awareness of the significance of literature in translation within libraries.

    1) Create a searchable database of new works recently published and forthcoming organized by language, region, genre, and gender (List would include works from all across the English-speaking countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, English-language publishers in other countries
    – What types of information would be the most useful for librarians?
    Short Summary, ISBN, Publisher, Distributor, Wholesale Price
    – Search criteria: age categories, fiction/nonfiction/poetry, fiction genres/nonfiction topics, author gender, original publication date/era, language, mono- or bilingual publication, country of origin, continent of origin
    – What platform would be optimal for the library community?
    – For ACRL, the list could be expanded to include scholarly publications

    2) Create annual “shadow groups” for librarians for the Batchelder, BTBA, and Man Booker Prize lists, as well as other relevant international and translated literature prizes (long and short)
    – The goal here would be for the consulting translators to pull together minimalist reading guides for the lists with cultural, author, and translator information

    3) Create annual lists of international books keyed to themes already being promoted by libraries: Black History, Romance/Valentine’s, Women’s History, banned books, seasonal, age (YA and adult works), other themes?
    – This list could be pulled together by a group of translators around the world in collaboration with interested publishers and editors