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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


When Is The Last Time You Read a Nonfiction Book In Translation?

Over at CCBC they have been talking about Leonard Marcus’s truly impressive book, This is the definitive history of Children’s Book publishing in America — and it really puts present issues and conflicts in their long-term context. For some reason, though, the CCBC discussion soon migrated over the question of why books for younger readers in translation, or from other countries, used to be much more popular than they are. And that leads to the question of the day here — do we read, do we even know about, any nonfiction in translation? I mean in particular for kids, but really on any level?

Why is there so little nonfiction in translation? Part of it must have to do with cost — permissions for photos, or lengthy texts that require translation; perhaps some has to do with scope and sequence — American publishers are always eager to match subjects to schools, and schools here place so much emphasis on American history that many foreign books just don’t fit. And the subjects that do fit on both sides of the oceans (Atlantic and Pacific) are repeated endlessly: Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome; Knights and Castles, etc. — so those areas are already very crowded. 

These practical constraints are real, but I still wonder — what are we losing by not getting the "take," the POV of an author from another country, dealing with one nonfiction topic or another. Some years ago I had the chance to work on the translation of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s The Number Devil (here is one commentary on the book) Because it was published by Metropolitan Books, an adult division at Henry Holt, and then cross-sold to younger readers, we did not have to worry so much about fitting a curriculum. In fact the book is not a work book at all — it is a set of mathematical dreams, explorations. A parallel kind of book might be Sophie;s World,’s_World Fine — and I know there have been other similar fiction/nonfiction explorations of philosophy and theology. But these are exceptions, world bestsellers. So I come back to the lead question:

You are all active readers, you see many books for kids, when did you last read a nonfiction book that was translated? This is not global crisis, but it is worth thinking about — should our nonfiction literature be so relentlessly national?


  1. Susanna Reich says:

    This question comes up for me every year when the members of PEN’s children’s committee are trying to come up with foreign authors to invite to the World Voices Festival. I’ve been unable to think of any and would be delighted to discover that there’s someone I’ve overlooked.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Susanna: Wasn’t there a Sibert honor a few years ago that was a book about space travel originally from a Scandinavian country? I recall seeing it first in its original language, it was a lively good book. That author might be good. To be fair — little of our NF is translated into other languages, as well.

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    Marc, you may be thinking of The Man Who Went to The Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins by Bea Uusma Schyffert was a Batchelder and Boston Horn Book Honor in 2005 (a favorite of mine). Groundwood publishes terrific nonfiction books from elsewhere. We honored several of these while I was on the NCTE Notables committee including Hjørdis Varmer’s Hans Christian Andersen:
    His Fairy Tale Life and Mohieddin Ellabbad’s The Illustrator’s Notebook.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica — thanks, I was thinking of The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon.