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The Translation Conundrum: What to Do? What to Do?

Here’s a pretty little question. One that’s so broad I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. What does one do when one is handed a big question? If you are me then you throw it into the ether and see what happens to it. Commence throwing arm . . . now!

Yesterday, David Jacobson (author of the truly wonderful, original, and rare Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko , board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and fellow with the International Youth Library from June-July 2019) asked me a question about children’s books translated into English. If you read this blog regularly then you’ll know that I’ve a fondness for them. Compared to other countries, America isn’t particularly good at locating books from other countries, translating them, and publicizing them, so when I do find one I just grasp it with both hands and hug it as hard as I can. Heck, I even include a translated picture book round-up at the end of every year (take a gander at 2018, 2017, and 2016).

Regarding the fact that publishers care little about translations, David wondered what kinds of concrete proposals a person might give to publishers, translators, and non-profits like GLLI and USBBY.

My Response: . . . . ?

Okay. Wow. Advice? Better tackle this systematically or I’ll get all kinds of confused. I’ll just talk to them directly, shall I? And when I’m done you can add your own two cents.

To Publishers

Hiya! Oh. Wait a second. This doesn’t make any sense. I’m talking to way too many of you. Let’s pare this down a bit . . .

To Small Publishers

Hey, buddies! Can I tell you what a good job you’re doing? You are doing SUCH a great job! In fact, 80% of the time you’re pretty much the only ones bringing us translations at all. I’m liking a lot of what I’m seeing from you. It’s rough too, right? I mean, aside from the Batchelder it’s not like you’re getting that many major awards for them. You just do it because they’re the best books out there that you see sometimes. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because you believe in the importance of the international community. So if I’m going to give you any kind of advice it’s just keep up the good work. You’ve earned it.

To Big Publishers

Don’t worry, folks, I’m not going to kvetch at you. I’m just going to patiently explain how you’re missing out on a golden opportunity. How so? Well, while you guys have just been pursuing all that homegrown talent, you’ve been ignoring the fact that kids today are very interested in being socially aware. So what would happen if you created an imprint where you brought in books from all over the world and tied them into the issues kids are facing today? Look me in the eye and tell me that there’s not a Muslim-French YA novel out there somewhere. Tell me the Greeks haven’t written any books about the Syrian refugee crisis. Nigerian books are selling well in the adult sphere, so where are the Nigerian children’s books? The middle grade ones?

It’s tough. To do a book right you have to get it translated, and translators can be hard to find. But you’re the biggies. If you want something to happen, it happens. So go on. Live a little. Take a trip to the Guadalajara Book Fair and find some South American (not books from Spain, mind you) titles you can import for us. The world’s an exciting place. Show our kids a little of it.

To Translators

Okay, you guys need a union or something. As far as I’m concerned, you are rock stars. Whenever I mention a translated book on my blog (or on my 31 Days lists) I always make sure the translator is name checked. When Anthea Bell died, not that long ago, I felt like we lost a huge asset in the fight to get more children’s books translated. Honestly, I credit Cornelia Funke’s success in the States to that woman.

Trouble is, no one ever mentions you or celebrates you. Let’s change all that. Let’s have a Celebrate Translation Day. One of you should write a kicky little blog that tells amusing stories about what you go through. Heck, I’d love to interview one of you for this site. Let us know how to shine a spotlight on you. A good translator, after all, is worth its weight in gold.

To Non-Profits Like GLLI and USBBY

I’d say much of what I mentioned just now to the translators goes double for you guys. You’re so cool, but we need to see more of you out there. The only question is how. Maybe at conferences above and beyond the usual suspects. Let’s see you speak at NerdCampMI. Let’s hear you on more podcasts. Pitch yourselves to the American library community. Are up-and-coming youth librarians learning about you in grad school? Do you have a celebrity spokesperson? I suggest Herve Tullet. Can you kick your websites up a notch? What about making a translated book finding app? I plug in the country and then see the latest picture books published from there in the States. Brilliant fun!

Some of these ideas are unfeasible, but I think there are many people out there who would be interested in the wider world of translations. And at the very least, we can think about what we, as readers, can do to also help our fellow American understand that sometimes you have to look at issues and delights above and beyond the ones in your own backyard.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.


  1. Monica Edinger says

    I was on an ALSC Batchelder Task Force a couple of years ago. Among a lot of other things we had focus group discussions with publishers and it was clear the challenge is considerable. Publishing books in translation here is expensive. You need to pay someone to do it if you are just considering the book and then, once you decide to publish it, to pay for the final translation. There are some folks in the small and big publishers highly committed to this, but it is an uphill battle.

    One problem I see is that we as a country are currently very self-involved and not terribly interested in our kids engaging significantly (that is the key word) with other parts of the world. If there was significant interest more books in translation would appear, I think.

    One of our recommendations related to all of this was “The task force recommends that the board consider additional means of promoting translated books for children, such as conference and institute programming, professional development (webinars, online courses, etc.), and other incentives such as grants for library/school programming related to translated books for children and the Batchelder Award.”

    You can read our summary here:

  2. K. Harris says

    I think the success of adult lines like Europa Press and books like Harry Potter ought to convince a lot of people it’s worth looking for books all over the world. Then there’s my childhood experience where I loved reading different words and rhythms and different place names, which I think most kids do, and the importance of seeing the world from different viewpoints, especially in a world growing so much more closely linked. Most of my advice would be to publishers and translators and would be to not try to interpret or dumb down things too much and embrace the differences. One example would be the changing of words like saying sorceror’s stone instead of philosopher’s stone in Harry Potter. The philosopher’s stone was a real goal of real alchemists, the early scientists, and it’s mentioned in older books like the Gone-Away Lake books. Using the term would open up kids’ worlds and let them find a link in older books and common knowledge. Sorceror’s stone wasn’t a term anywhere else, it wasn’t used in the international editions, and they had to define it in the book anyway – why change it? I think it reflects the doubts most publishers feel about the unknown and trying too hard to do the same old thing, interfering with their seeing the truth, that exploring other cultures and forming links is a marvelous thing that helps us see each other better and be more responsible, but also leads kids to experiment and feel more confident and just makes your brain and heart fizz with excitement and joy and is exactly what you want your kids to experience.

  3. Sorry to chime in so late on this topic.
    At the bookstore where I work we’ve tripled the amount of shelf space for foreign language or bilingual children’s books. We look for translations and like them but we also have regular requests for foreign language books for kids in Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Spanish and Latin. So alongside the translated books, I’d love to see foreign language editions of the books in a format easy to order from. I suspect cities more diverse than Portland OR would also find a market for foreign language editions of children’s books.