Books in Spanish: A problem of access?

When working as an elementary teacher in the United States, I found it hard to find original children’s literature in Spanish language — books originally published in Spanish, that is.

As a fourth-grade public school teacher in a dual-immersion and bilingual transitional programs in Colorado and North Carolina, it was difficult to try to read books originally written in English and translated into Spanish. Publishers had made the effort to translate some widely known, classic titles such as Where the Wild Things Are (Donde viven los monstruos) or Goodnight Night, Moon (Buenas Noches, Luna). It initially seemed like this could be a good thing because the children already had the background knowledge for making connections to these books. But the reverse happened when they were read in class.

The children didn’t much like the Spanish version for the same reason it’s hard to read a translation of a Pablo Neruda poem or a Mario Vargas Llosa novel in English. As a native Spanish speaker, even the children could hear the forced pace and tone in the Spanish version. “It sounds funny,” they’d say. In the end, I resorted to testing the limits of airline weight restrictions and carried books in my suitcase back from trips made to Latin America or Spain.

marquez siestadelmartes 214x300 Books in Spanish: A problem of access?There were several examples of in-class success, such as La siesta del martes by Gabriel García Márquez. Though not known as a children’s author, a Spanish-language editor made the short story available in a children’s edition. The text was unchanged and illustrations were added. It was a hit! The story takes place over the course of one day and was ideal for teaching the use of time in a writer’s workshop. Students were engaged and motivated and most importantly they used connectors and adjectives to establish time in their writing. Students in my classroom were fifty percent native English speakers and fifty percent Spanish speakers.

There is a rich children’s literature in Spanish-speaking countries and there are several large publishing houses in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. Testament to this is the merger between Carmen Balcells, literary agent for many of the Spanish-language’s greatest writers over the past half-century, and the New York-based Andrew Wylie agency. There would be nothing better than using original literature to teach our kids instead of giving them translations or versions of literature in English.

Is this an issue of know-how — affecting demand for original literature in the United States — or an issue of access? After all, as I learned lugging books from Latin America and Spain, the problem of access was significant, as evidenced by the Balcells-Wylie merger. Then again, maybe the access wasn’t there because the demand wasn’t large enough to merit paying for the copyrights. I don’t know. Perhaps one day soon we will find out.

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Armida Lizarraga About Armida Lizarraga

Armida Lizarraga has worked as an elementary teacher in Spain, Brazil, Peru, and the U.S. She is currently the lead researcher for the Proyecto 3 Regiones in Peru, which seeks to understand teachers' literacy practices and knowledge in K-3 classrooms. She lives in Lima, Peru.

Comments

  1. We suffer with a similar issue in our work in Central America. Here, it’s easier to get access to books translated into Spanish than access children’s books originally written in Spanish. We notice that especially at the emergent and early reading levels, the lack of locally relevant content is a real problem.

    • Armida Lizarraga says:

      Thanks for your comment, Debra. Background knowledge is key to trigger all the other “knowledge” that children have when they read. Especially, considering the different backgrounds within every Spanish-speaking country, sometimes it is a real challenge to find books to which children can relate to. It could be a lot better for children to connect to books that talk about familiar animals, food or places, than to for example, read books set up in a place where it snows and is urban (U.S. cities).

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