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Foreign Correspondence: Translator: Trafficking Between Cultures

Translation has often been compared to the building of a bridge. The text originates from within one culture and has to arrive safely in another. A translator acts as travel guide across that bridge, helping the book to find its audience and success in a new land. Yes, some luggage may get lost along the way, but if the book is good and the guide competent, the trip can be a lot of fun for readers.

Reviews often praise a translation for seeming “smooth” or “seamless” or “invisible.” This comes from the assumption that a translated work should be an exact replica of the original and that, therefore, translators should not be seen or heard. But professionals like me are well aware that this one-to-one equivalence is impossible. All translation is an act of betrayal to the original: “Traduttore, traditore,” as the Italian saying goes.

When we open a children’s book, we all bring our own ideas about childhood, about children’s literature, and about other cultures to it. And these ideas will have an impact on the way a translator reads and interprets the original and on how she translates the book from its original language to the target language. In that sense, translating can be a very personal process, and, because of that, the concept of translator invisibility seems very far from reality.

Translating requires many small decisions, many of them subconscious ones the translator herself may be unaware of making. But the accumulation of those choices leads to an overall style of translation, and to its success or failure. On top of the purely linguistic decisions, there are always cultural and ideological considerations. Will the reader understand a specific reference? Does it matter if not? How much “foreignness” will the reader tolerate? Will unfamiliar details interfere with the story? There is often a tension between bringing the translation closer to the reader and bringing the reader closer to the culture and worldview of the original text; between “dumbing it down” to suit what people already know and using the book as an opportunity to teach people (especially when the audience is children) about the world.

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The BFGSophie couldn’t sleep.

It is a straightforward sentence, short and direct, with an impatient rhythm to it. And it refers to a reality with which every child reader, everywhere in the world, will be familiar. It is also the opening of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, first published in 1982 and since translated into over forty languages. Even with such a simple statement, the translator into Spanish had several choices to make. Should she adapt the name? Sophie or Sofía? How formal or colloquial does she want to be? “No podía dormir”? Or the slightly more informal “No podía dormirse”? Or the very formal “No podía conciliar el sueño”? Sophie cannot sleep in any of the three versions, but each one starts the story with a different tone.

El Gran Gigante BonachonIn the edition I’m looking at (El gran gigante bonachón, translated by Herminia Dauer, Planeta, 1984), the translator chose the most formal option: “Sofía no podía conciliar el sueño.” And every time there is an obvious choice between “neutral” and “formal/bookish/literary,” she chooses the latter. When reading aloud to my own children books translated into Spanish, I have observed the same impulse to elevate the style in so many instances that it cannot be unintentional. The didactic goal that used to be central to children’s literature is still there: books should teach vocabulary and proper grammar. In the 1980s, before the arrival of British, German, and Scandinavian children’s books in translation, literature for children in Spain was written using quite a formal style. The translation of The BFG was simply assimilated into the existing literary culture.

In many children’s and YA books, the protagonists tell their own story, and the voice of the character has to carry over the tone and personality into the target language. This is maybe the single most important factor in terms of a successful translation, and remains true for the third-person narration, or any other narrative voice. I always begin by reading the book without analyzing it, just concentrating on listening to that voice. It usually takes me eighty to one hundred pages to get the tone and the rhythm, in order to be able to adapt that voice into Spanish. I read my translation aloud until it rings authentically. It would be awful to have Joey Pigza speaking Spanish with a fake voice, sounding like a phony.

To me, the process of translation is very close to interpreting music. The words in English are the notes, and I have to play them in Spanish. And this is how I see myself collaborating with the writers: I lend them a Spanish voice with which to tell their story. But this voice, inevitably, will also be mine.

Despite the highly intuitive component of this craft, I find it is necessary to stop now and then to question my choices, to be self-critical and ask myself why I chose that particular word, why I adapted a name or did not. My image of children is constructed from how I remember myself as a child, how I see my own children and others, but also indirectly by reading many children’s books and finding the readers to whom they speak. And then, when I am translating, every choice I make is based on that image of the child, and my image of what literature for children can or should be like. I definitely think that my study of children’s and YA literature has helped me to be a better translator for the young, letting me reach back into a huge repository of forms, rhythms, and voices; and tones, humor, and music.

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SpeakBut the translator is not alone in her decisions. In many cases, she receives instructions from the target-language publisher about what can or cannot appear in the translated texts, from the vague “the translation has to be age-appropriate” to a more concrete list of “don’ts.” In my own translation into Spanish of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (Cuando los árboles hablen, Ediciones SM, 2001), the reference to abortion was eliminated by the Spanish publisher in the sentence “They rent beach houses in Cancún during Spring Break and get group-rate abortions before the prom.”

It goes the other way, too. An example of this is the translation into English of the Spanish best-selling middle-grade series Manolito Gafotas by Elvira Lindo (Manolito Four-Eyes, translated by Caroline Travalia). Manolito has been translated into more than twenty languages, in most cases without changes in content. But in the U.S. edition of the first book of the series, the cigarette Manolito smokes changes to a Cuando los arboles hablen“candy cigarette”; Grandpa’s beer at the bar turns into a cup of coffee; the mother is no longer known for her “collejas” (smacks on the neck), but for her scoldings; a reference to Christmas had to be changed to “holidays.” Apparently, to have Manolito smoking or his grandpa drinking beer could be interpreted as an endorsement of smoking and drinking. Manolito, in Spain, was never a role model for clean living. He is a lovable underdog from the working class, and the series’s huge success was due in large part to the realism of his adventures and his humor, his way of playing with words. Despite all the acculturation that the boy from Madrid went through, his voice still rings true. Thanks to Caroline Travalia, he is still his funny, sweet self in English.

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The fact remains that decisions related to books for children are made by adult mediators (authors, publishers, editors, translators, reviewers, librarians) based on their own tastes, interests, ideologies, and images of childhood. This includes the first big decision: which books should be published? In the English-speaking world there are comparatively few books for children (and adults) translated from other languages. I have heard often enough that “books in translation” do not sell. Or that with all the good books already written in English, there is no need to translate more. And yet, last year, visiting the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I met a librarian from New York who was there looking for international books for her patrons. She needed books that reflected the realities of new immigrants, and was also looking for titles about the African diaspora. She could not find them at home.

In a sense, the resistance that translated books face in the U.S. comes from the same source as the lack of diverse books. They are both perceived to be outside the norm, lacking enough appeal to reach a wide (white?) audience. Maybe that is why the few books that get translated are the ones that are already similar to “mainstream” American books. The idea that “translations don’t sell” (as well as “diverse books don’t sell”) seems to me a self-fulfilling prophecy. I simply cannot believe the presumption that a child from a working-class neighborhood in Madrid can enjoy Joey Pigza’s adventures but an American child cannot have fun with Manolito.

Why do we read? To find ourselves in the stories? Or to discover other worlds, other selves in them? Recently I heard of a child, adopted from Ethiopia, who was reading every book she could find about people of color at her library in Spain. She did not know many children like herself, and the library did not have Spanish books with girls like her in them. So she read about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. Foreign books in translation about people with whom she identified. They inspired her. They spoke to her.

I feel privileged to contribute to the “cultural trafficking” that is translating books: the thrill of discovering a book I love, proposing it for translation, and giving it a voice in Spanish. I wish there were many new bridges built, two-way bridges, so that many international books would find their voice in English, and help enrich and broaden the landscape of children’s literature published in America.

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Collaborations.

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Elena Abós About Elena Abós

A Spanish translator specializing in children’s literature, Elena Abós has translated books by Jack Gantos, Margaret Mahy, Louis Sachar, and Diana Wynne-Jones. She holds an MA in children’s literature from Simmons College and teaches at the University of Cologne in Germany.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this marvelous essay. You capture both how creative translation is and how necessary.

    Your writing called to mind a piece in The Horn Book that I have treasured for years: “Eight Ways to Say You” by Cathy Hirano, published on New Year’s Day 1999.
    http://www.hbook.com/1999/01/news/boston-globe-horn-book-awards/eight-ways-say-challenges-translation/

  2. Ann (Ana) Morris says:

    Thank you so much for reminding translators that we want stories to say the same thing in the same mood and leave the same impression in each language. Such an important goal that is sometimes lost in translation.

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