Reviews 2010

The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers

The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers. Gillian Lathey. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 241 pages. £80.00 (hardback).

As a field of study, children’s literature, and translation of children’s literature in particular, has too often been sidelined. Translators of children’s books have rarely received the acknowledgement and credit that they deserve. However, in recent years, with the publication of several important books on this topic, including monographs by Zohar Shavit (1986, reprinted 2009) and Riitta Oittinen (2000), and edited volumes by Lathey (2006) and Van Collie & Verschueren (2006), translation of children’s literature is finally gaining academic recognition. Gillian Lathey’s The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers is the latest volume giving merit to the translators who are helping create world literature for children. The book gathers and makes available some of the most outstanding contributions to the development of the English language corpus of children’s literature from its beginnings until today.

In the process, Lathey manages to accomplish the two goals she has set out for her title: 1) to outline the history of translated children’s literature in English, and 2) to present the motivations and methodologies of translators working for child audiences (p. 8). As Lathey points out, the works of children’s literature in English covered in this volume are limited to the literature produced in the United Kingdom. There is also an emphasis on major European languages as Lathey focuses on works translated from French, German, Arabic, Scandinavian languages and Russian. Less widely spoken languages and literatures such as Polish, Czech, Portugese, etc. have not managed to find their space in this very important work. Interestingly, these languages are also conspicuously absent from the lists of the Batchelder and Marsh translation award winners included in the book.

The book is divided in two parts. The first part covers the period from the earliest available records of children’s books translations in the ninth century to the early twentieth century. The translations analyzed in the first part include some of the most popular stories of all time: Arabian nights, Brother Grimms’ tales, Hans Andersen’s tales, Aesop’s fables, French fairy tales, Perrault’s tales etc., translated by William Caxton, Arnaud Berquin, Sir Richard Burton, Thomas Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edgar Taylor, Mary Howitt and many more. We learn about the purposes, justifications, and reasons of these translators for children. Their translation strategies often included adaptation, censorship and abridgements to ensure that the result texts suited their moral, religious, or even political purposes. For instance, early translations of Aesop’s fables were done for purely pedagogical reasons (pp. 24-27); Arabian Nights came into existence in English with the “advent of new Orientalism” (p. 44); and Wollstonecraft used the term “naturalization” two hundred years before Venuti (p. 76).

The second part of Lathey’s work introduces the increased translation activity of English children’s books in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. This part provides accounts of the work of translators like Arthur Ransome, May Massee, Wanda Gag, Cathy Hirano, Patricia Crampton, Anthea Bell and Sarah Adrizzone, whose voices and translation strategies we have more opportunities to hear. It is interesting to note that contemporary translators do not see a significant difference in translating for adults and translating for children. And they also believe that “children should learn more about peoples in other lands” (p. 135). Although Bell, Adrizzone and Crampton agree that translating for adults and translating for children is very similar, these multi-awarded translators argue that translating for children calls for inventive solutions when it comes to culture specific words, puns, nonsense, etc. (p. 190).

The concluding chapters of the two parts of the book, Chapter seven and Chapter twelve, provide summaries of the role of translators in their respective periods. Translators play a crucial role in the mobility of literatures across linguistic borders. Children’s book translators are important in opening windows to a wider world and opening the minds of children. The translator’s agency is manifested not only in the translator’s comprehension, interpretation and artistic re-presentation of the source texts, but also in his or her selection of source texts, cultural motivation for translating, and adoption of translation strategies. It is also witnessed in the manipulation in the prefaces of the expected functions of the translations in the target culture. The book provides an insightful analysis of the translator’s position which cleverly brings together narratology and translation studies.

Another important aspect of the book is the fact that it stresses the significance of translations into English as a target language, and the way they influenced domestic production and creation of literature offered to children. English today remains the dominant language of publishing and the language most translated from, but least translated into.

Lathey’s The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers represents an impressive historical overview of translation of children’s books in English language from the perspective of the translators. The time span of the book is rather wide and the volume provides a thorough overview of the most significant periods in the history of this often neglected world. It also connects the study of translated children’s literature to the socio-cultural and ideological factors which determine the very production of translations. Rich with examples, the book is an amazingly interesting read. As a translator of children’s literature myself, I enjoyed and learned from this volume.

Works Cited

Oittinen, Riitta. Translating for Children. New York: Garland, 2000.

Shavit, Zohar. The Poetics of Children Literature. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Van Collie, Jan, Walter P. Verschueren, (eds). Children’s Literature in Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome, 2006.

Marija Todorova
Swansea University, Wales