Celebrating A Golden Age for Books in Translation?

by Joy Court

FCBG has chosen a marvellous theme for their National Share-a- Story Month- Celebrating a World of Stories, and books in translation absolutely have to be a big part of that. To quote translator Daniel Hahn:

‘Books in translation’ can sound like a rather niche interest, can’t it? But try thinking about it another way: well over ninety percent of the world’s population aren’t first-language speakers of English, so when we’re talking about translated books, that is what we’re covering. ‘Books in translation’ means all the output of continental Europe, most of Africa, all of Latin America and most of Asia. Some niche!”

One must not forget the cultural debt we all owe to books in translation- our literary canon is founded upon myths from Greece, Rome, Egypt and Scandinavia. Even bible stories and most fairy tales would have had to be translated from their original language- certainly the famous ones from The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault!

We were very probably completely unaware, as children, that many of our favourite stories were books in translation. In honour of FCBG’s 50th anniversary I thought I would select the top five books (one for each decade) that meant most to me as a child. All would have been in print when FCBG was born and are still in print now. There are many books I could have chosen which fit that description. Books used to travel across international boundaries very quickly.

Miffy by Dick Bruna 

The first Miffy book was produced in 1955, and almost 30 others have followed and sold millions all over the world. Perfect first books for babies and toddlers.






Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

First translated into English in 1892. Subject of a classic Disney film of course, but I had a beautiful illustrated edition of the story which I read again and again






Heidi by Johanna Spyri

First published in 1891, a worldwide best seller with many film and TV adaptations. Oh how I longed to live on the mountain with Grandfather!







The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

I adored this romantic historical adventure published in 1844, and read all of his novels avidly but never really considered that Dumas was French!







The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Published in in English in 1952, I doubt that there is a reader anywhere who does not have this important book embedded in their soul and influencing their thinking.







The two current roles which take up most of my time are as Reviews Editor of The School Librarian, the journal of The School Library Association, and as Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals steering group. Books in translation are very important to both those roles.  The journal has always made an effort to seek out and review titles in translation and in Gillian Lathey has one of the most respected translators in the UK as a very valued reviewer. When Kevin Crossley-Holland, as President of the SLA at the time, gave the keynote speech at the ceremony of the Marsh Award for Children’s Books in Translation – he called upon the SLA to do more to promote these titles. Consequently, another esteemed translator and literary expert, Daniel Hahn, and I subsequently produced Riveting Reads: A World of Books In Translation. The quote above Daniel wrote, by way of justification of our endeavours, in the introduction. 

Lots of notable individuals were asked to contribute to our publication; either to name a favourite translated book or to tell us why it is important to have them available to readers here. One of the most pertinent to all of us was from Deborah Halliford of Outside in World, (a fantastic website resource).
Translated Children’s literature can broaden our horizons, helping to break down the barriers of geography, language and race, and build bridges between nations. We can help develop tolerance and understanding of other peoples’ beliefs and cultures, by enabling young audiences to access, explore and enjoy books from other countries. Now more than ever, Britain must not become culturally insular, so we must encourage more books published from different languages. There is a wonderful array of literature from around the world that needs to be experienced by UK readers

This annotated booklist was then purchased by Booktrust to add to every one of their School Library Packs in 2017 and so is hopefully doing a lot to raise awareness of translated books. This was something of a significant moment and one of which I am very proud, as indeed is the decision to allow books first published in English translation in the UK (or a UK publication within three months of a publication in English overseas) to be eligible for the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal which celebrated its own 80th anniversary in 2017. This step recognised that it was the translator who wrote the book in English and made the stylistic and creative writing decisions that would dictate the reading experience. Thus, were a book in translation to win, then both the original author who created the story and characters, and the translator would win medals and share the prize money.

As well as ensuring that the medal could go to the very best in writing for children and young people in the world, this extension of eligibilty should also make publishers more willing to invest in translation.  Especially when added to the Booktrust In Other Words project  to help find and finance the publication of books in translation. (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/awards-and-prizes/current-prizes/in-other-words) Excitingly the first two titles resulting from this project are just published with one more later this year

    Elise and the Second-Hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter, translated from Danish by Sian Mackie; published by Wacky Bee Books on 2 April

    A Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, translated from Afrikaans by Kobus Gyldenhuys; published by Oneworld on 12 April

    The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva, translated from Russian by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp; published by Puffin on 5 July

So perhaps we are indeed approaching another golden age of books in translation and a new generation of classics, like those of my childhood, are appearing!

With thanks to Joy Court. This was a guest blog and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG. 

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