By: Alice Ahearn*
You can only read translated books for so long before it occurs to you to pull up and ask, what exactly is it about certain translations that makes them good? In the course of many years studying ancient languages, it took a long time for me to pin down just what made the stories, or the characters, or the emotions of the original author, really leap off the page and stick in my head. Was it the vividness of the description, the realism of the speech, even the sounds of the words?
Eventually, though, I realised that it was all those and something else too; something much broader. The translations that really stayed with me were simply the ones that helped me to connect my own experience with something new that was on the page – those that by a clever choice of words turned something ancient and utterly remote into an expression of something timeless. They immersed me in cultures I had never experienced, simply by showing them to me in a relatable way.
And what does this have to do with global children’s publishing? In a climate where some of society’s loudest voices urge us daily to be suspicious of people who look different – everything. Try to get a child to read a dry, dull translation of a story from another culture, and the result is predictable: they’ll likely struggle to engage with it, and never look at it again. But give them a translation that fires their imagination, stays with them, gets them wanting to know more, and the outlook changes completely. Take The Little Black Fish, in which the main character himself learns to question the narrow-minded thinking of those around him. In place of shunning the unknown comes the desire to know it; fear of the different is replaced by appreciation of it; rather than isolate and ignore, children learn to exchange. And now more than ever, these aren’t merely skills that it’s nice to cultivate; they’re a value that we cannot afford to lose.
If you’re studying The Little Black Fish with a class, why not try reproducing the stamped print artwork of the book? Or write about what the little red fish might get up to after hearing her grandmother’s story?
*Alice Aheran has MA in Ancient History and Classics from Durham University. She is an intern at Tiny Owl.
- The importance of translating children’s books to English
- Pick up a picture book!
- Creation of a cultural bridge. An interview with our Persian to English translator, Azita Rassi
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