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by translator Azita Rassi

I vividly remember the day that my friend’s cute four-year-old daughter asked me what her favourite Iranian dish, ghormeh sabzi, was called in English. “They don’t have it over there, my dear, so they don’t have an English word for it,” said I, trying to explain to the shocked little girl. “But how do they live then?” she protested.

It is not unusual for young children, or even young adults for that matter, to be unfamiliar with the ways of life in foreign countries. There was a time when such innocent unfamiliarity could just be smiled upon; we no longer have that luxury.

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Azita Rassi, translator

The unfamiliar, the unknown, quickly breeds fear and mistrust. Children who grow up with a lack of awareness of how people in other cultures live, think, and feel become adults who are quick to condemn, to panic, to call for war. For the sake of a much-needed harmony and peace in today’s turbulent world, we need to teach our children to view and treat foreigners as potentially decent, interesting, and worthy human beings. Their different lifestyle and beliefs should not demonize them in the eyes of our children. What better way to do so than conveying these foreign voices through translations of their best stories, poems, and non-fiction books that are written for children and young adults?

An attractive story is not treated by the absorbed young reader as “other” simply because of its exotic settings. Teenagers who identify with Ender and Katniss in the dystopian worlds of these well-loved characters and children who sympathize with a statue or a swan in Andersen’s magical tales have no trouble extending their empathy to characters from hitherto unknown lands. Why wait until they are grownups to introduce them to brilliant literary translations that could familiarize them with the joys and hardships, customs and challenges, and the same human nature that is in all of us despite our seeming differences? Surely, they stand a better chance to develop a taste for reading such translated gems as One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things, and The Kite Runner if they are exposed to great translated children’s books from an early age.

When our children read translated books, they not only learn about other cultures and find it easier to empathize with foreigners instead of casting them in stereotypical roles, but they may also be motivated to learn a foreign language at school just because they have become interested in the culture represented by that language through the translations they have read. I have come across many youngsters in recent years who are adamantly learning Japanese simply because translated manga has succeeded in motivating them to wish to know more about Japan and to connect to the people and culture of this country in the original language.

Furthermore, when it comes to translating texts to English, an additional reason can be perceived. Children’s books that are originally written in less widely spoken languages might not have a chance of being translated into another low-frequency language unless they are first translated into English. It is then that they really might catch the eye of publishers in non-English-speaking countries and get translated into their languages. Kaja Straumenis aptly explains this point in Three Percent with heartwarming examples.

I do believe that, through translating children’s and young adult books and by suggesting translated literature to our children and teenagers, we stand a more realistic chance of ever achieving world peace. We shall also nurture a next generation that is more understanding, better educated, and more compassionate.

  • Read our interview with Azita Rassi
  • Find out why we’re lost without translation
  • Discover more about translated books

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