Writing and translating for children: a "balancing" practice

Posted by Athena Parthenos

Translating is like exploring the world - each text can be indeed compared to a town with its own peculiarities even though it does make part of a region (a sub-field, e.g. mechanics) and a country (a field, e.g. engineering). The opportunity of continuous discovery it offers is one of the most appealing aspects of translation, especially during the learning period. This is why when I had to choose the topic for my second-level degree dissertation, I decided to explore a brand-new region, i.e. the field of children's literature and translation, which I discovered to be a completely independent micro-world full of its own peculiarities and challenges.

Even though children's tales are probably as old as man himself since they originated in the oral tradition of storytelling, and the first written testimony of this production can be traced back to Middle Ages, scholars showed little or no interest in children's literature and even more in its translation until very late. This disregard derives from the assumed "non-literariness" of this production and the conviction that creating a story for a child is less demanding and requires less effort than writing a text for an adult. Actually, children’s books pose many challenges as they depend on a delicate balance between different variables: writers and translators can be compared to equilibrists, which have to juggle elements such as external censorship, personal bias and social assumptions about children’s skills and moral appropriateness of content.

An important criteria to consider in children's literature is the age of the readers and their different needs. The production for very small children consists in picture and early reader books, and the balance depends on the ability of combining content with illustrations as well as choosing words which are simple but also musical in order to keep the child interested. Without getting to the heart of the matter of preschool books, let’s remain within the realm of school books which are decreasingly visual and become more text heavy based on the age range they are intended for.

One of the main and most debated aspects of children's production is the issue of censorship operated by publishing houses, which have a huge influence particularly in the translation process. This applies to books for adults too, but the phenomenon is far more prominent in children's texts, which are not merely subject to copy editing but often to a real process of adaptation: content can be shortened, entire parts of works can be omitted or modified, titles can be completely changed, and so on. This censorial attitude derives to some extent from the fear of publishers to displease the expectations of the figures responsible for the choice or purchase of the books for children, namely teachers and parents, which leads them to neglect the needs and desires of young readers.

Another level of censorship concerns the personal idea of childhood formed in the author's mind. Writers and translators are indeed driven to practice a form of self-censorship due to the asymmetrical nature of the communication between the adult author and the young reader. Their image of the world, their way of seeing things are not the same, therefore the adult chooses and organizes the subject matter and linguistic form based on their own child image, which is influenced by their childhood memory but also by the society's general perception of childhood, as well as on a greater sense of responsibility towards the young reader. On the one hand, this asymmetry of communication entails the risk of underestimating the reading and comprehension skills of the young readers because of their limited knowledge, and of operating a neutralization or excessive simplification of the linguistic structure and the vocabulary. On the other one, it can lead to present children with an edulcorated reality and to avoid topics or references which are not deemed to be appropriate for their age. This is the main reason why children's books have always been full of taboos. Violence, sex, death, addictions and so on as well as the use of coarse expressions or grammatical mistakes to typify a particular character are still elements which are not easily found in children's literature, especially in translated works. Many scholars have already stressed the importance of demolishing some of these taboos in order to give the opportunity to young readers to confront themselves with a more authentic language and thornier subject matter.

In conclusion, all the factors mentioned above are fundamental parts in the creation and translation of a children’s story, which requires full awareness of the limitations but also the capability of the young reader to make the text intelligible as well as appealing and avoid excessive censorship which can compromise the learning opportunity literature offers to children. Finding the right balance between all these elements can indeed enrich children's knowledge and provide them with a thorough view of the world, and it can also help to get them more interested in reading by satisfying their curiosity and desire not to be treated like kids that are not able to understand.

Author: Mariadolores Bellomo – Translator at Athena Parthenos srl

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