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Reading Translations


As a regular reviewer for Outside In World I've had the pleasure of reading many books for children. Every book has been a translation into English and it is the quality of these translations that can make or break a story when it is presented to an audience that cannot pick up the original. 

It's a bit like trusting an interpreter to help you in conversation. You can't guarantee that you're not being sold short; do those friendly greetings and idiomatic expressions keep their meaning or at least have an equal in a foreign tongue? Whilst the majority of books I have looked at for Outside In are perfectly at home in English, a couple have occasionally had phrases that stick out as they just don't translate easily, and there are a couple of key reasons for this.


English behaves differently to a lot of languages, the grammar and structure of some sentences and passages in stories may have to be completely re-arranged. Coupled with differing speech habits and senses of humour,  getting a funny or idiomatic phrase to have the same effect in another language can be really tricky.










Mario Ramos's I Am So Handsome/Aren't I Handsome, published in slightly differing versions by Gecko Press and Zero to Ten has this problem. The Wolf uses lots of funny descriptions when talking to other characters, and sometimes, they just don't sound right. Red Riding Hood gets called 'little strawberry' or 'little wild strawberry'. This made me chuckle but it took me a long time to work out what didn't seem right. In English, the Wolf would have called her 'you' or 'my' little strawberry or perhaps told Red Riding Hood to her face that he thinks she resembles a strawberry. This is a longer way to make a joke, seems less punchy and is not what Ramos wrote; but it seems more in line with how an English author might have written a wise cracking, rather vain Big Bad Wolf.  (See 'One Story: Two Translations' for a more in depth look at these two books).

Subtle Difference

Books for older children in particular start to come across more of a barrier in the way characters speak. They have different cultural references, mention different trends and fashions, may use different slang and are aimed at a different sense of humour.


I found in the rather excellent  And What About Anna?, that things such as not knowing who a pop star is can seem a bit confusing or jarring. One book for twelve and above seemed to sum the last point up especially well.




In Christine Nostlinger's  But Jasper Came Instead, Waldi the narrator, is very dry and his deadpan delivery is great, but occasionally some of his comic seemed slightly awkward in English. You could sense they were meant to be funny, but whilst they amused, they didn't seem in tune with English humour. You did get the feeling however, that you were talking to a shy thirteen year old who didn't speak English as a first language, which is what Nostlinger was trying to portray and is a credit to her translator, too. 


These are just are a couple of reasons why certain phrases or images might jump out at you in book, reminding you that you're reading a translation.  However, since so many of us cannot read stories by foreign authors in the original, we should really appreciate what we can read and the work of translators in allowing us to do so.  


Abby Phillips
Outside In World (2011)


Abby graduated in English from the University of London and is now training to be a primary school teacher at Roehampton University. She loves reading anything and everything and hopes to use some of the wonderful books she has found through the website for her teaching practice. 


I Am So Handsome, Mario Ramos, Gecko Press (2007)
Aren't I Handsome, Mario Ramos, Zero to Ten (2007)
And What About Anna, Jan Simoen, Allen & Unwin (2001)
But Jasper Came Instead, Christine Nöstlinger, Andersen Press (1983)


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Reading Translations


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