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Language and Terminology
in Translated Books


These activities are suitable for KS3, KS4 and above as they can be adapted depending upon the age group.

Language and Terminology Activities, RtW2, Jan18



In our research report we concluded that the effectiveness of a translation of any book relating to disability needs to be considered from several angles.  It should go without saying that the 'new' (translated) book must of course first and foremost 'work' and read as a natural, flowing story in its own right.  However, in terms of how disability is depicted, it must be considered in terms of both its general messages about disability but also how specific words, terms and concepts can be translated – and yet without losing the '‘essence' of the original and yet ensuring the meaning and any associated connotations or inferences are appropriate and current.  

Particular issues can arise in translation and it is important for a translator to be aware of the cultural expectation and what is deemed as acceptable and in terms of language i.e. what words we are comfortable using.

The Books

This activity can be used for language students (languages featured include Arabic, French, Italian and Spanish), but also much more generally to discuss language and terminology in terms of how disability is portrayed. The following four titles have not been published in English so we suggest using the books in their original language.*

Lorenzo’s Saucepan (El Cazo Lorenzo, La petite casserole d'Anatole, Il Pentolino di Antonino)

One example of an issue with the English translation of Lorenzo’s Saucepan might be where it refers to Lorenzo’s problem as ‘discreet’.  In all three editions the word – discrète (French); discreto (Italian) and discreto (Spanish)

Speechless (Muette)

A literal translation of the title Muette means 'mute' which is unlikely to be acceptable for publication of the book in the UK. The translator came up with a working title of ‘Speechless’. Another example is the narrator referring to playing with the little boy – “Two ‘mutes’ together.” 

Zitti’s Cake Shop (La pasticceria Zitti)

The word "zitti" in Italian means "be quiet!" or just "quiet" as a plural adjective The word’s popular use – "Zitti!" yelled by countless parents and teachers would be familiar to any child or classroom. Although 'Zitti' can be a surname in Italy it was the intention of the author to have a subtle reference to 'silence' in the title.

There are obviously many alternatives to translating the word ‘zitti’ into English but they could potentially have negative connotations threatening to place undue (and potentially negative) emphasis on the element of deafness.

Other areas within the text also prompted discussion, for example:

“Il Signor Zitti, infatti, non diceva nemmeno una parola: non ne aveva mai detta una in vita sua e, nemmeno, era in grado di sentire le parole degli altri. Lo aveva colpito, da bambino, una malattia che nessun medico poteva curare e per la quale nessun farmacista possedeva una medicina.”

“The fact is, Mr. Zitti couldn't speak. He'd never been able to speak, and he couldn't hear what other people said either. He'd had an illness when he was little and the doctors couldn't cure it. There were no medicines at the chemist's to help him either.”

The sentence was revised in the final English translation to read:

“The fact is, Mr. Zitti couldn't speak. He'd never been able to speak, and he couldn't hear what other people said either. He'd had an illness when he was little. No doctor or medicine could change it – this was just the way he was.”

Although it was an improvement, there was still overall concern about the mention of ‘doctors’ as this might convey a sense that the disability was an affliction or something that could be cured.


  • In Lorenzo’s Saucepan how could this be rephrased to keep the meaning but without appearing to be negative?

  • How would you translate the title Muette?

  • Within Speechless the text it also refers to “mutes”. How would you reword it?

  • How would you translate the title of La pasticceria Zitti?

  • How would you tackle the above example in La pasticceria Zitti so that it kept the essence of the message but avoided any negative connotations?

In the ‘Suggested Books’ there are some other examples of English Language titles that could be used to create a discussion around terminology and what can and can’t be used in the context of referring to disability. The books use terminology that some people might challenge but there are some points to keep in mind. At the time the stories were set these terms would have been used and they might not necessarily have been meant in a derogatory way.  As terminology has changed, especially in the last few years, our perception of how we describe disability has altered. It is also the case that different countries use terminology which might not be acceptable to us in the UK.

Using the right terminology can be confusing.  In the USA it is acceptable to use the term ‘dwarf’ and the word ‘handicapped’ is still used in different parts of the world; a recent example of this is a review of the film ‘My Brother Simple (Simpel)’ from The Hollywood Reporter (2017).

Although some of the terminology used in the above books may grate, such as terms like 'mute' (referred to 'handicapped' and 'spaz'), or for example, referring to Simple as having a mental age of three, as you read these stories it becomes apparent that the use of such terms is often not meant in a derogatory way, but readers will need to decide whether the overall message in each of the books is demeaning.

Useful government website for Terminology 

For more information see ‘Reading the Way 2 Report Case Study 4 and the case studies from our original RtW research in 2015 – Lorenzo’s Saucepan, Zitti’s Cake Shop and Translation Challenges.

*An English translation of Zitti’s Cake Shop is available to download from Zitti’s Cake Shop Activities. For English translations of any of the other titles please email info@OutsideInWorld .


Suggested Books:


Lorenzo’s Saucepan
La petite casserole d'Anatole)
Isabelle Carrier
Editions Bilboquet, France 2009
El Cazo Lorenzo, Editorial Juventud, Spain, 2010

Il Pentolino di Antonino, Kite Edizioni, 2011

A combination of all editions were used for a translation.

Lorenzo’s has to drag a saucepan round with him wherever he goes. Often he finds himself in difficult situations and sometimes people don't understand him. This is book with a metaphorical approach to how we can each learn to cope with our own specific challenges.


Speechless (Muette)
Anne Cortey (text), Alexandra Pichard (ills.)
Editions Autrement, France, 2011
Language: French

This is the story about a child who does not speak. One day, some friends of her parents visit with a little boy who doesn’t talk either. Together, away from the others, they begin to exchange a few words.

Zitti’s Cake Shop (La pasticceria Zitti)
Rosa Tiziana Bruno (text)
Ambra Garlashcelli (ills.)
La Margherita Edizioni, Italy, 2011

Explores the extraordinary properties of food as a form of communication because understanding does not always need words.

Books in English

Bronze and Sunflower
Cao Wenxuan
Translated from Chinese by Helen Wang
Walker Books, 2015

Bronze and Sunflower is set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution about Bronze, who has been unable to speak since a traumatic childhood experience, and Sunflower, who is orphaned and taken in by Bronze's family.

Bartolome: The Infanta's Pet
Rachel Van Kooij
Translated from German by Siobhán Parkinson
Little Island, 2012

Bartolome isinspired by a real painting, on display in the national art gallery in Madrid. Bartolomé has restricted growth, deformed feet and kyphosis (curvature of the upper back, then known as a ‘hunch back’).  It’s the 17th century and attitudes towards disability are less than positive.

My Brother, Simple
Marie-Aude Murail

Translated from French by Adriana Hunter
Bloomsbury, 2012

Kleber is resolutely determined to avoid his brother Simple, who has learning difficulties, being packed off to an institution by their father. Simple has the ability to see things differently, demonstrating enviable levels of logic, honesty and humour.

Summer with Mary-Lou
Stefan Casta

Translated from Swedish by Tom Geddes
Andersen Press, 2005

Adam invites his childhood friend Mary-Lou to spend the summer with him. Mary-Lou is confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident. No one really knows what happened and she has never spoken about it.


For some of these activities we have chosen books used in the RtW projects. Wherever possible we have checked their availability to purchase through the Amazon link on our website. All the above books are listed under their original title (if not in English). 









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