Invent As You Play: Learning how to translate for children

Talk by Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
at Stella Maris College, Chennai, 1999

In the abstract that I sent over to Dr Seetha Srinivasan, the title of this presentation has been put down as 'Invent as you play: Translating for children'. Then of course, as usual, there were second thoughts. What if they get the wrong impression, 'invent' is not really what it is it and so on. So, to clarify the title and, in the process, put before you the whole truth, the title we amended to 'Learning how to translate for children'. This describes almost exactly the experiences we have had as a book publisher, committed to doing books for children in the best possible ways we know. One of those ways is to learn as we go from deadline to deadline and discover/invent methodologies and theories for ourselves. This may not be the best or indeed the only way, but there it is. Besides, most of the models before us are western that do not always allow for home-grown voices to be heard.

Having made this confession . . . all that we say and do in this session will be based on hands-on experiences: as writer, translator, editor, publisher. I would like to share with you the experiences we have had and hope to learn from you, your reactions. I hope your teachers will forgive me for my lack of scholarship. But it comes from the heart and hard-learned lessons.

At a book fair recently, I saw a book called 'Here Comes the Cat'. What caught the eye was that it was in Russian and English; it was a bilingual book. I got so excited and promptly bought it. But what a disappointment! The only words, in fact the only sentence used in the whole book, was the one that was already on the front cover of the book: here comes the cat!

(SHOW THE BOOK) Well . . . all I can say is that what we're talking about today is somewhat more ambitious and veering most definitely towards more creative translation!

All the translation that we have done so far has been in the context of being a children's book publisher. I'd like to emphasise this because there is a difference, however subtle, between doing a translation for itself in isolation, and doing a translation in a particular context. It does influence the way you look at translation and the liberties you take with it. I would even go so far as to say that in contextual terms, it serves as a means to an end, even as it has integrity and life of its own. If this seems confusing, contradictory, don't worry. It will get clearer as we go along. It's a thought, just bear it in mind.

Another thing to remember is what kind of readers you are translating for and what language will you use. Children come from different backgrounds, with different levels of reading, exposed to different kinds of language use and so on. Then, with a language like Tamil, for instance, where the written language is so different from the spoken tongue, what do you do? Do you opt for the simpler, spoken form and be damned by purists, teachers and all alike or do you play safe and go for the typically literary form and be damned by children? Then again, some words are either untranslatable or commonly used/familiar. Do you keep these or do you translate them? We sometimes use the original word where it fits it nicely, where the meaning is clear, where it helps the text resonate . . . is this acceptable? Who makes the rules?

All these factors also matter when getting into translating for children.

We've been working on books for three years now, almost exactly. And one of the first things we decided was that we would do books not just in English, in spite of our very English-medium education, but in as many languages as we could. Somehow we felt that by not having had the exposure to children's books in our own mother tongues, we had lost some sense of who we were. We wanted to do something about this and the one way we could, we felt, was by doing interesting, attractive books in Indian languages. Then again, what languages would we handle? Well, to begin with, only languages we knew and so could monitor. Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and English of course.... now maybe Bangla as well.

Incidentally, the very first book we did was Line and Circle, a bilingual book — and the learning began in real earnest! It is very simple book, with two- and three-word sentences. What problems could there be? But there were several, the most vexing being the use of tense without one language or the other sounding odd. English has clearcut rules, Indian languages seem more flexible, freewheeling. We had, to put it simply, hell sorting it all out.

Anyway, what are the things to remember while translating a book for children? Let's say, 4 to 10 years old.

• It must be simple.
• It must communicate.
• It must reflect the register and romance of the language of the original.
• It must be true to the register and romance of the language of the translation.
• It must inspire the child to read on.
• It must appeal to all children. That is, it must be challenging enough for a child who knows the language and encouraging enough for a child who is learning the language.
All things considered, it is a pretty tall order.

Then again, there are other, practical considerations. And it is related to the fact that these translations cannot be viewed in isolation. Apart from content, there is the question of production. For instance, if you are doing a book in five languages, the colour plates are printed off at one shot. The black text matter changes, from one language to another. This means, the text has to fit in the space provided. Remember, in children's books, illustrations are a priority. So you have to balance the text with the illustrations maybe on every page.

Our experience has been that English is compact and there are far more fonts available. In languages like Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, the fonts are limited. This means we have to sometimes make up for the lack of beauty of a font by giving the text extra leading, by limiting the width of the line (also for reasons of easy readability) apart from, of course, opting for a large point size to make it easy to read. Now a language like Tamil takes up more space because the language is such.

Any translation has to keep this in mind. Which means, how you approach translation matters. It's not enough simply to edit. Because then, you might miss out something. It is a question of making choices all the time.
Thus there is always a balancing act being played out.

Now that the ground has been prepared, what kind of translations exactly are we talking about? Well, different kinds. Again, from our experience, I'd like to talk in particular about four. These are:

• bilingual books
• folktales, retellings
• contemporary writing
• verse .... something I forgot to put into the abstract, how could I?

There is no one way of translating these. Each genre calls for a certain sensibility, a certain approach. While the broad guidelines I talked about will apply across the board, these are sometimes little details that make a difference.

Bilingual Books

Let's take bilingual books. I remember a particular edition of Pablo Neruda's poems was the first bilingual book I saw (that was when I was here, in this college, a student) ... in English and Spanish and it was so exciting! The models we have as far as children's books go all come from the west, mostly from the UK and now also from the US. With such a large Asian population living in the UK and with questions of identity being sharper than ever before, bilingual books have become almost a fetish. That is, a book in which the text appears in two languages, passage for passage, page for page. The unwritten rule is that the second language, whether it is Urdu, Gurmukhi, Turkish or whatever, has to translate literally word for word.

One sees the point of that but how then do you communicate the flavour of the language? One wants to take translation beyond being just a language learning exercise. But one advantage we have here in India is that most people speak at least two languages, many many more. Therefore perhaps we can afford to take a few more liberties? I don't know. But I would like to share at this point some readings with you. The first is from a bilingual book in verse from Bangladesh, called Pongkhi and the Giant Fish.

The second is from a book called Priya's Day. This particular passage was difficult to translate for various reasons: the simple style of the English, the construction of the sentences, the description of the market, the number of things that happen, the length of the passage, the space provided for the text!

Obviously, a whole sentence has been edited. For reasons of space entirely. So the translator has to see how she/he can say all that has been said and still fit all the matter in. With simple text, there is not much trouble. But complex texts pose more problems, naturally.


Then we come to translating texts like folktales into several languages simultaneously. The basic text is in English, for obvious reasons. Or if it is in, say, Malayalam, we would first do the English translation and then work that into other languages. Those who know more than one language certainly have an advantage. But eventually we come together with all the translations and do a comparative exercise: take a cue from one language, add something here, subtract something there... basically see how the translations sound, if the basic story holds true, and if the language reflects the spirit of the original without compromising its own integrity.

Then again, when we work with translators, we have some idea of what the translation should sound like, we have a picture of the end result. And we work very closely with them towards that goal. A lot of it is instinct, but instinct can play an important part in guiding the translator. Let's take a reading from a book called A Curly Tale in as many languages as possible.

Recently, I was at a workshop on translation in Madurai conducted by Dr Lakshmi Holmstrom : Translation As Process. One of the persons who spoke there was Arshia Sattar, the Sanskrit scholar who has translated the Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagar. She talked about "packaging" a translation. What does this mean? All of the accessories required to make the translation as meaningful as possible . . . such as footnotes, glossaries, notes, introduction, even diacritical marks and so on. While she spoke it suddenly struck me that we had, quite unwittingly, hit upon our own way of handling glossaries and footnotes in a series called Wordbird Books. That is if there was an unfamiliar word or idea on a page, we worked a little bird into the illustration which carried the meaning or explanation in simple terms. Wordbirds! Another term for glossary???! Let's read from Eecha Poocha.

Of course, when we thought of it we were only excited about the possibility of sharing words in different languages! In these translations, the way the language is used becomes important even as it has to remain as true as possible to the original text. You do take liberties with the language, depending upon the age-group that is being targeted. And this is the context of the translation. As also the child's familiarity with the language, reading and comprehension levels, familiarity/curiosity value of the theme and so on.

Contemporary Stories/Writings

Basically, however, there is no one way of writing for children and another for adults ... the bottom line is good writing. Most purists would say that the best translation happens when one translates from the mother tongue into another language. Because it is not just the language that is being translated, it is history and culture and all of that. That's true. But it is also true that even if it is not one's mother tongue, if one is sensitive to history, culture, poetry, if one has a sense of identity and is still able to stand outside that circle and look at the text objectively, one can still achieve some degree of authenticity in the translation.

I'd like to share this passage from a story by Ambai in a collection called One World, a collection of writings on the theme of peace and harmony. Now Ambai — some of you may have seen her latest collection, A Purple Sea — is a feminist, an activist. Her concerns are reflected in all her writings. So she is certainly not one to write a fairytale, even for children. This story called Nirmalam and translated as Clear Sky is a beautiful, simple story of friendship . . . . it is also a story about caste, about religion, about gender, about craft. It was not easy to translate, especially as all these issues too had to be handled in a language that did not have a culture of, say, caste. Let's first read the passage.

The reference to aluminium tumbler and brass tumbler and putting it down on the ground . . . these are very definite references to how Dalits are treated in many parts of Tamilnadu. How do you make a young reader understand all this without over-stating or over-explaining? Readers who may not know the first thing about caste conflicts? We had a lot of discussions at work and then we suggested to Ambai that maybe it was better to drop this passage. She said she understood our problem; in that case, she said, drop the whole story! So we didn't; we kept it. How do you feel?

Some of these questions came up at a case study presentation in Madurai as well. Some people said it had to be explained. Others said it was clear there was discrimination . . . the fact of putting the tumbler down on the ground made that clear. So, if children had questions, they could ask them, discuss them. Or would it simply put off the child? It is for readers to decide and for you to see if the translation captures the spirit of the original.

Gopa Majumdar, who has translated Satyajit Ray's writings for children, also talks of the difficulty of translating his detective stories. Where, for instance, a code is built into the language, Bangla in this case. . . how do you decode it in English without giving the game away?


What can one say about translating verse? Many people feel that poetry must simply be translated into prose, not into verse. It is really a different cup of tea. But without song, without poetry, what would life be? And if the magic of one language cannot be shared through another with others, what's the point? Remember, you have to keep in mind rhythm, rhyme, metre, tempo, not to forget meaning ... One way is to keep the spirit, the mood and work on the idea from different angles to arrive at what is best for that language and that translator. This is a story in verse called Malu Bhalu written originally in Hindi. Let's read the original and then see two versions in English of the same stanzas.

A good translation or translator is able to take liberties in a creative way, without seeming to have taken liberties. At least, this is what one hopes will eventually become the standard. There is no doubt at all that we need translations, as much as original works. The best proof we had of this was at the National Children's Science Congress held at the Anna University in December where we had displayed a whole lot of books, simply inviting children to pick up and read. The Tamil books were the most thoroughly thumbed.

Speaking of Arshia again, she talked about grappling with a book until it becomes part of you, a much-loved part of you. It is the same with translating for children. The bottomline is that when a translation has been done with love, a sense of belonging, it shows. And makes the difference.

Often one wishes there had been books like these in our mother tongues when we were children. Because as a generation growing up with English, for better or for worse, many of us feel cheated of our right to know ourselves through our literature, our poetry, our music . . . At least now we hope this will change and we will all be the richer for it, no matter what the language.