Sharing Spaces: thoughts on translating for Children

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
The Indian Review of Books

Yenakku aaru vayadaaga irukkumbodu oru samayam oar arputhamaana padatthai kanden. Adu aalpuga kadugalai pattriya "unmai kathaigal" yenra puttagattil irundadu. Oru kaattu vilangai malai pambu onru vizhumgikondu irundadai kaatittru adu. Melai iruppadu appadattin nagal. 

Puttagattil ippadi irundadu: " Malai pambugal iraiyai mellamal appadiye vizhungividum. Pinnar avatraal asaiyakkooda mudiyaadu. Unavu serippadarkaagum aaru maathangalum avai toongikondirukkum."

Adai aduttu, kaattil nadakkum saagach sambavangalippatri aazhundu sindittu, yen pangukku vanna pencil kondu yen mudal padattai varaivadil vetrikkanden. Padam en 1 ippadi irundadu. 

Yennudaiya saadanaiyai periyavargalidam kaatti yen padam avargalai bayamurithiyada yendru ketten.
"Oru toppi yengalai yeppadi bayamurutha mudiyum?"
Yenudaiya padam toppiyai kurikkavillai. Yaanaiyai vizhungiya oru malai pambai kuritthadu.

          This passage introduces what must surely rank as a classic of the twentieth century, a parable written as much for adults as for children, a book for all time that many of us have been able to read thanks to the nuanced efforts of a translator.

          If we ask ourselves 'Why translate for children?', the answer must be, 'For the same reasons that we translate Seamus Heaney or Arundhati Roy or Garbriel Garcia Marquez or Munshi Premchand': to reach great writing to the world and to be moved, inspired and motivated by the experiences such writing evokes; to dissipate the barriers of language and shred fears of the unknown; to share the spaces created by the wonder of telling, reading, writing; and eventually, without our being aware of it, becoming part of a common collective human consciousness.

          Does this sound like so much spiel over a little question? Sound and fury signifying nothing?

Today, more than ever before, the time is right. Globalisation and the IT revolution have got into our mindstreams. Sharing spaces is a major happening exercise. Now, more than ever before therefore, is the time to translate for children, not merely across nations but definitely also within them.

          About a year ago, we at Tulika published a book called Who Will Be Ningthou?, a Manipuri story. There was apprehension among some of the translators about certain Manipuri words used in the text, particularly the names: Sanajaoba, Sanayaima, Sanatomba, Sanatombi. How would children, unfamiliar with any world but their own, react to sounds that would surely stick in their throats? What if it put them off the book completely? These were questions that we, as publishers, couldn't brush aside. Soon after, we put together a street play based on the book, and freely threw in Manipuri words, even phrases, used in the book. The children doing the play loved it. 'Phajai! Phajai!' one would yell. 'Thouro! Thouro!' another would reply. The children had responded to the poetry, the music, the magic of the sounds. We then rested easy in the thought that even if a child found a word hard to say or to understand, he or she would delight in the world that had been conjured up. 

          But nothing is ever so clearly defined, particularly in India, where contradictions are the norm everywhere – in books for children too, and translations. Besides, as the British writer and critic Brigid Smith has stated so vividly, children find themselves in the books they read. And when they read all kinds of books from all kinds of cultures, they find themselves there too. They also discover other people, other times, other lives...

          Think about your own childhood, listening to someone – someone you loved – telling you a story. It didn't come out pat, the same words, the same way, each time. One small detail here, another touch there, an anecdote to giggle about, a real-life experience . . . and when you didn't understand, this person you loved, told it to you again in a language you understood, responded to. Isn't that translation? Not simply rendering a story or piece of writing from one language into another, but telling it like it matters. Suddenly we discover that we can and do inhabit that and other worlds. 

          And so the world of the book and the world of the child come together.

          In another way, the Panchatantra, the oldest body of literature for children, which exists in over 200 versions in over 50 languages around the world, brought worlds together. Written originally in Sanskrit, it would never have reached anywhere had someone not translated it first – that's how far translations can reach. The Panchantantra, however, also highlights an important aspect of translating for children. It is translated primarily for its stories. Not for its writing. That's where the challenge lies. 

          Translating a story is not difficult if you have the words. But to translate a culture, an ethos, calls for imagination, creativity – and a great deal of hard work. There are some considerations, however, that seem to operate, going by our own experience with translating books for children. The very first appears to be that the translator – as much as the writer and illustrator – needs to understand and love children, be sensitive to their concerns, and accommodating of their sensibilities. Without that, a translation will, in all likelihood, be competent or even good but not great. 

          If this seems like overstating the case, we might look to Harivanshrai Bachchan to clarify the issue through his poem, rendered from the Hindi:

I told a bird, 'I want to write a poem on you.'
The bird said, 'Are your words as colourful as my wings?'
'Are your words as sweet as the music of my voice?'
'Have your words the flight of my wings?'
'Have your words my life?'
'Then how can you write a poem on me?'
I said, 'But I love you.'
The bird replied, 'What has love to do with words?'

          The answer, we know, is 'Everything'. Translating for children is something like this poem.

The second consideration, our experience shows, is that the translator must love language, rejoice in words, delight in phrases, be moved by ideas. In Translation as Discovery published by Orient Longman, writer and translator Sujit Mukherjee points out that translators are expected to be proficient in the language of the original as well as in English, practised readers and meaning-makers of literature and habitually readers in English. For 'English' substitute any language of your choice, it would be valid. 

          The third and most important consideration is that children be attracted to the book, the pictures and words. One way of testing the text, therefore, is to read it aloud. How does it sound? Does it resonate with the spirit of poetry, the cadence of music, the energy of dance? Little children are often read to and older ones appreciate it. Even venerables like us enjoy a story or a poem or a text well told, well read. 

          So you see how translating for children is different, determined as it is by the nature of the readership. It happens within a context, not in isolation for the sake of the work itself but because we want children to pick up these books and read them. These translations happen the way they do because children are the way they are – there's no one way to deal with them.

          It's hard to say if this perception is good or bad, right or wrong. But it is based on hands-on experience and must count for something. We have no models, only some West-oriented theories that somehow don't jell in our soil. For instance, a basic Western tenet is that the writing for children, and this includes translation, should be simple – we might argue, simplistic. But Indian children, growing in a great big heterogenous often illogical pot of philosophical, religious, linguistic, cultural, political, sociological and many other contradictions, are capable of selecting and analysing vast quantities of data and comprehending several levels of meaning as a result of constantly engaging with comlexities in everyday life. Urban Indian children deal with English or Tamil or Hindi or any other as their first medium of instruction, and then go on to study a second and a third language. This is the context in which we translate for Indian children.

          Sukanta Chaudhuri whose The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray was published by OUP, knows what this means. That's why he says in his brief introduction to the book, 'Clever men might debate whether nonsense can be translated; but I reassure myself that at worst, the result will still be nonsense.' According to a Sukumar Ray fan who knows a lot of the writing in the original Bangla, while many of the pieces work, she has the uncomfortable feeling that although the original is simple and very definitely for children, the translation seems more for adults. She worries that he has lost his audience. Maybe. But he has found another. 

Let's look at a few lines, in the original and in translation, and enjoy what we may:
(from Snakes Alive)
Baburam shaapude, Baburam, snake-man, 
Kotha jaash bapure? Where do you go, man?
Aay baba dekhe jaa, Stop for two shakes
Duto shaap rekhe jaa! And sell me some snakes.
Je shaaper chokh nei, They mustn't have claws
Shing nei nokh nei, Or nails, or jaws,
Chhote na ki haate naa, Nor run nor fight,
Kaaoke je kaate na, Nor ever bite:

(from Pumpkin-Puff)
Jodi kumdopotash naache –
Khobordaar eshonaa keo aastaboler kaache,
Chaibe naako daaine baayen chaibe naako paache;
Charpa tule thaakbe jhule hottomulaar gaache!

If Pumpkin-Puff should dance –
Beware! Beware! You musn't dare beyond the stalls advance.
You musn't glance to fore or aft, or cast your eyes aslant,
But grapple close with tips and toes the Rancid Radish Plant.

         A colleague worries about what happens when a translator makes of the translation a work of one's own and how will the nuances of language and meaning be correctly conveyed? Valid questions, these would depend upon the individual translator and the degree to which he or she is willing to get involved and take responsibility. And to see it works, it's worthwhile recalling what Isaac Bashevis Singer has once said: "Unknown words don't stop a child. A boring story will."

          That's why, for children's books, it becomes paramount that editors work closely with translators. That they listen to each other and work and rework and rewrite all over again. Yes, it is a lot of hard work to make it just right. 

          But children don't know it is a translation and they possibly couldn't care. All they know is they want to read on... As I did, many years ago: 

           Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book called 'True Stories from Nature', about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing.

          In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion." I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a coloured pencil, I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One. It looked like this.

I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.

But they answered: "Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?"

          My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Yes, it's The Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, translated into English by Katherine Woods and into Tamil by S. Madanacalliany and V. Sriram (published by Cre-A), both directly from the original French. And incredibly, the passage offers insights into the nature of translation itself.