When No Way is No Way: translating for children

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
The Book Review, New Delhi

Just when we were sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves about a monster deadline as we hopped between one translator and the next across eight languages and nine different texts, inclusive of idiosyncrasies, there arrived in the post a long-delayed CD with matter for the Chinese edition of a title. 

          The entire office collected around the computer as the pdfs began to play. Total silence. The youngest, possibly the coolest, quickly cut through the air saying, “It must be because they cannot write the word in Chinese. They use a pictorial system, don’t they?” Wherever there was supposed to be a proper name, the word appeared in Roman script, not Chinese. Even in the title. So Takdir the Tiger Cub1 was written as ‘the Tiger Cub (in Chinese script) Takdir (in English script)’. In other words, the word Takdir was not written in Chinese script at all. In that case, how would those who read only Chinese, read this word? Other proper names too, such as Choti, Badi, Bindi, were in English script. Does this mean, then, that there is no way to write non-Chinese words in Chinese, especially proper names? How then will Chinese children read other-region specific words? What about learning about other cultures in terms of those cultures themselves? Or, was it that this particular translator had a problem? We had no one to check with and no more time.

          Well, here was one more thing to worry about. 

          No, translation is “not an eassy joke”, even after ten years of hardcore, hands-on experience because Murphy’s Law always operates. It shows up glaringly in picture books with their relatively briefer texts because the margin for error here is non-existent. Marketing sees translation as positively unfunny, but let’s not get into that now except to observe that a couple of big publishers have stopped doing Indian languages. 

          Possibly the first and most important mantra is this: Text is subservient to the reader. Does it follow that you can freely stray from the path of the original text? Of course not. Text is subservient to the reader, and translator is subservient to the text. Never mind what translation theorists might say, our experience with translating books for children is that all paths have to be trod, simultaneously — spirit, letter, meaning, aesthetics, everything. We do not have the luxury of indulgence because our reader is a child coping in an unequal world. The bottomline is that any child picking up the book anywhere has to be able to negotiate the world of the book on her or his own terms, and be completely party to its marvels.

          This is near-impossible, we know that. A child living in the thick forests of Gudalur, Tamilnadu, has a completely different set of signifiers from a santhal child growing up in the Sundarbans of Bengal and another living in Dharavi, Mumbai. And what they can hope to access is far-removed from the reach and possibility of children going to Modern School, New Delhi. 

          Some time ago, a friend wanted feedback on a collection of songs and stories from a tribal community living on the Kerala-Tamilnadu border, whose language is a Tamil mixed with Malayalam. The work had been translated into ‘acceptable’ Tamil, but in the process had lost the richness of the original. But if it were not done in ‘acceptable’ Tamil, it would not be accepted. The American writer Virginia Hamilton, an author of tremendous stature, fought successfully and set a trend in writing in the English of the Black people. In India, however, dialects are not as yet on the fringe of children’s publishing.

         There are some considerations, perhaps peculiar to the children's book industry in India. The first is having to contend with the equation of literature with literacy, and the social imperatives that make it impossible to separate them. The second is the unique character of each language, which can either free or limit its scope for maneuverability, both in single language and dual language editions. 

          For example, take a sentence like 'They were called Choti and Badi.' In a dual language book, it would normally be rendered as, 'Unko Choti aur Badi bulaate thhey' in Hindi; as 'Avargal Choti mattrum Badi enru azhakkappattanar' in Tamil. But wait, these are tiger cubs that are being referred to, not humans. While 'called' in English sounds alright, the sentence begins to sound ludicrous in Hindi and Tamil: Who called them Choti mattrum Badi? Their mother, a tigress? You mean she named them and called them by those names? The sentence had to be changed so that there would be semantic equivalence between the English and the other Indian language.

          There is always a way, there has to be, and when a translator says there's no way a certain line can be translated a certain way (especially in the dual language books where the two language texts have to mirror each other to the extent possible), that position is unacceptable. Sometimes that can even sour professional and personal relationships. One loyal translator has threatened to produce an unrejectable, untranslatable manuscript in Malayalam and watch the fun as we struggle to English it under her uncompromising tutelage! 

          Sounds grim? Not if you are part of the world of children. We visited the SOS village in Tambaram, Chennai, this July, in connection with the setting up of a resource centre housing books and toys, and promising exciting activities. A house mother had barely turned the key in the lock when children descended from all corners of the sprawling campus. They rushed in through the door and headed straight for the book rack. In seconds they had settled around a brightly-painted low table, each reading aloud his and her chosen title. Then they showed us their little miracle — the same book in English and Tamil! — and now they began to read, one in Tamil, one in English, Tamil-English, English-Tamil. 

          That’s our good fortune. The look on the face of a child clutching a book; the sound of a child's voice, reading; the chance for one more child to belong to a world that is hers/his by right.      

          The idea that texts for picture books are easy to translate is a misconception. Even when the text is really simple, the process of translating is not because the text is subservient to the reader and the translator is subservient to the text. Further, the text is subservient to layout.

          Typically, how it works with a book in several language editions is like this: the layout is finalised with one base text, after which the text alone, necessarily in black, is changed for subsequent languages. This means, the space for text is constant. In other words, it is limited. Certain languages, such as Tamil and Malayalam, occupy more space not just in terms of the script, but in terms of the translation itself. For instance, a single Malayalam or Tamil word can caterpillar into 14-15 characters. Typeset in 16 to 20 points, a whole line can sometimes be just one word! Take, for example, a phrase like ‘vilaiyaattusaamaanukku naduvule’ (Tamil for ‘among the toys’). Or the point size has to be reduced drastically, which doesn't help the young reader of picture books.

          This is not just a problem of physical space on a page; the length of words is a stumbling block to reading. In fact, some teachers have requested that, where possible, long words should be broken into short ones. It is a practical suggestion, anathema to purists. But if we want children to read in their mother tongues, in other Indian languages, if we want to create a generation of readers who will contribute to the literature of their languages, we will have to act on this suggestion. Especially as we know that languages are dying by the day. Still, it requires a progressive translator to do this. For instance, our Tamil translator was willing to break works like mezhuguvarthimadiri (like a candle) into mezhuguvarthi madiri, and irangamudiyuma (can you get down) iranga mudiyum,3 and so on. Of course, the translator / writer has to be convinced it is the thing to do, and not simply give in to coercion.

          The practice of translating children's books is demanding on translators and editors because it cannot happen in isolation. For editors, dealing with languages they know is one thing. But dealing with translators in languages they don't know? Despite the presence of language consultants, editors have no choice but to begin to learn new languages because no mediator quite understands the spaces and silences in texts. “….The translator must surrender to the text," writes Gayatri Chakravorty. "She must solicit the text to show the limits of its language, because that rhetorical aspect will point at the silence of the absolute fraying of language that the text wards off, in its special manner. Some think this is just an ethereal way of talking about literature or philosophy. But no amount of tough talk can get around the fact that translation is the most intimate art of reading. Unless the translator has earned the right to become the intimate reader, she cannot surrender to the text, cannot respond to the special call of the text.”

          In our experience, most translators of children's books are still learning the art of reading texts intimately, as it is and not like they want it to be. The easy way is to opt for transcreation, transformation, retelling as the first resort. It isn’t easy to hold your ground against the wall of oral tradition and how stories have been told to children over generations. It’s an argument that carries weight in India and it takes great will to battle it out even with good translators because the intentions are honourable. In this tradition, the telling is declamatory, exclamatory, woven with flowery language, and paints a larger-than-life picture, even if the original text is quiet and understated. It seeks to better the original because that’s-how-stories-should-be-told-to-children. Invariably this leads to “the production of a text that is more ‘clear’, more ‘elegant’, more ‘fluent’, more ‘pure’ than the original. They are the destruction of the letter in favour of meaning.”

          However, this is a battle that can be won. The bigger battle is to bridge the gap between the formal and the friendly, the literary and the spoken. It is a fact that small children find it hard to negotiate books that use pedantic, literary language and, given the choice, would rather avoid such books. In any case, informal, friendly, accessible does not mean unworthy of literary merit. Why is it that when it comes to texts for children, some pundits are so inflexible? We are speaking in the context of adding to the body of children’s literature. And language exists only in its being used. The issue seems connected to inbuilt mechanism of didacticism in anything to do with children. But if the language is intimidating, how can we attract children to books and reading? 

          We took a conscious, somewhat risky decision – given the attitude to the written language – to render the translations of My Friend, the Sea (a book triggered off by the experience of the tsunami) in simple, colloquial language, as it would be spoken by a nine- or ten-year-old child from the fishing community in Tamilnadu and in whose voice the story is told. As it happened, we ran into difficulties with the title itself, for entirely another reason. In Tamil the title would translate as Kadal yenn nanban (where nanban, friend, is masculine) or Kadal yenn thozhi (where thozhi, friend, is feminine). The latter wouldn’t work because the protagonist of the story was a boy. The former wouldn’t work because in the text, the sea is referred to as “Kadalamma, Ocean Mother”, and using nanban would make the sea masculine. So, in order to be true to the cultural context of the sea as Kadalamma and the textual context of the sea as friend, we arrived at Kadalum Naanum (The sea and I, Samandar aur main).

          We enlisted the assistance of a Tamil film scriptwriter to give us feedback on the Tamil version in which it was possible to use the language a child would actually speak. Films have a way of creatively and effortlessly crossing language barriers. At the release function, the chief guest Andal Damodaran, who is honorary secretary of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, drew attention to the ‘voice’ which, she said, made her feel as though she were actually sitting with the child on the beach, listening to him recount the experience as his fingers played in the sand. The feedback from children in tsunami-affected areas and others who have, since, read Kadalum Naanum, has been that they are able to easily identify with the experience of the child, and they recommend that others read it too to know what their lives are like. However, at the same release function, there was at least one person who objected to the ‘downgrading’ of the language.

          If Kadalum Naanum was a somewhat more complex text, Who Am I? was certainly not. It talks about identity in terms of relationships (I am a boy, I am a girl, I am a granddaughter and so on). The book was just going off to press when someone raised an alarm: Does the translation of ‘I am a human being’ in Tamil as ‘Naan oru manithan’ exclude one half of the human race? Is ‘manithan’ more masculine than neuter? That started a scramble and a series of phone calls for verification. No one had a sure answer. A well-known feminist author got back with ‘manushi’. But that was political positioning. Which was fine, but in a children’s book? Did we want to do that? A highly respected lexicographer pointed out that this was a very important question that required thorough examination, it could not be resolved in the course of a phone conversation. But he was in favour of giving manithan neutral status. Then what about ‘insaan’? Each one we spoke to emphasised the importance of examining not just this word, but many others like it. A simple little dual language had sparked off a storm with cultural ramifications.
          The Chinese text also draws attention to cultural and regional specificities. I once had a fierce argument with a translator who refused to keep the original names of a Manipuri (Meitei) story saying that the children for whom the story was being translated wouldn’t be able to say those names. Wasn’t it equally possible that children would be fascinated? I know for a fact that children love to roll strange sounds and names off their tongues. To say Pippi Longstrump! Ville Villekulla! (Swedish) As much as Sanayaima! Sanajaoba! Sanatombi! (Meitei).

          When I read aloud from a Hindi translation of the Swedish classic Pippi Longstrump to a group of girls in a municipal school in Mumbai – a translation that retains the cultural and regional specifics of early twentieth century Sweden – the children didn’t seem to have difficulty comprehending the text. But a young man doing his Ph.D. in Hindi who read the proofs, did. It didn’t fit into his conception of a children’s book. Nor did he know that Astrid Lindgren took special delight in wordplay. The children in Tambaram may have stumbled over words but that did not discourage them from reading about things unfamiliar to their world. 

          The English translator of Pippi, for instance, was obviously bowing to cultural constraints when she replaced replaced all the coffees with teas. In England, they drink tea, not coffee. But in Sweden, it’s coffee that reigns. Would English children not have understood that eight- and nine-year-olds routinely drinking coffee was somehow defiant? Would they not know coffee? Names, too, are routinely changed. In Pippi itself, the name Malin has been changed to Martha. In other Lindgren books, Lasse is Karl, Olle is Olaf, Bosse is Andy and so on… And there’s no elegant way, in English, of knowing if ‘grandfather’ refers to the maternal or paternal grandfather unless it says so, rather inelegantly. But in Swedish, farfar is your father’s father, morfar is your mother’s father; family relationships have specific nomenclature, just like Hindi and some other Indian languages. 

          Translating Pippi was an experience. Astrid Lindgren's style is simple, conversational, playful, strong. She juggles with words and is always on the children's side. To really understand this, it was important to turn to the original Swedish text, and not rely only on the English translation, competent though that was. It meant working closely with a Swedish translator, Meta Ottosson, in Sweden, (thanks to the Indo-Swedish Translation Project) after the Hindi translation was past its first draft stage. I would read the English, Meta would follow the Swedish and whenever she bumped into a discrepancy between the two, “Hang on,” she would say and supply a literal translation, sometimes consulting two or three dictionaries. That same night, or the following morning, I would compare the changes with my translation into Hindi, make notes, send emails to my team back home in Chennai, they would pore over various dictionaries and send back messages, all of which was later fine-tuned, run by objective readers, further worked upon and finalised. There will be further tuning when the book is reprinted, but . . .

          We had had heated arguments about pancake and malpua, chhote-chhote and chhote-se, how to translate ham and buns, and lots more. The tough bits, though, were Lindgren’s verbal gymnastics, and the references to local life and times – words like, in English, ‘turnupstuffer’, ‘nuffries in the nuffboard’, ‘skurlov’; the play on word for clock and caster sugar; Pippi's version of the summer song and so on. Ways were found because, no way is no way. Not acceptable. And if it was felt the child would still not understand, we took the help of Wordbird, a Tulika invention. The wordbird is a bird that explains words and ideas. In Pippi Lambemoze, the wordbird is introduced on the contents page. It says: "I am a Wordbird. If there’s something you don’t understand while reading this story, Wordbird is at your service to explain." This made it possible to gloss references such as Little Red Riding Hood, or croquet, or dandelion, or kroner outside of the story yet in a light and easy way on the page itself. Referring to that bit is a choice the reader can make. 

          I happened to come across an essay by Antoine Berman in which he lists about a dozen tendencies "or forces that cause translation to deviate from its essential aim". He speaks of these as deforming the text. Surprisingly, every single point he raises resonates in our experience of translating children's books, including the destruction of rhythms, the tampering with linguistic patternings, the exoticisation of vernacular languages (by italicising them, for instance), qualitative impoverishment, clarification and expansion of text (writing in more than there is in the text in order to explain), and so on. In the context of translation into French, Berman warns of the danger of finding parallel images, expressions, figures of speech or proverbs. He writes, “Even if the meaning is identical, replacing an idiom by its equivalent is ‘ethnocentrism’. Repeated on a large scale, the practice will result in absurdity whereby the characters (e.g) in Conrad’s Typhoon will express themselves with a network of French images.” That’s perhaps why Pippi has to remain a Swedish child, in Hindi or in any other language. 

          We have to recognise that translation is a literary genre apart as much in children's books as in any other discipline. It demands high standards. It demands total surrender. It demands that we give children opportunities to read in their own languages about other people, other experiences, other cultures in terms true to the ‘other’ and in ways that make it easy for the child to receive those experiences and cultures and to understand ways of seeing, living, being. On the other hand, simply transforming the ‘other’ into oneself by standardising references, language, and meanings only increases distances because there are no references to enable a process of understanding. And only with understanding comes acceptance of differences. Isn’t that, finally, what the hunger for translation is all about?