When books cross borders

When books cross borders

AuthorLittle Island Books Time


Little Island aspires to expand our own perspectives and those of our readers by publishing books in translation. A look at our catalogue reveals that we have published a dozen international titles. This is not typical of publishers in the English-speaking world, however. We often hear that only 3% of the books published in English-speaking markets are translations, whereas the figure would be much higher in other European countries. 1 Is this true, and if so, why? Is the situation really different in France, for example?

3%: myth or reality?

Figures can be tricky to navigate, especially when trying to draw comparisons. However, Literature Across Frontiers’ latest study is adamant: ‘in 2011 all translations published and distributed in the United Kingdom and Ireland represented 3.16% [of all publications], compared to . . . 15.90% in France’ and equally high, or even higher numbers in other European countries. 1

Although the figure is slightly higher when only literary works are taken into account, British and Irish publishers lag far behind their continental counterparts when it comes to translations. 1 Nevertheless, Charlotte Collins from the UK’s Translators Association considers the 3% figure as outdated and stresses the recent growing interest in translated fiction. 5.63% of all fiction published in the UK in 2018 was translated, and British readers are increasingly turning to foreign fiction in the midst of Brexit. 2

In France, children’s and young-adult books represented 13.6% of all books translated into French, which accounted for 17% of all 2018 new publications 3 – a percentage three times higher than in the UK and Ireland. Of course, the number of titles published in each country differs, but French readers are still much more likely to come across a translated picturebook or middle-grade novel in their bookshops than are Britons. 4

Translated titles are available from a variety of French publishers, but are more likely to come from small publishing companies. That’s also true of the Anglophone world: it is small presses that  are to the forefront in publishing translated works. 5 In children’s literature, for example, the American Enchanted Lion Books and NorthSouth Books are committed to publishing translations, like Pushkin Press or Aurora Metro in the UK and, of course, Little Island in Ireland! Major publishing groups also translate children’s literature from time to time, but don’t seem to particularly showcase them … unlike Amazon with its imprint of translated picturebooks, Amazon Crossing Kids, launched in 2019. 6

French, British and Irish publishers of international books focus heavily on European languages. In 2018 the majority of books translated into French were originally written in English (64%, up to 77.4% for children’s books), 7 far ahead of Japanese (12%) and German (6%). 3 Reciprocally, French is the most translated language into English, while Norwegian and Swedish titles have become increasingly popular, partly due to the success of Nordic crime fiction. 2

Why is there a lack of translations, and why is there so little diversity in source languages? And why might publishers want to open themselves a little bit more to international books?

The challenges of publishing children’s books in translation

One of the first things to consider when publishing foreign books is the cultural gap between countries. What is considered to be acceptable in Brazil might not be in Ireland, and vice versa.

For example, the American translator Lawrence Schimel believes that non-English books confront young children with more mature subjects than English ones. They open children’s eyes on the reality surrounding them, helping them come to grips with it. However, he finds English-language young-adult books particularly progressive in terms of ‘social issues and concerns’, encouraging international publishers to broach sensitive topics. 8

This challenges translators, editors and publishers: how much should they adapt a book to their market? While editing a text in collaboration with the writer allows for numerous changes and offers flexibility, editing a translation is delicate. Substantial alterations might even create tensions with the author and the original publisher. 9

Some changes may be necessary, though. Children have their own cultural background and limited knowledge of other cultures, they might need adaptations to relate to foreign texts … which doesn’t mean distorting the original work and erasing differences! 10 Finding the right balance can be a real struggle. This partly explains why so many books translated into French come from the UK or the USA, because children are familiar with these cultures. 11

Binette Schroeder’sThe Wizardling, translated from German by Siobhán Parkinson

Moreover, the wide age range covered by children’s books, from toddlers to teenagers, makes them particularly complex to translate. Picturebooks, for example, are very challenging for translators who must convey the text’s musicality, its rhythm, its humour, without ever losing sight of the illustrations. Various hurdles have to be overcome in each language: French readers are not as accustomed to rhyming books as Scandinavian or English ones, 12 while English picturebooks have less text than many other languages.

Another reason for the lack of international books in English markets is much more practical. For now, English is the global lingua franca, the main language used in the book industry, so that Anglophone publishers don’t need to speak foreign languages. If rough English translations are often available for picturebooks, it gets much more complicated for novels. Publishers must rely on readers’ reports and sample chapters, making it particularly risky to invest in the text. 13 What if the acquiring publisher is disappointed by the translation? It is too late to back-pedal …

Books then have to be sold, which is no small feat if authors don’t live in the country or don’t speak the language their work has been translated into. This is especially problematic for middle-grade and young-adult books, 14 but might  become less of an issue as digital technologies help set up conferences and e-meetings between artists and their audience.

The joys of translated children’s books

Although publishing international books is not always easy, all sorts of publishing companies have done so for decades. What might motivate them despite the challenges?

According to the agent Kendra Marcus, some translated titles are simply a way to fill out an editor’s list without spending time polishing a manuscript, ideally with a book that has done well abroad. In fact, translating a book that already has some sort of recognition can be less risky than investing in a debut author, especially since grants from the country of origin can help publishers by partly covering translation and sometimes even some production costs. 15

Beyond these economic considerations, other publishers are actively seeking children’s books that will add something different to their catalogues. 16

‘Difference’ is a keyword when it comes to foreign literature, for translated books open up children to different cultures, different world views, different aesthetics and characters. Don’t you find Halina Kirschner’s illustrations for Not Without My Tractor! particularly original, for example?

As the librarian Sara Lissa Paulson explains, foreign books promote cross-cultural understanding, 17 which is essential in a globalised world. How could Irish children understand their peers from China, Egypt or Poland if they cannot put themselves into their shoes? How could children from different cultures share their stories if they never see themselves represented in books?

Books are well known to develop compassion and empathy. Building on Dora Byrd Rowe’s research on ‘using fiction to increase empathy’, EmpathyLab asserts that ‘scientific evidence [shows] that an immersion in quality literature is an effective way to build our empathetic understanding of others’. 18 In this context, translations are the icing on the cake, the perfect way to travel and broaden one’s mind without leaving the bedroom or classroom! This means that we need not only more translated books, but also more diverse books.

As often, quality and diversity should prevail over quantity so that all children can see themselves in books and reflect on the world around them. Unfortunately, Literature Across Frontiers points out the poor representation of some languages, both non-European and European ones, from Eastern Europe for instance. 1 Little Island is, however, very proud to have published All Better! , a collection of Latvian poems about illness and getting better translated by Catherine Ann Cullen.

As mentioned earlier, the problem is the same in France: over 90% of all children’s books translated in 2018 were originally written in English, Italian, Spanish, Japanese or German. 7

Publishers are not alone!

If publishers could try to source stories from a wider range of countries, others also have a role to play in broadening young readers’ horizons.

As reported in the Guardian, British schools below A-level do not encourage the reading of translated fiction and prefer to focus on English literature. 13 French curricula might seem more diverse, yet the importance of translation is not always emphasised. For instance, I studied Henry Winterfield’s Trouble at Timpetill when I was about eleven and have only just realised it was originally written in German ( Timpetill – Die Stadt ohne Eltern)! Even English and American works are not particularly promoted in French schools – beyond a few classics such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm.

Although young French readers are indeed more exposed to translated fiction in their daily lives than their British or Irish counterparts, efforts remain to be made in all countries.

Bernard Friot, a French sociologist and economist, highlights different initiatives that could contribute to making children more aware of the importance of translated works, such as shelving translations and original books side by side, organising exhibitions about translated titles, meeting with translators or studying how first and last names are translated (Tintin and Snowy are called Tintin and Milou in French, Tim and Struppi in German!) 19

Thus, everyone, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents, and children themselves can do their bit to shine a light on a more diverse children’s literature that could foster cross-cultural understanding, international cooperation, and mutual comprehension.

Because the books we read as children stay with us for a lifetime.

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