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12 January, 2012  ▪  Yelyzaveta Hrechaniuk

Children’s Literature: Lost in Translation?

More books for children are translated into Ukrainian than written in the language. Families seem to prefer “popular” classics and books made into Hollywood films

Translated books for children fill a different number of shelves in national libraries across the world. For example, Great Britain produces an extraordinary large number of its own children's books and imports almost none. On the other extreme are African and Asian countries – they get most of their books mainly from their former colonialists, while their own literature develops slowly. Ukraine is positioned almost exactly between these two poles with translated children's books slightly exceeding the number of those originally written in Ukrainian.


In his work Children’s Literature in the Hands of Translators (1986) Göte Klingberg wrote that certain groups of countries, especially neighboring countries, exchange children’s books. He put Ukraine in the Eastern Region together with the rest of the Slavic countries, Hungary and East Germany. Today his hypothesis is true only to an extent. A survey of personal bookshelves and bookstores shows that Russian, German, British and Scandinavian books for children have been translated into Ukrainian the most. Translations from Russian are not surprising, because they are beneficial to publishers who operate on both the Ukrainian and Russian markets. Translations of Polish authors are just a fraction of this amount, while Czech literature for children is limited to several authors. There are also a few titles translated from Belarusian and Upper Sorbian, but that is it for the Slavic contribution.

Germanyhas a rich tradition of children's literature and has also launched a program administered by the Goethe-Institut to support translations. So it is easy to obtain licenses to translate from German. You can even receive financial aid to publish a German author in your own language. Klingberg put Britain, the Scandinavian countries and the USA in a separate and influential group – the Northern Region. Interest in English and American writers can be at least partly explained by the fact that together with Germany these three national literatures produce the greatest number of works for children and teenagers. The relatively high number of translations of Swedish, Lithuanian and Norwegian titles is due to an extraneous factor – just like Germany, these countries eagerly grant licenses for Ukrainian editions.


So how are authors and their works selected for translation? German researcher Emer O’Sullivan has proposed distinguishing classics as determined by scholars of literature and by readers. This division needs to be complemented with one more special group – recipients of highly regarded prizes for children’s literature, such as the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Newberry Medal and the Carnegie Medal. Of course, these groups overlap and, for example, Clive Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia belongs to all three.

Because there are no Ukrainian studies of European or American literature for children, we adopt, through translation, the canon shaped by Western tastes. However, we borrow selectively by preferring “popular” classics. The key feature here is not the quality of the text but the scope of acceptance, and the best argument is that a book or its author is well-known in many countries, has been read by many generations of children and so on. Artistic quality is gauged in terms of familiarity to readership. “Popular” classics are convenient: there is no need to deal with copyright issues for, say, Robert Stevenson or advertise this writer, and steady interest is guaranteed.

That we adopt the Western canon selectively is further proved by the fact that it is only recently that we have begun to see translations of Western literary classics whose authors are unknown in Ukraine, such as Susan Coolidge or Frances Burnett. If you take as an example the Wordsworth Children’s Classics series, which is largely comprised of works originally written in English, but aspires to represent a universal canon, you will see that only a tiny portion of the items listed has been translated into Ukrainian.

It is also much safer to publish books that have already been adapted to the screen. Four books by Philip Pullman were published in Ukraine when the Hollywood version of his first novel, The Golden Compass, was released. Translations of the second volume of The Chronicles of Narnia and Elwyn White’s Charlotte’s Web were timed to coincide with or come out a short time after their film versions appeared. Needless to say, the covers featured stills from the films.


Translated Ukrainian literature for children is like cheese – we have a variety of good books but there are many holes. What we have no lack of is fairytales: folk fairytales, from Slavic to African, and literary fairytales published in small and large editions and wonderfully illustrated. However, Hans Christian Andersen, Wilhelm Hauff and One Thousand and One Nights have been published, with rare exceptions, severely abridged. The Fairytales of the World Nations series by Hrani-T includes about a dozen books, but the original language, the edition used and the translators are not mentioned anywhere. Makhaon has openly stated that English fairytales about gnomes and giants have been translated from a different language than English. If even these stories are not translating from the original English, what chances do literary works originally penned in, say, Japanese, stand?

Alongside fairytales, there are plenty of science fiction and fantasy titles and books defined by the publishers themselves as magic fairytales. These titles greatly outnumber more “down-to-earth” books like the Rivals series by Christian Tielmann which tells about the everyday joys and problems of two school students. Teza Publishers launched the 13+ series which includes works that raise difficult issues some of which are often taboo in children’s literature. However, only a few books have come out within this project. Vydavnytsvo Staroho Leva and the Bohdan publishers offer the specialized series Watch out: Girls and Jacqueline’s Girls, but there is no similar project for boys. Adventure literature for teenagers consists of classics, such as Jules Verne and Louis Boussenard. Science fiction adventures are perhaps the only genre in which translations have been made for young adults in Ukraine. There are entire genres that are poorly represented (detective novels for children) or are lacking as such (boarding school novels) in Ukrainian translations.


Let's take a look at covers – translators make mistakes even in the names of authors. For example, Mary Mapes Dodge lost the letter ‘s’ in her middle name on a Ukrainian-language cover. Lewis Carroll's name seems to be a serious challenge: publishers cannot agree on which of the two pairs of double consonants should be reduced to just one letter in Ukrainian. The first name of Irish author Eoin Colfer (pronounced Owen) is even more problematic: the National Book Project publishers has been inconsistent in its transliteration for a series of Colfer’s science fiction novels.

Ukrainian publishers love republishing old books, but they rarely go through the trouble of editing the initial translation. A “translation” of Gerald Durrell’s novel My Family and Other Animals is a case in point. It was translated by Liudmyla Hochar in 1989 and republished by the Bohdan Publishers in 2010. The book is described as a povist (an intermediary genre between the novel and the novella) and recommended for “middle school aged” children, even though Durrell did not write any povists or works intended for children of certain age. The reason for this genre transposition was that the text was abridged; parts of the dialogs were omitted and, most importantly, at least two episodes were cut entirely: the scene of turtles mating and of a female praying mantis bites off the head of a male of the species. But Durrell’s book is largely autobiographical. In it, he recounts all the things he did and experienced as a boy – perhaps at the same age as the target audience of the translated edition. And despite all the naturalistic details he saw, he became an avid zoologist, not a pervert.

Contemporary Ukrainian literature is sitting on a chair lacking one of its legs. Three legs are in place – the author, the translator and the publisher. The missing one is the critic. Our translators lack this moving force. Our literature has been wobbling while somehow managing to keep its balance. The question is how much longer it will be able to continue in such a state.

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