The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation celebrates the best translation of a children’s book from a foreign language into English and published in the UK. It aims to spotlight the high quality and diversity of translated fiction for young readers. This year’s award, which featured a strong shortlist, was won by Margaret Jull Costa for her translation of The Adventures of Shola by Bernardo Atxaga. But the number of children’s books in translation in the UK market is still shamefully small, as author and translator Kevin Crossley-Holland pointed out in a speech given as part of the Marsh Award ceremony. We reproduce it here.
One of the reasons King Alfred was remembered in medieval England as ‘Engle hyrde, Engle deorling‘ – the shepherd of the English, the darling of the English – was his true care for his subjects. Do you remember how he set about learning Latin, and this while fending off the Vikings and coping with a recurring stomach complaint, so that he could translate into the vernacular? And in so doing, because there was no English prose tradition, coax and knead our language into a workmanlike and flexible medium. King Alfred was the first father of English educational reform. You can’t read his preface to Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, in which he reviews the decay of learning in England, and how earlier cultures – the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Romans – had understood the crucial importance of translation, without being deeply moved.
For ðy me ðyncð betre,
gif iow swæ ðyncð ,
ðæt we ealh suma bec,
ða ðe niedbeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne,
ðæt we ða on ðæt geðiode wenden,
ðe we ealle gecnawan mægen,
swæ we swiðe eaðe magon mid Godes fultume,
gif we ða stilnesse habbað…
‘Therefore,’ he says, ‘it seems better to me, if you think so, for us also to translate some books… into the language which we can all understand…’ And so he ploughs on, in hope and in faith!
My own first experience with translation was by no means so well-planned. Having failed my Anglo-Saxon prelims at Oxford, I was at risk of being slung out – or ‘sent down’, as Oxonians so gracefully put it. Sitting in a moored punt before my retake, puzzling over grammar, eating a pork pie and listening to a piece of music by my father on the radio, I was attacked by a swan.
Well, I knew about Leda! I’d no wish to be raped! So I threw myself onto the bank, ripped a cartilage, and ended up in the Radcliffe Hospital with ample time to learn grammar, choose a nurse as a new girlfriend, and for fun translate some of the lyrical, witty, sometimes saucy Anglo-Saxon riddles. In my twenties, I translated Beowulf; and when Seamus Heaney made his celebrated translation more than a generation later, he and I corresponded about the relative strengths and weaknesses of one another’s versions…
Because this is the point! Even an apparently simple line, or stanza, or paragraph, begs so many questions and can be translated in so many, so many ways. And many who have run translation workshops have seen what a revelation it is for students to be confronted by a battery of factors, alternatives, and necessary compromises.
Margaret Atwood was wholly right to say, in her 2014 Sebald Lecture, that ‘the choices that bedevil the writer bedevil the translator ten times over’ and, of course, that ‘as writers we are in translators’ hands; while as readers, translations open doors for us that would otherwise remain shut… and allow us to hear voices that would otherwise remain silent for us’.
Quite the most ghastly statistic I came across last year, was provided by Daniel Hahn in his Four Thought talk for BBC Radio 4. ‘In preparation for this talk,’ he said, ‘I went to a major London bookshop – and it’s a good one – and did some counting. In my statistically laughable sample of one, this is what I found. 2047 children’s books, of which 2018 were by English-language writers, and 29 were translations. Of these, the number of living writers represented was… 6’ 6! And overall, I think I’m right in saying, only 3% of books on bookshop shelves are in translation. This won’t do. It won’t even begin to do.
But this isn’t a new problem. Not at all. Like me, you’ll have read as children a number of books in translation without it ever occurring to you that they were in translation. Fattypuffs and Thinifers (I loved that book!) and Struwelpeter and The Little Prince and the tales collected by Asbjornsen and Moe, and Grundtvig, Arnason, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and so on. But the truth is that in the 1940s and 1950s – yes, as long ago as that – publishers were no more interested in translation for the sake of it, for the sake of our children’s delight and education and horizons, than they are now. The translation of children’s books into English was and is no philanthropic enterprise but a commercial industry.
In a way, I suppose it’s indicative of how most publishers view translators and translation as something necessary but a nuisance that on the title page the name of the translator is often, in fact almost always, printed in small type, or in few disgraceful instances omitted altogether; and that the translator’s biographical note is customarily shorter than that of author and illustrator. In other words, translators are often treated like second-class citizens. Bad! Very bad!
But let me hammer home this point about education and horizons. Firstly, most of us have only a sketchy idea of the quality of children’s novels and poems being written in languages other than English – but we’re assured by experts that it is great, very great and copious. Indeed, one has only to look at the dipstick of tonight’s fascinating shortlist, and the longlist that preceded it, to see the likelihood of that. Secondly, our country is essentially multi-cultural (the compound is hurled at us every day), and this means that we should be educating and exciting children – native English-speaking children – with stories set in Pakistan and Poland and Lithuania and India and and and … translated into English. Are we doing that? Really, are we even beginning to? No, we translate scarcely more than a handful of books, and most of those are from west European countries.
As a reader, I wish more publishers were committed to a quota, however limited, of children’s books in translation – and were genuinely eager to contribute to the pressing social need for us not to be little Englanders but to feel and experience ourselves to be part of one Europe, one world. Is it precisely because we once had an Empire that we are still so often so self-satisfied and narrow in our thinking?
‘What is it?’ the sales director of the publishing house of Macmillan (where I began my own publishing life) recently asked a press of school librarians: ‘what is it that you want us to do?’
So as President of the School Library Association, let me reply that, inter alia, British publishers should simply make available more children’s books in translation. And I would like the SLA to publish a survey in its Riveting Reads series given over wholly to children’s books in translation.
Have you come across Sam Cannarozzi’s delightful When Tigers Smoked Pipes in the Society for Storytelling’s Artisan series? It’s a booklet about openings and endings in traditional tale. ‘And they all lived happily ever after’. Well, of course. But here too are endings wonderfully succinct: Tfai! (That’s Inuit) Finished! Here are endings involving an exchange between teller and listener, and endings recognising that storytelling is a time in time and out of time! All this – and of course those endings that point a moral, or end with a lie, or that drive the listener back from the imaginary to the actual: ‘Excuse me,’ says one storyteller, though I fear my translation from Tamil may be rather approximate, ‘excuse me, but I must stop now. Because I’ve just heard that next door, in the Chesterfield hotel, a flea has given birth to an elephant, and I’ve got to go and check it out.’
Kevin Crossley-Holland is a poet and prize-winning author for children. The Seeing Stone won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, the Smarties Prize Bronze Medal, and the Tir na n-Og Award and has been translated into twenty-five languages. He has translated Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxon, and his retellings of traditional tale include The Penguin Book of Norse Myths and British Folk Tales (reissued as The Magic Lands).
The Adventures of Shola written by Bernado Atxaga, illustrated by Mikel Valverde and translated by Margaret Jull Costa is published by Pushkin Children’s Books.
Waffle Hearts by by Maria Parr, Walker Books, 2013, translated from Norwegian by Guy Puzey
The Letter for the King, by Tonke Dragt, Pushkin Children’s Books, 2014, translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson
My Brother Simple, by Marie-Aude Murail, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2012, translated from French by Adriana Hunter.
The Good Little Devil and Other Tales, by Pierre Gripari, Pushkin Children’s Books, 2013, translated from French by Sophie Lewis
Anton and Piranha by Milena Baisch, Andersen Press, 2013, translated from German by Chantal Wright.