Since she was first published over thirty years ago in her native Germany, Cornelia Funke has pioneered literature in translation for children, achieving fame worldwide and an international readership for her books. On the UK publication of The Golden Yarn, the third novel in her young adult series Mirrorworld, Cornelia reflects on the importance of reading books from other countries.
I was raised on translated books. As a German child you consider books from other countries and in translation to be the most normal thing in the world. C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, Mark Twain….did I ever wonder whether they sounded different in the language they had first been written in? I don’t think so. Astrid made Sweden feel like home, Mark Twain made the Mississippi familiar waters and of course I wanted to find that wardrobe and will feel forever at home in England because of the adventures I had crawling into it!
Books tell us about the world. They whispered about it on the shelves of the library, I went to as a child; they promised me, that there is so much more to this world than the small German town I was raised in and widened my head and heart by making me travel in the imagination of writers from countries I had never seen!
I fully realized how magical a present they had given me, when I finally left that small town and began to travel. What a feeling to arrive in England, Sweden, Italy, even India and New Zealand and to realize the books had prepared me well! They had made me a world citizen, long before I became a storyteller whose stories were at home in many countries of this world.
So we need translated books. Nothing opens the world more easily than that slightly foreign voice rising from the pages of a (well) translated book. Translated literature makes us feel at home in far-away places and turns far-away people into our friends and family. They surround us with companions from all over the world, make us wear different clothes and give ourselves names unfamiliar to our ears and tongues.
There has rarely been a time to make becoming familiar with the far-away more important, to make us realize how similar we are despite all our differences. It is easy to understand what we love and a writer’s voice can make us fall in love so easily. Of course we can hear about India from Kipling. But the perspective of a writer, who was born and raised in India and writes in a tongue formed by its landscapes and history, will give us the clothes and body of a native, new eyes and ears, shaped by different beliefs and perceptions. To read side by side books written by authors from our own countries and the literary voices of authors who call foreign lands their home is an adventure! What an inspiring widening of horizons, a way to make us aware of the cultural glasses we’ve worn since childhood.
Of course the best possible way to enjoy books from all around the world would be to read them all in their original language. Of all the magical abilities to wish for this would certainly be very high on my list: to be able to speak and read any tongue, to feel how each language makes us understand ourselves and the world in a different way. But I do rely on translators to allow me entrance to the magical realms of Astrid Lindgren or the Arabian Nights. It is a profession that in my opinion still doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Translators are makers of golden keys: without them the doors of a book stay closed.
I know how much I owe my translators, I am reminded each time I do readings in English, and I do that more often than in my native tongue now. I always alert the audience to the fact that I don’t read the words I wrote, but they mostly taste like mine by now. I am in close contact with most of my translators and I vastly enjoy discussing names and translation alternatives even in languages I don’t speak. Translation makes us very aware of an aspect print makes us forget so easily: the sound of words. I have often given permission to a translator to change a name for the sound of it, not the meaning.
Even German and English, languages so closely related, are so different. I have envied my English translators for the ease, in which the English language expresses big emotions- German gets pompous and heavy so much more easily. How much bigger though is the challenge for a translator asked to make a key for my Japanese readers? At a translation panel at the glorious Jaipur Festival I learned how impossible it is to translate a Hindi text into English; I heard from African writers how challenging it can be to feel comfortable in a colonial language they know to be the language of oppression and cultural ruin.
My books have been translated into many languages I don’t speak. It is still the greatest enchantment for me to come to a country and meet readers who have been at home in my imagination for years. To see that stories can cross borders with such ease, that children in New Zealand or India feel at home in stories I wrote in the North of Germany … it gives me such hope, that we will learn to perceive ourselves as mankind one day.
The Golden Yarn, and the first two books in the Mirrorworld trilogy, Reckless and Living Shadows, are published by Pushkin Press.