By Claire Storey
Why is it important for children to have access to books in translation? Claire Storey reports on World Kid Lit.
Over the last 18 months, countries around the world have seen borders closing and restrictions imposed on travel. Against this backdrop, interest in children’s books in translation appears to be growing, and 2020 was the most successful year to date for the World Kid Lit team. Founded in 2016 by Marcia Lynx Qualey, Lawrence Schimel and Alexandra Büchler, World Kid Lit is a collective of interested individuals – mainly translators – who work to highlight the importance of translated literature for children and young people. But why does it matter that we include books on our children’s bookshelves that come from beyond our own country?
Firstly, there are some incredible books out in the world that have been written by people who do not write in English. If we do not translate them we, as English speakers, are missing out. Secondly, books allow us to cross borders into different countries and immerse ourselves in different lives and realities. I would argue that in our current situation, where we cannot travel as much or expose ourselves to different countries and cultures, this element is more important than ever.
And thirdly, there is much discussion about the need for diversity and inclusion in the books our children read. In a recent talk, Sanchita Basu De Sarkar and Melanie Ramdarshan Bold suggested that they were “cautiously optimistic” about the rise of diverse and inclusive books for children. However, the special thing about translated books is that they are not only set in countries and cultures that differ to our own, but they are written by people living in them. By their very nature, books in translation offer a different perspective and reflect different realities, and they do so by providing authentic representation.
Solutions for publishers
In November 2020, CLPE’s ‘Reflecting Realities Survey of Ethnic Representation Within UK Children’s Literature’ reported that “the number of children’s books published in the UK between 2017 and 2019 featuring characters from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background has increased to 10%.” In a society where 33.5% of primary-aged children are from a minority ethnic background,1 this would suggest that our literature, while improving, is still not representative of the children reading it.
Every year, World Kid Lit publishes a list of books in translation for children and young adults that have been published during that year (with the caveat that these are only the books we are aware of – there may be more). Looking down the 2020 list, it becomes apparent that while translated books are being published, there is a prevalence of books translated from the dominant Western European languages and regions, particularly from French and German.
While these publications are to be welcomed, we are keen to advocate for more translations from beyond our European borders. A rise in the number of English-language editions of books written by authors in Asia, Africa and Latin America would facilitate a more nuanced view of life in those parts of the world, adding to the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of the books and protagonists young people come across.
It can be a challenge for English-language publishers and editors to find these books, particularly if they are written in languages that are unfamiliar to them. Some of the biggest hurdles to translating books from other countries include hearing about the books in the first place, locating a reader to assess a manuscript in the original language, and finding a translator.
To facilitate this, World Kid Lit has developed various resources. These include a section of the website called Translate This! where we highlight titles that are yet to be translated. We also provide a downloadable list of expert readers who can help publishers assess children’s and young adult (YA) books in a range of languages. Many of them are also translators. They are often keen to share information about books from their country of interest and have a wealth of expertise, including knowledge of funding that may be available to English-language publishers.
Starting life as a blog entitled World Kid Lit Month, the initiative has since evolved to provide resources not only for publishers but for translators too. While we do still celebrate September as World Kid Lit Month, our resources are available all year round and we post weekly content on the blog, which is edited by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and me.
Engagement on the website has risen over the years, with more than 18,000 visitors in 2020. Despite being a voluntary collective, our pool of contributors and reviewers is expanding, and we encourage anyone who would like to get involved to contact us.
We are active on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook,2 often responding to requests for help from teachers who are looking for books from certain areas of the world or to support certain areas of the school curriculum. Translated literature doesn’t just have to be about languages; it can support topics in history, geography, religious studies and art, to name a few examples.
We are also seeing an increase in events focusing on the translation of books for young people. Recently, Five Leaves Bookshop included an online discussion between publisher Emma Dai’an Wright and me as part of their series investigating diversity in children’s publishing. Cork World Book Fest featured readings and discussions of children’s books in translation for the first time in 2021, including books translated from Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Latvian and Spanish.
At the American Literary Translators Association Conference 2020, the session which drew the biggest virtual crowd featured Ruth, Mia Spangenberg, Daniel Hahn and David Jacobson talking about translating children’s books. The YA Studies Association also featured a panel discussion about translated books during their inaugural conference in 2020.
The challenges of the pandemic have driven many of us to think more creatively and to increase our use of technology. To celebrate World Kid Lit Month 2020, we launched World Kid Lit Live: live-streamed discussions on Facebook and our YouTube channel. Initially a two-part series for September, the success of these panel discussions was such that the series has continued, focusing on certain regions or languages.
Managed behind the scenes by Marcia Lynx Qualey (ArabLit) and Mohini Gupta (Mother Tongue Twisters), these sessions have been very well received. Commenting on the Arabic session, Alexandra Büchler (Literature Across Frontiers) said: “The response shows that you have tapped into a strong need in the Arabic-speaking world and that there is a lack of opportunities to debate the topic.”
For World Kid Lit Month 2021, we have a new series of resources to help educators, librarians and booksellers engage more easily with translated literature. This includes reading lists of 20th- and 21st-century classics in translation – books that may well be found on the bookshelves of any school or library. We also have reading lists that focus on books by language and geographical region, including bilingual reading lists.
The website is searchable by age group, country, region and source language, so if teachers are looking for books that relate to a specific topic or age group, a simple search should provide lots of ideas. In the run-up to September, why not speak to your local library or school and ask what they’re doing for World Kid Lit Month?
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Claire runs this World Kid Lit initiative along with Ruth Ahmedzai-Kemp, who will be one of the speakers at the CIOL Gloucestershire Network's event "Language learning via literature". Ruth is a translator of children's books, from German, Russian and Arabic into English, and at this event she will be speaking about this as well as World Kid Lit Month. To find out more and to book, click here.