Monday, December 19, 2011

Gillian Lathey and The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature

A few months ago, I published a review of Dr. Gillian Lathey’s latest contribution to translation studies. Her work on children’s literature is both important and fascinating, and she’s also a passionate speaker. Dr. Lathey, who teaches at Roehampton University in London, gave a great talk to my students this semester about the influence of translators on children’s literature and she also led a workshop for my MA students, encouraging them to look at various issues in regard to translating children’s lit. Here is the review:

The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers. Gillian Lathey. New York: Routledge, 2010. 241 pages. £76 (hardcover). ISBN: 078-0-415-98952-7.

Gillian Lathey’s latest contribution to the field of children’s literature in translation looks at the history of children’s literature in translation into English. Lathey provides an overview of translators and the role of the books and genres that they translated. As she points out, “Evidence from these biographical, bibliographical, and historical sources and from translators’ prefaces, afterwords, notes, and other writings has yet to be organised into a chronological account of translations and their resonance in English-language children’s literature. This book can only offer a starting point for such a major undertaking.” (5) It is an excellent starting point, and one can only hope that there will soon follow such histories of other languages.
Lathey’s book traces how early translators translated, without considering any particular special needs that children as an audience might have. Works for adults were read by and/or told to children, and this primarily included the Bible, romances/adventure stories, and fables and fairy tales. Even through the late 15th century, “[c]hildren were not yet regarded as separate consumers of texts other than books of instruction on courtesy and manners or schoolbooks.” (32) As Lathey points out, books became cheaper and more easily accessible via travelling booksellers, so children were able to read books not written or translated with a specific child audience in mind. Thus, children read what was available, and because such works were so popular, these were the ones that were most often translated. The style of translation generally seemed to include adaptation to the target culture. Lathey writes that “[i]t is hardly possible to speak of children experiencing cultural difference through these early translations of fables and romances, since multiple retellings had removed most cultural markers, but they did bring new kinds of stories to young readers. That novelty lay in the form of the short fable with its attached moral, or in the alternative, unsanctioned pleasures of the dramatic and episodic sixpenny romance.” (42)
Later on, writers and translators began to consider children as audiences with particular needs, and this led to the concept of writing works that could educate and improve children, while also entertaining them. A very popular book was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which was then translated and/or adapted in many countries. “Mapping and thereby controlling the natural world in fictional form was the province of the many European editions and reworkings of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, following Rousseau’s endorsement in Émile in 1762 of Defoe’s novel as the only text suitable for a child. The ‘robinsonnade’ was an unprecedented cross-cultural phenomenon in children’s literature, originating in Rousseau’s recommendation of Defoe’s novel as an exemplification of man’s autonomy and ability to improve his situation through intelligence, reflection, and hard word.” (62) This is a typical example, then, of adults using literature as a way of teaching children, and translators in turn felt they could change texts as needed, to better suit the target culture. The idea that the “child is a being whose natural instincts are not to be trusted, who is in constant danger of moral failure, disobedience, or succumbing to prejudice” (77) influenced how people then wrote or translated for children.
Things have changed today, so translators are very aware of who they are translating for. Instead of “religious persuasion, entertainment, and moral educational” (111), translators and theorists are more interested in a focus on child images and on appealing to what children want, rather than what adults think they need. “At the same time [as there has been increased academic interest in the topic] there has been an increase in the number of instances where translators directly address child readers, rather than their parents or teachers, in prefatory remarks.” (175) This affects what gets translated, by whom, and how.
Besides looking at which genres have been translated and how, Lathey also offers histories or case studies of some translators, such as William Caxton, Samuel Croxall, Helen Maria Williams, Thomas Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edgar Taylor, Arthur Ransome (most people are unaware of his translation work), and Wanda Gág. She also has interviews with several more recent translators, Anthea Bell, Patricia Crampton, and Sarah Adams, about issues such as payment, working with editors, and methods for translation.
In this book, Lathey also briefly discusses topics such as the role of the Batchelder and Marsh awards, how the US and the UK were different in terms of translatorial strategies and practices in the 1930s, relay translations, women as translators and the related issue of the low status of translation, and more. Not all of these matters are covered in the detail that they deserve, but that is understandable given the scope of this work. Lathey aims here to “to trace in outline the chronology and impact of translators and translation on the history of children’s literature written in English and, wherever possible, to give an account of the motivation and methodology of translators working for a child audience.” (8) As such, her book is an important first step and it fills a gap in the field of translation studies. One can only hope that soon there will be such books for other languages/cultures as well, and that other researchers will pick up where Lathey has left off.

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