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Get Lost in a Translation

I wrote in the Autumn 2018 edition of Armadillo about the way in which books in translation can struggle to find a publisher and an audience in countries that they are not native to. A year on, it is getting better; more books are breaking down the barriers that we have inadvertently put up to stop them crossing our borders. Why we should want to do this is a question on many lips, a question that doesn’t find a satisfactory answer. This is why we should push to have more books in translation. Not because we don’t have enough of our own, but because it is important we share the differences in story-telling style. In story, full stop. We should also be encouraging our foreign counterparts to do the same: to take our stories onboard for their audiences. What better way to bring the children of the world together and foster a greater depth of understanding and appreciation of other cultures with their rich histories and traditions?

This is of course leading me to introduce you to more books which have come from another language, another culture.

From Gecko Press, a publishing house who dare to be different, who are edgy (if that can be said of children’s picture books - I believe if you look at the Gecko Press list you will agree that it can be) comes Antje Damm’s The Visitor. Antje is both author and illustrator, Sally-Ann Spencer her translator. The original edition, Der Besuch, was published by Moritz Verlag whilst a grant from the Goethe-Instiut, funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, supported the translation. Without this support we would be missing out on a singularly unique story. It is one of friendship and shyness in which we find Elise a woman scared of absolutely everything; spiders, people, even trees. Elise won’t leave the house so when something flies through her window and is followed by a knock at the back door we just know that Elise’s life is about to change – for the better. The story is delightful, charming, warm and funny but what makes this book stand out is the illustration. Using diorama, cardboard and photographs to create each scene, readers will discover a unique palette, layers of colour and texture within every scene. There is something very special about this book: its story, its bold illustration and its ‘otherness’ draw the reader in and encourage them to engage and think about the story which is unfolding before their eyes. Imaginative, creative and fun. A story to read and love, a wonderful insight into the traditions of other cultures.

Similarly, two titles from Book Island offer us something different. What Does the Crocodile Say? by Eva Montanari has been issued in many languages but the story - Crocodile’s first day at nursery - is universal. The use of crayons for tactile illustration add a child-friendly, colourful feel to the story, speaking to children, wherever they are, on all levels. Follow Crocodile through the sights and sounds of his first day, learn to cope as he does and remember the arms of a loved one will be waiting for you at the end of the day. A warm, gentle, loving and exciting journey wherever you are in the world. I love this one.


Marianne Dubuc’s Up the Mountain originated in Spain and thanks to a translation by Sarah Ardizzone, is now in the hands of children in English-speaking countries too. Follow Mrs Badger on her Sunday journey up the mountain near her house. Meet all the animals she knows personally, stop to check on every plant, help all those in need and maybe you too will get to the top of the mountain... But wait – what is it little cat Leo would like? Can he join Mrs Badger on her trip? Of course he can! But what will happen as the years role on and Mrs Badger gets too old to make the journey? Learn about the importance of friendship, be warmed to the very heart by the generosity of the characters and gain your own yearning to explore the outdoors with friends, with family. And never forget to observe! Heart-warming, generous, touching and adventurous, this book has it all. It will take time to read for there is so much to see and do – so do, please, take your time. You deserve it. The story deserves it.

Far too few books written in other languages are available to young readers of English which means we miss out on many excellent stories. Luckily there are a few dedicated independent publishers who try to remedy this sorry situation: Alma Books in particular. The publisher has just re-introduced us to one, followed by their very own translation of another modern fable by the award-winning Chilean writer, Luis Sepúlveda.

Sepúlveda was exiled from his native country because of his political activism. The Story of a Seagull and the Cat who Taught her to Fly, originally published in Spanish more than twenty years ago, was translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden in 2003. It is now available in the UK, distinctively illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura! The story is set in Sepúlveda’s adopted home of Hamburg. Here the many different animals (including humans!) who live around the port collaborate to help Zorba the cat who has been asked by a dying seagull, caught in an oil slick, to incubate and raise the chick from the egg she lays. Sepúlveda’s gentle humour and timeless narrative style are well caught in Peden’s translation, as is his celebration of diversity, loyalty, trust and respect for the environment. This short modern fable has been translated into more than forty languages, and sold in its millions, so it becomes a very welcome addition to classic titles available to UK readers.

Luckily, The Story of a Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow has only had to wait four years for the publication of an English translation, this time by Nick Caistor, again with Kitamura’s quirky images. Caistor captures Sepúlveda’s style and tone beautifully, and the themes of diversity, friendship and respect for other creatures and the environment shine through the text. Rebel the snail, - named by Memory the tortoise, the first friend he makes when his inquisitiveness leads his fellow snails to exile him - displays just the kind of curiosity which constantly encourages a child to ask ‘why?’. Readers will empathise with a character who is treated with impatience and irritation for wanting to know answers. But in the end, it is Rebel who leads those who will listen to a safer new home, to escape the relentless, unthinking, uncaring progress of environmental destruction. These are two timeless short fables which will prompt KS2 readers to think more widely about attitudes that affect their own lives.

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