The Impact of Translation in Children’s and YA Literature.

As Zohar Shavit mentions, at the beginning of her foundational book on this topic, children’s and YA fiction was not even considered a legitimate field of study and research in the academic world until recently. This is mainly because of the cultural beliefs we hold around childhood in society and the traditional values of the literary cannon (ix). As the author highlights, children’s literature differs from that for adults because it was focused on education. In this way, the message that has been traditionally conveyed by children’s fiction was destined for an applied purpose and a didactic skopos, as it was considered for teaching. This dichotomy teaching/enjoyment from the classical world seemed to limit the first term of the binary to children’s literature and the second one to adult literature, relegating the first one to an inferior position and focusing on the message as the main aspect versus anything else (characters, puns, humour, places, objects…). From the beginning of time, children’s fiction, as we have seen up until now on this brief tour, has always broken some patterns. Children’s fiction created by or for children has always used the absurd, rhyming, nonsensical and other deliberately subversive aesthetic patterns, or even ‘ugly’ from a traditional perspective. In other words, a subaltern child (Spivak’s term), located in a position of ‘otherness’ in relation to the adult, has always used their voice to deconstruct and obliterate certain expectations that the dominating and domineering adult world has imposed on them. This delight in the absurd, in the sound of things just for the sake of their sound, in games with no other purpose than to send a message through children’s fiction, becomes the least important aspect in the narrative.

When we start thinking about translation, we are brought back to the reality that the message has always dominated above all other aspects of a narrative, many times even over the dialogue. There is no doubt that the other relevant binary opposition in the world of translation has been figurative / literal. That means that a translation that was closer to the source text and language was compared to the translation that communicated its message, without any need to stick to the linguistic forms on the page or the voice of the characters. Once more, children’s literature came to detonate the opposition that had tilted the scales towards the prevalence of meaning versus forms, because in this type of fiction, without a doubt, form is frequently if more important than than message. We understand by form, of course, not only as  the nonsense in Lewis Carroll or the rhyming in Dr Seuss; but also a certain character’s voice with a particular accent or idiolect and maybe even someone, who is politically incorrect in a culture, as Ron Weasley could be in Harry Potter or Manolito Gafotas, who we have already mentioned. This way of speaking is linked to who those characters are and how we separate their voice when it is translated. This has radical consequences in terms of meaning because we are effectively creating a different character.

In addition, here is the most interesting aspect and where I want us to finish this first excursion into the fictional worlds of children’s and YA fiction: the reader. If we define this literature by the target audience, we cannot leave aside the reader/receiver of this fiction. As we have discussed previously, one of the main characteristics of children’s fiction is that it is usually directed towards two types of – or three or more – audiences: kids, adults and sometimes institutions that have the power to make the text more or less canonical. In this regard, we must note that guessing that the writer has an implied reader in mind, and this is a children’s audience, we must then bear in mind the influence that this implied reader exerts on the text. This implied reader, coming from the author´s view, is essential when we shape the narrative that is communicated and in some way, the form of narrative chosen carries a very clear ideology at its core. This ideology gives an almost clear idea as to what the author hopes that the reader will understand or how the writer expects the reader to be. Until now, we have talked a lot about representation in terms of characters in a book/translated product for kids, but we have not talked about representation towards the external aspect of the book: the implied reader. We could wonder what type of children, let us say, Elvira Lindo expects to read her Manolito, or what readership Julia Donaldson had in mind for the Gruffalo. Leaving aside their success with that particular readership they had as their aim, it is important to realize that when we speak/write/create we always have an expectation of an audience, which potentially will have access to our creation.

Some authors affirm they do not choose their readership. In Del Amo’s words  (Tabernero Salas, 234):

‘I write for good readers from age 3 to 93 (…) the criteria of the editor is the one that fixes the age of the potential readers. But as I normally underline with the formula: from five, or ten or whatever shows in the back cover. Upwards there is no limit. I differ sometimes on the age that they select as a minimum in the back cover. More than the years or level of knowledge, what matters is the sensitivity of the reader or the experience they have with reading. Knowing that any literary-successful book has multiple possibilities of interpreting its content and that the adult reader can enjoy and enrich their lives with children’s literature, above all, with books loaded with symbolic content’. The most important aspect of this concept is that children’s fiction has double readership, which is inherent to its nature and is not lacking in problems because it normally means that it needs to satisfy the requirements of two very different audiences, children, perspective buyers and translating adults.

We have reached a point where children’s literature is needed to be established as one of the most universal fictions in our markets. This is because, in the last 50 years, children’s fiction has disseminated beyond the borders of the land that produces it, not just because of the marketing and distribution levels achieved in modern times, but also because of the work of engaged translators and the quality of these texts. In this module, we have already seen some translation works that are part of the cannon of Spanish text, mainly because of the universal concept of translator’s invisibility (Venuti). If adults are normally blind when noticing the presence of a translator in a book or audio-visual product (series, films and so on) because of the quality of the dubbing or the commercialization of the product, the kid is even more blind to this intermediary presence and it could be argued that even the author is irrelevant to the kid. I add this data from simple observation of children that are in my life, and how schools and libraries are emphasizing the concept of cover, back cover and the information that they contain before even entering the narrative. This is in an effort, I guess, to educate them on the details of the production of a book. Subtitling, of course, is different, because it signals the presence of two parallel linguistic codes immediately and is destined to be offered to a much older children´s audience, probably pre-adolescent or adolescent. The presence of this ‘other’ intermediary adult between the source text and the target audience adds a new filter for the materials of a culture. Sometimes, the translator, editor, publishing company or expectations of the translator’s contract for the book do not impose the filter. Oittinen, who adheres to a child-centred approach, notes that the concept of the ‘image’ of the child that we have is crucial in the process of translation. Her idea refers to the perception of childhood and is based around our personal biography as children, as the collective perspective of society during this period of a human’s life. In her book, quoted below in the reference section, she highlights the importance of orality and the fact that many of these fictions were written to be read aloud. Undoubtedly, this is a serious difficulty when we translate this type of fiction. In her book, she argues her position in favour of adaptation in translation and she does not consider adaptation to be a manipulation of a story but as a continuum of a story. For her, rewriting is an admirable approach to translation due to her child-centred rationale. With these criteria being somewhat prescriptive, Oittinen affirms that ‘translation is a pact’. The translator of children’s literature needs to reach out to the kid in their culture. They need to submerge in the carnivalistic world of kids – relive it. Even if they cannot stop being adults, in order to be successful, they need to reach into the realm of childhood, connect with the kids that they have around them and their inner child. The arrival to the carnivalistic world of children, without fear of losing their own authority, is dialogic. When we translate for kids, we must listen to the kid, the kid that lives nearby and the kid we have inside us’ (O’Sullivan, 79). This focus on the child has many merits, but we could wonder what the role of the author is in this methodology that leaves them aside. This attitude is rooted in an oral tradition, almost medieval, in which the notion of authorship carries little weight and the stories or fictions are created to be shared, used, manipulated, told and recreated, until they dry out without any commitment to the original story.

For academics like Emer O’Sullivan, there’s a paradox at the heart of children’s translation. People say that books are translated to enrich the world of children’s fiction in the target culture, to introduce kids to a foreign world and strange domains but then, many of these elements that are foreign or strange have been adapted to the target culture in the translated product, using the excuse that young readers won’t understand them (O’Sullivan, 74). In her book on comparative children’s literature, she offers a wonderful historiography about how translation studies, up to the 80s, had ignored children’s fiction. It was Katharina Reiss in 1982, who tried to identify the problems existing in the translation of children’s literature in her text typology framework. She mentions three important aspects: the asymmetry of the fact that adults translate books written by adults for young people, the power of the intermediaries to filter everything that presents taboo ideas or topics and that does not have an educational purpose and last but not least, the limited knowledge of the world and life that these readers have. This concept is problematic because it assumes that an adult is going to have much more experience than a child has. In this same period, Göte Klingberg discusses in his books that the integrity of the source text is in favour of it. Shavit, whom we have already mentioned, thinks the same as Oittinen, in so far as we have to consider the position or location of the product for children in a much bigger world. They call it literary polysystem, and in that way, texts can be manipulated in a translation, in such a way that they can conform to what is adequate and useful for a child, contributing to the argument of reading comprehension and ability (ibid: 77).

In the last chapter, our objective is not to go deep into the woods that are populated every day with more theory and practical depictions of children’s books in translation. It has obviously expanded proportionately. Although, we would like to highlight some interesting aspects for students, like yourselves, that may end up being translators for children’s products or young adult literature. As O’Sullivan affirms, each translation contains many voices – the characters’, the narrator of the source text and the translator’s voice. She puts forward the idea that there is a type of dialogic translation that allows the inclusion of the voice of the translator and the one that permeated through the source text. Opposed to this, you would have a monologue translation, in which the translator controls the source text, explaining and elucidating all of the challenges for the reader, construed by the (implied) author to the point of ‘drowning’ out the voice of the narrator of the source text completely (O’Sullivan, 81).

In these last pages of our journey into children’s and YA fiction, we can also underline that this kind of translation is where certain norms arise. We are using the term ‘norms’ from Even Zohar & Toury, as they refer to certain implicit strategies used in the translation of certain cultures. For example, in Spain and in the Spanish language, it is not common to alter a text in a book to show a way of speaking, thus making the presence of an ‘accent’ very difficult to represent graphically, whereas in English this is much more common. Also for instance, cinema taboos are much more tolerated in subtitling and dubbing than in printed literature. These types of cultural ‘norms’ or understanding culture as something that is not directly related to a language or a country but that can refer to the culture of an institution, affect the narrative (incidents, characters, objects, places…) and its discourse (the way the story is told). The main thing here is that these norms carry a certain ideology. According to Klingberg, one of the norms in fiction like this, is what he calls ‘purification’ of children’s fiction (ibid, 82). This ‘purification’ implies a series of interventions that not only allow, but encourage changes in characters and their behaviours (Manolito’s grandpa does not drink alcohol in English), avoid the mention of physical functions – scatology, sex…- (there’s an omission of a nude illustration of The Three Graces in Manolito Gafotas), correct the language (Hagrid in Irish or American English Harry Potter versions) and relax certain registers that do not agree with the stylistic norms of children’s literature in the target culture (the Weasleys in Spanish use fewer slang terms than in English, to the point that the repetition of the word ‘wicked’, which Ron uses constantly, is avoided), even to the point of attacking the humour of a source text (ibid).  For more examples, you can read the chapter on children’s literature in translation by Emer O’Sullivan in the book I have referenced at the end of this chapter.

This approach to the target text ignores that the reading ability and receptive skills of children in different stages of life are not proven and that they are depending on literacy and other individual factors that the translator – or even the author – cannot decide. Leaving aside the old fashioned didacticism that is inherent in this fiction, we cannot deny that children’s literature plays a role in the socialization of children and helps them understand the world around them or a strange foreign world (Kaniklidou and House, 233). Children’s fiction and YA literature have contributed to the development of a tolerance for a foreign culture – national or social – with more ease and eliminating them from a text would harm those that do not have the luxury of a certain mobility to experience these foreign cultures. I am not only referring to the economic privilege to travel to other countries, but also to a certain social mobility towards more educated sectors or wealthier parts and also to the less educated or the poor. Limiting the possibility of ‘fictional’ contact would influence the development of empathy and social comprehension. I am introducing a concept that has not been explored much in literature and as a consequence, in translation, but that has been noted more and more in sociology: social interculturality.

In general, Klingberg (1986) would say that these nine translation strategies were used in the 80s: 1. Explaining, 2. Rephrasing or omitting a culturally problematic term, 3. Explaining without using the foreign term, 4. Annotating, 5. Substituting for a similar element in the target culture, 6. Substituting by an element with the same function in the target culture, 7. Simplification, 8. Omission and 9. Localization of the entire fictional world in the target culture.

The presence of a publishing company dictating the use of a less provocative narrative, less offensive, more adaptable and global is the most common norm of the current international market. Certain products are manipulated by dominant culture in translation and this provides us with a series of products aimed at children and young adults, where cultural neutrality prevails. As a result of this, it creates international products that are not specific, that are levelled instead of developing a multicultural approach based on exploration, acceptance and tolerance between cultures wherever they come from (O’Sullivan, 103).



Epstein, B.J. (2012) Translating Expressive Language in Children’s Literature: Problems and Solutions, Peter Lang: London. This book is focused on expressive language and it provides good insights on the translation of character voices. 

Kaniklidou, Themis & Juliane House (2018) ‘Discourse and ideology in translated children’s literature: a comparative study’, Perpectivas, 26:2, 232 – 245 These authors study several translations and compare their norms with an emphasis on cultural and social neutralization.

 Klingberg, Göte (1986) Children’s fiction in the hands of the translators, Lund: CWK Gleerup. This book starts a new era in translation studies pointing to the need of descriptive studies in children’s literature. 

Lathey, Gillian (2016) Translating Children’s Literature, Routledge: New York and London. It is another essential book for those, who want to have a career or take an academic research path into this type of fiction.

Nodelman, P. (220) The Hidden Adult, Maryland: John Hopkins.  This book explores the presence of an adult in every step of creation, edition and manipulation of narratives for children

 Oittinen, Rita (2000) Translating for Children. New York: Garland Publishing. This book is foundational in order to understand the status of children’s fiction in translation nowadays.

O’Sullivan, Emer (2005). Comparative Children’s Literature. Routledge: London and New York. This author establishes the essential parameters of cultural comparison between children’s text and isolates obstacles and current practices

Shavit, Zohar (2009) Poetics of Children’s Literature, Athens and London: University of Georgia Press. This book is central and used as a reference because it shows the development of aesthetic patterns in children’s literature. Chapter five deals with translation of children’s literature.

Tabernero Salas, Rosa (2005) Nuevas y viejas formas de contar. El discurso narrativo infantil en los umbrales del siglo XXI, Zaragoza: Prensas universitarias de Zaragoza. It is a Spanish book, which develops the types of narrator commonly used in children’s fiction.

 Van Coillie, Jan & Walter Verschueren (2006) Children’s Literature in Translation: Challenges and Strategies, St Jerome Publishing: Manchester UK. This is another essential book detailing challenges and strategies that translators face in the process of translation of a fiction for children.



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