HomeBooks by AgeAges 4-8The Art of Translating Picture Books

The Art of Translating Picture Books

Daniel Hahn | The Children’s Book Review | June 3, 2020

Daniel Hahn photographed at the Story Museum in Oxford. COPYRIGHT John Lawrence

Daniel Hahn is an author, editor, and award-winning translator. He recently translated Along the Tapajós, written and illustrated by Fernando Vilela, and The Refuge, written by Sandra le Guen and Illustrated by Stéphane Nicolet. In 2017, Hahn helped establish the TA First Translation Prize, a new prize for debut literary translation. Here he shares his thoughts on the art of translating picture books.

One of the translations I’m working on during this lockdown is a picture book. It’s for very young children, meaning that the vocabulary and syntax are incredibly simple and compact. At a glance, there’s not much to it, actually: the entire script is just 173 words long. (That is to say, the same number of words as this paragraph.) So why is the translation such a struggle to get right? Well, first of all, the interesting and challenging work in translation—in my experience, at least—is found not so much in the deciphering of the original text, but in the process that follows, the process of re-encoding it into a new language. So while I’m grateful that the original book’s wording is not taxing the limits of my French, the real difficulty is in making a new, English text in which the same kind of rigorous simplicity is absolutely enforced. And that can be a problem. Simplicity may be a gift for a reader, but is a really demanding constraint to a writer.

I mentioned that the book is theoretically “for” young children, but a picture book’s actual text is typically read by an adult, and—crucially—read aloud. So my text must deliver that performance, too—able to be picked up by a not-professionally-trained reader, constructed in such a way that it’s not only pleasurable to speak, and equally user-friendly to diverse readers with any kind of world English (because publishing is a global enterprise now), but also filled with clues that make the reading-aloud almost impossible to get wrong. (This includes keeping aware of things like the rhythm of the story—where is there a pause in my text for my imaginary reader to turn a page?)

Illustration by Stéphane Nicolet. THE REFUGE (Amazon Crossing Kids, 2020).

And most important, of course, are the pictures—a picture book is a pre-eminently visual medium, and in all the best examples of the form, the relationship between those pictures and their accompanying words is not casual. Pictures and text talk to one another – they complement each other, filling in each other’s gaps or playing with clever contradiction. Which means that when translating I can’t simply extract the old text, magic it into some new text and dump it back onto the page and expect it to work. I need the pictures in front of me always as I write my English. What precisely is the expression on the face of the character who’s speaking? How will I describe that object she’s holding? How much space do my words actually have to fit into? The book’s original creators might have been able to adjust pictures to suit their language, but they’re normally unchangeable by the time they get to me. And pictures almost always contain much more cultural specificity than text, too—how do I represent that in my English edition?

A lot of things to think about, which is why I’m still working on my 173-word book, and why I’m still not happy with it. Oh, and did I mention it’s also got to rhyme?

To learn more about Daniel Hahn, visit www.danielhahn.co.uk.

The Refuge

Written by Sandra le Guen 

Illustrated by Stéphane Nicolet 

Translated by Daniel Hahn

Publisher’s Synopsis: A story about finding refuge in a new friendship and a new home.

“There’s a new girl at school. She never stops looking up at the sky! She likes the stars and comets.”

Jeannette tells her mom about her new classmate, who also loves astronomy but seems sad. She realizes it’s not easy to move to a new place. So the next day, at recess, Jeannette asks Iliana to play.

At first, it’s a little hard to communicate because Iliana is learning a new language. The girls have to use their hands and their drawings. But they keep trying, and, soon, Iliana tells Jeannette about her difficult journey as a refugee who had to leave her country. Then their families meet, and Iliana’s parents share their story too. The girls’ friendship blooms, as limitless as the sky and their imaginations.

Originally published in France and brought to life with wonderfully expressive artwork, this is a book about sharing stories and finding refuge in friendship, family, and a new home.

Ages 5-8 | Publisher: Amazon Crossing Kids | June 1, 2020 | ISBN-13: 978-1542020503

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Discover more books like The Refugewritten by Sandra le Guen, illustrated by Stéphane Nicolet, and translated by Daniel Hahn—by checking out our reviews and articles tagged with , , , , and .

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Bianca Schulze is the founder of The Children’s Book Review. She is a reader, reviewer, mother and children’s book lover. She also has a decade’s worth of experience working with children in the great outdoors. Combined with her love of books and experience as a children’s specialist bookseller, the goal is to share her passion for children’s literature to grow readers. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, she now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.

Comments
  • What an interesting post. So much thought & creativity goes into a picture book. It’s amazing to read about what an Author & illustrator go through to create their stories.

    June 3, 2020
  • What an interesting post. So much thought & creativity goes into a picture book. It’s amazing to read about what an Author & illustrator go through to create their stories.

    June 7, 2020
  • I have written a children book. Would you be kind enough to review it. It is for a 8 yr old.

    June 15, 2020

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