I’m conflicted. As a British author, how can I not be delighted that British children’s books are loved around the world – from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter by way of the Hobbit? And yet, as a sometime translator, how can I not regret that British children’s publishing is so inward-looking? British adults read only 3-4% of books in translation – the figure for children is lower still, around 1%.
It wasn’t always that way. Let’s not forget that the main sources of fairy tales for children over the last several hundred years were French, German and Danish (that is, Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen). More recently, some of the best-loved children’s classics of all time are the Italian Pinocchio, the Swiss-German Heidi, and the French Babar and the Little Prince. “Dessine-moi un mouton…”
Brilliance transcends language, especially in graphic novels (although a really good translator does help). Many English children are genuinely surprised when they find that Asterix and Tintin were originally written in French. Anthea Bell is a superstar translator who isn’t at all starry in real life, and tackles the very French puns and cultural references of Asterix with discreet genius, leaving neither child nor adult readers short-changed. (She’s equally at home in German, giving us fine and lyrical renderings of the extraordinary realms of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and Kai Meyer’s Flowing Queen, of which more below.)
Two authors in translation are having something of a moment this year: the National Theatre’s (reliably brilliant) production of Emil and the Detectives is reminding many parents and grandparents of a much-loved, very funny and quietly groundbreaking children’s book. For the modern reader, there’s nothing very unusual in telling a children’s book from a child’s point of view – that sense of being endlessly patronised and not taken seriously, yet being endlessly ingenious and resourceful – and in setting it, not in some exotic or lofty historical context, but in the everyday modern city. In politically volatile, hyperinflationary Weimar Germany, though, it was a remarkable departure. Sharp-eyed and irreverent as a journalist, Erich Kästner became a banned author under the Nazis; only Emil and the Detectives, already a bestseller, escaped the ban.
A new biography and republished autobiography, not to mention ever more canny merchandising, are focusing attention on Tove Jansson’s beloved Moomins – those peaceable white hippo-like creatures in their remote Finnish valley, politely bewildered at the succession of extraordinary visitors and cataclysmic events in their confined world, but always resilient and philosophical. Puffin republished the Moomins some years ago in paperback and a handsome hardback edition; Canadian graphic-novel specialists Drawn and Quarterly have also republished the collected Moomin comic strips which Tove Jansson drew for the London Evening News, an ink-line delight. It is increasingly possible to Moomin your life, what with plush Moomins in all sizes, melamine Moomins, varieties of Moomin candy and indeed a whole Moomin shop – but beneath it all, mercifully, the stories are as resilient as the Moomins themselves: gentle, wistful, wise and understanding.
Lauren Child’s sparky art has revived affections for another Scandinavian classic, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, as fresh and free-spirited as she ever was and making a perfect match between story and illustrator. Again, it’s harder to appreciate from our own time how rare and liberating it was in 1945 to have a girl heroine who lived alone and looked after herself, said exactly what she thought, dressed as she liked and stood up to bullies and bossy grown-ups. (Fact: at the last World Book Day dress-up event I visited, there were quite as many Pippi Longstockings as Harry Potters.)
These days, perhaps there’s more acceptance of very young books in translation – there are some very talented European illustrators, and it’s undeniable that shorter books for younger readers are much quicker and easier to translate. Dick Bruna’s Miffy books, with their absolute black-line and primary-colour simplicity (developed long before CGI, should you wonder) have long been popular around the world. I’m a huge fan of fellow Dutch author Max Velthuijs’ Frog books, of which Frog in Love is a particular gem: Frog finds himself confused and in emotional turmoil, and realises that he is in love but is too shy to tell the object of his affections directly. Instead he stakes everything on one dramatic, dangerous gesture – will it have the effect he hoped for? Other Frog books deal reassuringly with childhood events and anxieties: being frightened, winter, a new person, even death – very gently and sensitively, in Frog and the Birdsong.
One of my favourite younger books in translation – although its scope is ageless, and I have given it to friends from 8 to 80 years old – is Jutta Bauer’s Grandpa’s Angel. It’s a story on two levels, as grandson visits grandfather in hospital, and Grandpa looks back on his life – on the face of it, an unremarkable story of schooldays, reluctant soldiering, love, marriage and fatherhood. In the wonderful illustrations, however, we see the ever-busy guardian angel restraining the vicious dogs, holding back the speeding van and averting the eye of the bawling sergeant. Witty, poignant and altogether enchanting, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
So what’s new in translated children’s books? Well, who would have thought that one of the masters of Scandinavian noir, Norwegian Jo Nesbø, would have a sideline in slapstick comedy for readers of 7+? Admittedly, starting a series with the title Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder pretty much lays one’s cards on the table. As a mother, I can say my tolerance for fart jokes has worn fairly thin over the years – I can barely see a whoopee cushion without reaching for the nearest sharp blade – but Doctor Proctor won me over with a well-judged mix of sweetness, zaniness and Norway jokes. (I have been to Oslo. It is very charming, very tidy and really very small.) The translation is zippy although disconcertingly American in one or two places – English children might well not understand that a retainer is the same as braces on teeth. More importantly, the plot combines a mad scientist, an exceptionally small clever boy (or exceptionally clever small boy) and a resourceful girl, pitted against an array of bullies, cheats and scary predator animals, all of whom get their just deserts in the most unlikely and satisfactory way.
Another acclaimed crossover author is Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Spanish author of the massively bestselling Shadow of the Wind (no, of course I haven’t read it, I’m too busy reading children’s books). Before that international success, Ruiz Zafón had written four increasingly spooky young adult novels, published and acclaimed in his native Spain and then translated into English in the wake )the slipstream?) of the Shadow of the Wind. Only the last, Marina, is set in his native Barcelona in the recent past: the three others range from the south English coast (I think) via Normandy to Calcutta, all in the 1930s-1940s. The period setting suits them: they combine the drama and glamour of black-and-white movies with the chill of the supernatural – and no internet or mobile phones to dispel mystery and hazard. Instead, elements of the story are guessed at, chanced upon or confided when the moment is right. These are clever, tightly plot-driven books, although I found them somewhat lacking in heart; their human characters seemed not much more than ciphers beneath their controlling destinies – but their stories were no less compelling.
The biggest noise in translated children’s books at the moment is concentrated around Oksa Pollock, the six-book series dreamed up by two former librarians, French-Ukrainian Anne Plichota and all-French Cendrine Wolf. Originally self-published (and self-distributed from a trolley), the series has since sold into 27 languages, and a film is in pre-production. You can see exactly what would catch a producer’s eye, what with the feisty teenage heroine discovering her identity as queen-in-exile of a magical hidden kingdom, with attendant superpowers and an epic battle to be fought between rightful heirs and usurpers. Add to that Oksa and her French-Russian family’s relocation to quaint old London, where Oksa and her dishy best friend Gus have to wear (the horror) a uniform to attend their cloistered French school in the heart of Soho. At home there’s eccentric grandmother Dragomira with her colourful clothes and – as Oksa soon discovers – a retinue of fantastical creatures crying out for a good dose of CGI. And it turns out that great-uncle Leomido, the world-famous conductor, and grandmother’s former business partner Abakum have a few secrest to share as well…
You’ll guess that I didn’t entirely warm to Oksa. This may be in part down to the uneven translation, which appears to follow fairly literally the French, pinballing from dense description to teen-speak; but Oksa herself is the sketchiest of characters, of whom we learn little except that she loves her parents and her gran, cares for her best friend and is prone to impulsive behaviour. Her new powers – calling up fire, moving objects with the power of thought, walking on walls and ceilings, flying through the air – come easily to her, and she only has to try a thing to excel at it. She gets good grades, too, except for the unaccountably vindictive maths and science teacher McGraw (did someone say Snape? Hush you now!). It is, I thought, exactly the kind of thing an imaginative ten-year-old might start to write and be unable to sustain for 500 pages (I almost found myself wishing the authors hadn’t, either). However, having two imaginative ten-year olds in the house, I can report that they took to it right away – and they, not I, are its target readership after all.
What a relief to turn to The Flowing Queen by bestselling German author Kai Meyer, elegantly translated by Anthea Bell. Here is a fantasy that grows in invention and strangeness with every page: we begin, exotically enough, in a gondola in Venice, only to be confused by mentions of mermaids and the Pharaoh’s armies in the Mediterranean. Nothing is as it seems: the Pharaoh has been restored to life in the mid-nineteenth century, and enslaved the entire world with invincible armies of priests and living-dead mummies. Only Venice holds out, besieged but protected by the mysterious Flowing Queen in the waters of the lagoon. The mermaids are no whimsical creatures, but powerful and frightening with their mighty fish-tails and terrible shark-mouths, misunderstood, abused and exploited by the Venetians. Venice is half-abandoned and on the point of collapse; the people are hungry, and in their desperation their rulers will consider even an alliance with Hell (oh yes, Hell is a real place, and diplomatic relations may well be possible).
Orphans Merle and Junipa are taken on by the master mirror-maker Arcimboldo, expelled from the guild of mirror-makers for demonstrating a craft a little too close to alchemy. Indeed, one of Arcimboldo’s first acts is to restore blind Junipa’s sight by means of mirrors in her eyes. Arcimboldo’s household is full of secrets, and Merle has one of her own: a mirror made of water that never spills, and into which one can dip a hand, and sometimes feel a hand grasping one’s own… Merle is a compelling heroine, orphan-tough yet vulnerable, quick to anger yet also quickly accepting of those who are different and marginalised. The story twists and turns and surprises right until the end, where it suddenly becomes apparent that it is only the opening instalment of a trilogy. My only quibble is that the cover design of the hardback was of a CGI-style naffness that I could hardly bear to look at; much better was the audiobook design, above.
For anyone especially interested in children’s books in translation, the publishers Milet have produced Outside In, an excellent guide and collection of articles by authors, translators and publishers. The website www.outsideinworld.org.uk is also an invaluable collection of resources and up-to-date book lists.
With which – bonne lecture, buon divertimento and viel Spaß beim Lesen!