Sunday, 2 June 2013


What happens when a lion talks to a snake? Or a snake to a lion? Is something lost in translation?

A very recent post by Lily Hyde about her book translated into the Crimean Tatar language had me thinking about translation generally. Almost simultaneously I received an email from a German lady giving me the URL to a group of German children reading my picture book, THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE illustrated by Piet Grobler… Bojabi, der Zauberbaum. And because I’m linguistically challenged, I needed to get help from fellow writer, Leslie Wilson, to give me some idea of what was happening.

What did come across though was the tone and expression of the children’s voices and the fluidity and melody of their reading. I was startled by the satisfaction it gave me… knowing the story and its rhythm but not knowing exactly what they were saying, gave a sense of distance as if I was hearing it for the first time. The sound of the children's voices, was utterly charming.

By sheer co-incidence last week, I was visiting a Dutch friend who lives in Spain and is fluent in both these languages. He did the same for me and read my book, THE FARAWAY ISLAND, illustrated by Jude Daly –  in Dutch, Het verlaten eiland, as well in Catalan, L’illa llunyana and I was immersed in the rhythm of the language instead of in the words.

I remember once hearing David Almond saying that sometimes he makes the whole layout of his book so small that he can see the shape the text makes on the page, but he can’t decipher the exact words. This seems to give breath and pattern to the story. He was shutting out the editorial voice and engaging the visual sense. 

In my case it was the auditory sense I was engaging which blocked the editorial voice. I don’t know how many authors read their work out aloud to children and continually correct the text as they are reading. This is that awful editor sitting on the shoulder. So how good to have that editor switched off and to have the pleasure of hearing the rhythm and cadence of the story read by those German children.

In another visual sense the same can happen to illustrations when a picture book is translated into cryllic script  or into Japanese or Korean. The text becomes to an English writer (unless you are fluent in these languages) almost a pattern and a strong sense of the visual comes into play. You 'see' the book better and the way the text connects with the illustration. It’s odd how the different scripts bring their own beauty to the layout. They float rather than become 'wordy'. 

So… lost in translation? No… never!

Below is the URL for the German children telling the story of THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE:

And on my updated website there are some sliders of Piet Grobler's illustrations from the book:


Joan Lennon said...

Lovely stuff, for ear and eye!

Tabatha said...