Walk into any bookstore, or browse any book selling site, and children’s books will leap out at you in all their colourful glory. Fantasy, adventure, superheroes, sci-fi, comic books, mythology, history, science, even archaeology – children’s books are literally coming out of the windows. While parents and teachers bemoan the dwindling interest in reading, it seems as if authors and publishers did not get that memo. And surely if someone is producing these books, then someone is buying them. But, and this is the big but, they are almost all in English. And this is a problem.

While the middle class has made an en masse move to English medium schools for their children, the vast majority of children in India are still studying in regional medium schools in the government school system. And they are hungry for books in a way that the blasé middle class child with her own tab and many other sources of entertainment and learning is not. Where are the books for these first or second generations school goers who are unlikely to ever own a book that is not a school textbook?

National publishers like Pratham Books and Tulika say that the vast majority of the manuscripts the receive are in English, with Hindi a close second for some, especially those located in northern states. Regional publishers do get manuscripts in the local languages, particularly in the states with a tradition of children’s literature like Maharashtra and West Bengal. But these are generally of the more traditional sort, rarely of the modern, fun, wacky, creative, or challenging sort that one sees in English. This then is the space for translation, that delicate art.

Translating for children

Lawrence Schimel, English-Spanish translator, likens the process of translation to a dance. “Take Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: she’s doing everything he does, but backwards and in heels. Like with translation, the effort is there, but you have to make it look graceful.” That neatly highlights the difficulties a translator faces, especially in translating children’s picture books, with short crisp text. You have to get the story, the flavour of the particular milieu and characters that the original writer intended and that the pictures portray. Yet you are handicapped by a completely different language, with its own way of speaking to and about children. And yet the effort should not show.

This sentence in English is fairy straightforward. It is the picture that tells us why the mother is saying what she is saying. A good translator gets the flavour of the sentence from the text as well as the illustration, and renders it in a colloquial and natural way, quite different from the original English, as in the Marathi line above. But not all, in fact not most, translators do this. If this sentence is translated as ‘Kripaya mala madat nako karu,” it is not wrong, but it is so not right!

And sadly, very, very few attempts at translating children’s books are really successful. A look through the translated books of the top children’s publishers often makes one cringe with the awkward phrases, the sometimes literal translations, the outright mistakes. And yet, English children’s books have been translated at least since the middle of the previous century. An older generation nostalgically recalls reading BR Bhagwat’s Marathi translations of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. But then that was Bhagwat, a much loved children’s writer. And the cover of the book has his name on it. And therein lies the crux.

Who translates children’s literature?

It comes as something of a shock to find out that it is almost never a children’s writer, but just someone who knows the target language. The translator is paid per word, gets credit only on the inside page, and most often, no royalties. Often, very little editorial attention goes to the output, even in terms of just plain copy editing. Of course this is not always the case, but is surprisingly more common than one would hope. And the people who have noticed, and are protesting with the small and powerless voices that they have, are teachers in rural schools all over India. They have heaps of books donated by NGOs and CSR, into which they have put in slips of paper with comments on the problems in translation. They pull these out and point out the mistakes to anyone who will listen. But who is listening to them.

Three things need to happen simultaneously for children who are eager to get good books in their local language, or better still in their mother tongues, to actually get meaningful and exciting reading material. Firstly, of course, more and better original works in local languages need to be generated and published. Secondly, with the huge range of really good English and Hindi books coming out in India, we need to get better translations into other Indian languages. Translators who are good writers, with a feel of children’s lives and language, need to be identified, developed and given work. And finally, they need to be paid like writers and not clerical assistants, and given credit and royalties. Only then will aspiring children’s writers enter this field that can be creative fun as well as a great way of honing your own writerly skills.