Still lost in translation

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
If we don't offer children literature from other languages, we are starving them, argues Philip Pullman.

The subject of books available in English translation usually resolves itself into a question: why are there so few ofthem?

Because there are: disgracefully few. Shamefully few. And fewer than there used to be, too, at a time when publishers are putting out more books than ever. Only about 3 per cent of the books on the UK market are translations, compared with about 23 per cent in France. It's as if something has happened to our understanding of the world, making it narrower and less interested in the experience of elsewhere.

Part of the reason for this is the astonishing success of the English language, which grew out of Latin and Anglo-Saxon and French and absorbed words from hundreds of other sources: Hindi, Turkish, Swedish, Hungarian, Indonesian. There are traces, in our rich and cross-bred language, of the contact we've had with almost every country in the world. And being a tough and healthy thing, as mongrels often are, the English language has wandered all over the place and now finds itself in daily use in the mouths of millions of people who have never been to England in their lives, and have no intention of coming here.

That means that there are plenty of books from other countries that were written in English to start with: books from the United States, from Canada, from Australia, from India, from New Zealand, from the Caribbean, from Africa - and which don't need translating; so from one point of view it looks as if there's nothing to worry about.

What's more, other media use English relentlessly: the power of Hollywood and almost all TV and pop music and video games and the internet are transmitted to us through English, and those things are so strong and well-funded, and so intoxicatingly addictive, that they add to the impression that we needn't bother with anything else, with the different, the foreign, the strange: what can books in foreign languages possibly say to us? What do they matter? Why should we bother?

Some commentators say that it's paradoxical to find so little interest in literature from abroad in this age of globalisation, but perhaps that's the very problem: globalisation is a phenomenon that's driven by money and business, not by culture and curiosity.

In more innocent times, publishing companies were set up by people who loved books, and published them because they thought they could make a decent living by offering them to the public. (It's interesting to see how many children's books in translation come from small independent publishers.) But these days, more and more mainstream publishers are owned by big multi-national corporations that are interested only in profit, and in nothing else whatsoever. And it costs money to translate books, because it's a demanding intellectual activity and there aren't many people who can do it well, and publishers are reluctant to spend money on producing books that booksellers won't sell, and booksellers are reluctant to give space to books that readers don't want, and readers don't want books they've never seen reviewed, and literary editors won't review books if the publishers don't spend much money on advertising, and publishers won't spend money on advertising I And it all goes round in a circle, and outside the circle is the rest of the world.

Which is a great pity. But there are some hopeful signs, one of which is the Marsh Award for children's literature in translation. Another is the sense among many people who care for books (and that certainly includes individual publishers, booksellers, readers, and literary editors) that they would like to be able to see books from foreign languages in English translation, if only everyone else would let them.

And another is the guide to children's literature in translation that is about to be published. I'm very encouraged that such a thing is being produced, and I'm sure it will be welcomed by everyone in the field. As I looked through the first draft of the list I was glad to see some old friends as well as many names I'd never heard of. Because books do become friends.

What I hope is that this guide will help some child today to meet a book that will remain with them for the rest of their life - a story and some characters who will make an impression that never leaves them. Among the many books I read as a child, there were three translations that had that effect.

One was the Moomin series by Tove Jansson, from Finland, translated by Elizabeth Portch and Thomas Warburton, another was a French novel by Paul Berna called A Hundred Million Francs, translated by John Buchanan-Brown, and the third was Erich KAstner's Emil and the Detectives from Germany, translated by Margaret Goldsmith.

What I found with those books was that reading them was like being at home in a strange land. Strange, because there were some things I didn't know about: never having been a working-class child in a dingy French suburb, I didn't know how things were done there, but my new friends soon showed me and welcomed me into their gang as we went careering down the hill astride the horse on wheels that turned out to contain a fortune; and never having been young and lost and penniless in Berlin, I wouldn't have had a clue how to manage if I hadn't been in the excellent company of Emil and Gustav and the Professor and Little Tuesday and all the rest of them. And never having had an enormous nose like a hippo, and a tail like a piece of string, I might have found the company of the Moomins a little exotic - except that they, like the others, made me welcome at once. They made me feel at home.

Books do that. What I would have missed, if I had never encountered these lifelong friends. What fun I would never have known, if the publishers and booksellers and librarians of my childhood hadn't seen the value of putting books from foreign languages in front of an English child.

There was a fashion in the early 1970s, when I began to teach, for saying that we should not offer children literary experiences that differed from their everyday lives. They could not relate to them, we were told; they would not be able to identify with characters from a different background; children from inner-city housing estates could only properly appreciate stories about children from inner-city housing estates, and so on. Sensible teachers and parents took no notice of this reductive and pessimistic attitude to the imagination, but it did have an effect. I wonder whether the attitudes of that period might still be persisting? Children who were being taught then are now coming to positions of influence in publishing and broadcasting and in the news media. You never know. And you never know what will set a child's imagination on fire.

Who would have guessed that an 11-year-old child in Albania 50 or more years ago would have been so excited by Macbeth that he copied it out into his notebook? That child was Ismail Kadare, who was awarded the first Man Booker International prize in 2005 for his lifetime's work.

There are children today in this country who will find a book, or books, in this guide satisfying a hunger they didn't know they had, and exciting a passion they had no idea they were capable of feeling. We don't know who they are, and we don't know which books will have that effect; but if we DON'T offer children the experience of literature from other languages, we're starving them. It's as simple as that.

) Philip Pullman.

* This article is the foreword to Outside In, Children's books in translation edited by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini (Milet Publishing pound;6.99) to accompany the Children's Bookshow Outside In, Children's writers in translation, both funded by the Arts Council England.

The tour begins on October 3, the first day of National Children's Book Week, at the British Library. See and

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