Exploring the Challenges and Delights of Translating Children’s Books

By David Mendoza GAICD

Over the past decades, the team here at CHIN has had the privilege of translating various text genres. This includes what you may expect: corporate marketing materials like brochures and flyers, promotional materials such as ads and banners, and art and literature, including poems, stories, exhibition collateral and books. Some of our more notable projects include the translation of Gloria Marojevic’s blessings for her paintings, Penfolds’ Rewards of Patience, fictional books like 十二香 (12 Fragrances), and our most recent project, the translation of Celestial Footy: The Story of Chinese Heritage Aussie Rules.

CHIN was commissioned to produce the Chinese version of a book titled Celestial Footy, a 300 pager written (in English) by Patrick Skene. Image: Prof Charles Qin OAM (left), Patrick Skene (centre), and Marcus Liu (right)

However, despite our extensive portfolio, one genre has remained curiously absent: children’s literature. There’s a captivating complexity to translating children’s books. Firstly writing a children’s book is not just about simplifying language. It’s about crafting engaging stories that spark imagination and resonate with young minds. It requires an understanding of age-appropriate themes, children’s developmental stages, and cultural nuances. The ultimate translation challenge? Perhaps. Because capturing the magic of the original author’s work and weaving it seamlessly into a new language so that it sparks the same joy as the original doesn’t sound easy. It sounds like a tall order, but I imagine it would be a deeply rewarding one.

For example, take the beloved Australian classic, “Possum Magic” by Mem Fox, which has been translated into many languages, most notably German. It exemplifies the challenge of translating unique cultural elements. The book celebrates Australian animals, foods like Anzac biscuits and lamingtons, and the very essence of Australian identity. But how do you translate the iconic kookaburra’s laugh or the unfamiliar delight of a lamington for a global audience?

The kookaburra’s laugh is more like a loud cackle, echoing through the Australian bush. Meanwhile, the fluffy lamington is a delicious Aussie treat, filled with sweet raspberry jam and dusted with coconut.

These elements require clever cultural adaptations, ensuring the story’s core message remains clear and engaging for young readers in another language.

Australian Authors Capturing Hearts Worldwide

Intrigued by the translation process in children’s literature, we sought out Australian authors whose works reach international audiences. To our delight, we found a treasure trove of talented Australian writers. One such author is Graeme Base, who has had his books translated into multiple languages. As a fellow graphic designer like Graeme, I personally appreciated his books’ beautiful layout, stunning colours, and engaging spatial dynamics. In fact, I have fond memories of having one of his books, “The Eleventh Hour,” read to me in the school library when I was in first grade. It is unclear whether the book has been translated, but his “The Tree” has been translated into multiple languages. In Chinese, it is known as 彼此树 (The Tree Belongs to Each Other). This book explores the themes of nature, coexisting with one another, and the concept of interdependence. It was published in Chinese in 2019 by the Changjiang Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House.

Image Source: Book cover of 彼此树 by Graeme Base and Chen Ying. Published by Changjiang Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House

Another fantastic Australian author we discovered who has had his books translated is Aaron Blabey. I was surprised to learn that the movie I’d enjoyed with my children was based on his book, which has also been translated into Chinese with the title 坏家伙 (The Bad Guys). The book is about a notorious crew of animals, led by Mr. Wolf, who are tired of being seen as villains. They hatch a plan to change their image by pulling off good deeds and becoming heroes.

Image Source: Book cover of 坏家伙 by Aaron Blabey and Si Nan. Published by Phoenix Juvenile and Children’s Publishing, Ltd

Lastly, our exploration of Australian children’s literature took an unexpected turn when we discovered an unofficial translation of Mem Fox’s beloved Possum Magic, a testament to the book’s universal appeal. A labour of love for the translator.

Writing children’s books is no small feat, and translating them is even more challenging. To delve deeper into this fascinating world, we’ve partnered with Monash University’s Monash Multicultural Lab to host a two-part event series!

Event 1: A Conversation with Graeme Base & Alice Pung OAM (Friday, 17th May 2024)

Join us for an insightful discussion with celebrated author and illustrator Graeme Base and award-winning author Alice Pung OAM. They’ll share their experiences crafting children’s books and navigating the journey of translation and international publication.

Learn more about the event or register.

Event 2: Symposium on Australian Children’s Literature (Saturday, 18th May 2024)

This full-day symposium dives into the intricacies of Australian children’s literature – translation, publication, and reception. Expect thought-provoking presentations from academics, authors, and publishers. The day concludes with a networking cocktail event – a perfect opportunity to mingle and make connections.

Learn more about the event or register.

Both events are not to be missed, so register today before spots fill up!


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