Cultural Imperialism and Children's Books

By Knight, Gavin | NATE Classroom, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Cultural Imperialism and Children's Books


Knight, Gavin, NATE Classroom


* How many books in translation sit on the shelves in your classroom or library?

* If you rummaged through the nearest bookbox you could get your hands on, how many stories celebrating cultural diversity would you find?

* Are we doing enough to deter insularity and promote outward looking, multi cultural reading in our classrooms?

Two literary competitions this year have brought these questions out into the open. Both sought an opportunity to promote different voices and visions, to applaud different cultural perspectives.

Back in January, Sarah Ardizzone won the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation 2009. She did so for her fabulous translation of Toby Alone, by Timothee de Fombelle. An award of 2000 [pounds sterling] was presented to her by Anthony Horowitz, at a ceremony at The English-Speaking Union, London. Before revealing the overall winner, Horowitz made a provocative speech looking at the relationship between writers and translators, he referred to this as an 'invisible friendship'. He spoke about the first ten years in his career as a children's writer, when his work was better known in France and Belgium than in the UK. If his works had not been translated into French, he doubted that he would have had a sturdy enough platform for his later success. He then went on to lambast the current state of play regarding books in translation in the UK:

'There is, I'm afraid, a strange cultural imperialism that says that translations of books that were originally in English are acceptable--even desirable--while books translated into English by and large are not. How many writers from other countries have actually made a serious impact in the UK? One thinks perhaps of Cornelia Funke, although she now lives in Los Angeles. Markus Zusak is also German although I believe he has always lived in Australia. In children's literature in particular it is very difficult to think of anyone who has really broken through and even in modern adult fiction, foreign authors are more the exception than the rule.' Having warmed to his task, he went on to consider the evidence of book trade figures:

'So why am I here? I suppose because the odds are so stacked against translations in this country and they need all the help and publicity they can get. Ten years ago, only 1% of the books published in England and Wales were translated. That is truly shameful--particularly as the same figure in Germany, Holland and Sweden was between 40 and 50%. However, since the Marsh Award was started in 1996, the number of books in translation has steadily risen and the attendant publicity, the bookshop displays, the debate that a competition arises must all be a good thing.'

With regards to Toby Alone he praised it as,

'... a lovely fantasy about a boy who is one and half millimetres tall and whose whole world is an oak tree. It certainly proves that the language barrier can be broken...it has been translated into 22 languages. It's full of great descriptions and I sometimes found it hard to believe that it was originally French. Here's a description of a grandmother: 'As sad and bad as a morning spider ... she loved money so much that she had forgotten what it was for.'

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The sequel to Toby Alone will be published on June 1st, once again translated by Sarah Ardizzone. It is called Toby and the Secrets of the Tree and (thanks to a sneak preview) is reviewed further on in this issue.

The other books shortlisted for the award were: My Brother Johnny by Francesco D'Adamo translated from Italian by Sian Williams (Aurora Metro Press, 2007); When the Snow Fell by Henning Mankell translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson (Andersen Press, 2007); Letters from Alain by Enrique Perez Diaz translated from Spanish by Simon Breden (Aurora Metro Press, 2008); Tina's Web by Alki Zei translated from Greek by John Thornley (Aurora Metro Press, 2007); Message in a Bottle by Valerie Zenatti translated from French by Adriana Hunter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008).

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