I RECENTLY TRAVELED TO WROCLAW, POLAND, TO ATTEND A CONFERENCE ON children's literature. It was a wonderful experience (except for the efficiency of LOT Polish Airlines), (1) and I am grateful to Marek Oziewicz, Justyna Dezcz-Tryhubczak, and Agata Zarzycka of the Center for Young People's Literature and Culture for organizing it and especially to Marek for inviting me to be the keynote speaker. What particularly struck me about this gathering of scholars from Poland, the US, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, the UK, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, and Bulgaria was that we spoke a common language. Not English, though I did reap the benefits of living in a culturally hegemonized world--most papers were delivered in my native tongue rather than the speakers'. Instead, our common language was the fantastic.
The range of topics was as diverse as the points of origin of the attendees, but whether the talk was about a Galician translation of a Mexican children's story or about Soviet-era fairy tales, each speaker could be certain that the audience would share an interest and a set of literary touchstones. We all knew Tolkien and Pratchett, J. K. Rowling and L. Frank Baum, and the body of retold traditional tales and legends upon which these writers have built their worlds. Wherever we came from, we also came from the realm of the imagination. Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote about discovering in childhood that she was really a native of a country called Mondath, which only exists in the works of Lord Dunsany. (2) Like Le Guin, we who attended the conference were all citizens of Mondath.
The conference organizers very aptly titled the gathering "Relevant Across Cultures: Visions of Connectedness and World Citizenship in Modern Fantasy for Young Readers." Though some of us are not exactly young readers, we are connected by the things we read and experience in fantasy. Tolkien thought that the stuff of magic was precisely the most basic and universal sorts of things: bread and trees and stars and stones. Much modern literature forgets about these fundamental realities, but fantasy brings us back to them. No wonder it crosses borders freely.
Many of the conference speakers talked about the challenges of translation--for instance, one of the attendees, Aniko Zohar, is Terry Pratchett's Hungarian translator, faced with the task of carrying his verbal soap bubbles across the minefields of cultural and linguistic difference. Many of the works discussed are not available in English. I would love to read some of those Soviet fairy tales, which, according to Anna Gubergrits from Talinn, mostly managed to evade the regime's pressure to propagandize, unlike the realistic children's literature of the time, but those stories are no longer available even in Russian, let alone in English versions. …