Jane Kurtz: Translating story books from one language to another

I first heard this truth from my brother, who was an English Language Learner teacher in Portland for twenty years: kids not only learn to read more easily when they are reading in their mother tongue, they also can learn to read in a second or third language more easily if they first learn to read in their mother tongue.  For more reading on this visit this page.

Research around the world (including from Ethiopia) all points in the same direction. “In far too many countries, the educational basics– textbooks, learning materials and the teacher’s language of instruction - are primarily or entirely available only in non-mother-tongue languages.”

Ethiopia Reads has always invested in buying local language materials that are available. The schools and libraries consistently ask for more, more, more. So one goal of the bookmaking project is getting translations into as many local languages as possible.

I was thinking about the challenges of good translation when I ordered 1, 2, 3, Partons En Safari!: Une Journee En Tanzanie (Barefoot Books).  Translating rhyming text is especially tough, and I was curious to compare this award-winning children’s book in French, Spanish and English.

How’s your French?

The literal French translation begins:  “We all went on safari, walking in a line.On the next page of the spread, readers learn that the group followed the ostriches and Mosi counted two.

The English version has it this way: "We all went on safari, over grasslands damp with dew./We came across some ostriches, and Mosi counted two.”

Not a word-for-word translation at all!  Why not?

The word “dew” in French doesn’t rhyme with the word for two (“deux”) though those two words rhyme in English. Also, in the English version, the phrase “came across” was clearly an author’s choice to make the rhythm work. Translators have to also consider word order for natural phrasing, idioms, and even how certain animals or objects are viewed differently from culture to culture.

What about thethe Spanish version of the book?

Nos fuimos todos de safari por el extensor llano mojado./Nos cruzamos con unos avestruces. Mosi contó dos muy animada.

This time, the translator didn’t try to find a rhyme for the last word “two”; instead, the near-rhyme “pais mojado” (wet land) with “animada” (happily or cheerfully).

In all three versions, we all went on safari.  In all three versions, the child named Mosi counted two ostriches—things a young reader can spot in the illustration—which can help readers figure out what the text says, even if certain words on these pages have never been encountered before.

But other choices were up to the translator’s creative brain.  In the English, the warthogs are “wiry.” In the French, they are “on the run.” In English, the lake birds swim and dive.  In French, they are toasting to good health.

We’ll need to find (and probably fund) translation for many languages in Ethiopia. Here are a few of the faces of volunteers who’ve stepped forward so far to try their hand at this fascinating task:

Local language books are one of the very best ways to make a difference with literacy.