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Review of  Translating Children's Literature

Reviewer: Laura Dubcovsky
Book Title: Translating Children's Literature
Book Author: Gillian Lathey
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 27.2471

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The book “Translating Children's Literature” by Gillian Lathey illuminates aspects of the genre relevant for translators. The author starts by defining children’s literature and its main characteristics. In Chapter 1, Lathey focuses on the narrative communication with the child reader, while in Chapters 2 and 3, she emphasizes the importance of translating cultural markers and integrating images and texts, respectively. In the two following chapters, the author moves to specific linguistic challenges, such as managing a broad range of registers in Chapter 4, and translating children’s poetry in Chapter 5. Finally, she refers to current globalization of the children’s literature market, which is continually reshaped by retellings and retranslation (Chapter 6) and by changing demands from publishers and audiences (Chapter 7).

In her introduction, Lathey presents general purposes and the textbook’s layout, limiting its scope to the translation of fiction and poetry genres. She observes that although children’s literature is characterized by its short extension, vivid situations, and simple language, it poses particular challenges to the translator. For example, the author mentions the uneven relationship established between adult writers and young audiences and its possible consequences based on generational borders and crossovers. She also refers to the broad gamut of intentions when writing for children, such as educating, promoting literacy, admonishing, and entertaining. Likewise, she mentions authors’ varied motivation, such as reviving their own childhood, gaining omniscient power, and feeling accomplice with the young reader. After revisiting old and new children’s books, Lathey claims that translating children’s literature is a complex task that involves high levels of creativity and ideological commitment, together with a strong foundation on developmental cognitive, emotional, and literate knowledge.

“Narrative communication with the child reader” (Chapter 1) focuses on the translation of the child’s voice in fictional narratives. Lathey describes specific challenges of the agents involved in the literate process of the translation. First, the translator needs to respect the author’s voice, style and tone, as they are integral to the narrative. To gain a better understanding of his/her political or ideological perspective in the text on question, she recommends reading the author’s other works and undertaking a biographical research. The translator is also an active agent the literate process. S/he may intervene through cultural and textual explanations, integrated as seamlessly as possible into the text. Finally, the young audience represents a powerful agent, whose voice needs to be respected. Lathey encourages translators to participate in editorial decisions, such as treatment of cruel parts, old fashioned references, and ideological messages, strengthening their role of linguistic and cultural agents in the publishing process. However, she recommends translators do not to simplify the language and make only necessary changes to maintain the original flavor and facilitate young readers’ full understanding of the text.

In Chapter 2, “Meeting the unknown: Translating names, cultural markers and intertextual references”, Lathey addresses the translation of textual and visual references in children’s literature. She insists on the sensitive balance needed to bring an acceptable degree of foreignness into the target text without losing readers’ comprehension (Bell 1985). For example, some proper names, places, and foods may be challenging due to their difficult pronunciation, unfamiliarity, or cultural distance for the young audience. To accomplish this goal, Lathey suggests the inclusion of contextual explanations in the prologue, within the text, or in the afterword, footnotes and glossaries, as well as the occasional omission of incomprehensible cultural references. Above all, the author emphasizes translators use rich language that reflects the gamut of registers and styles of the source text, employing strategies of intertextuality and intervisuality. Finally, the author makes noticeable the current asymmetric amount of books translated from English to other languages compared to the inverse trajectory of books written in other languages and translated into English. Translators may raise their awareness of the global dominance of English in children’s literature, which reflect cultural-specific items widely recognized in popular songs, TV heroes, and films around the world.

In Chapter 3, “Translating the visual”, Lathey acknowledges Comenius’ Orbis Pictus (1659) as the historical antecedent of current picture books, and she examines picture books, highlighting some of the difficulties in showing the strong interaction between images and written texts. After analyzing modern picture books or “albums” and comic strips, the author claims that translating illustrated books adds one more layer of complexity to the already intricate relationship between pictures and words. Translators need to overcome a triple tension: the language of the source, the target texts, and the visual references. Lathey uses examples of humor, jokes, and irony to illustrate the complexity of transferring them to a different language. Likewise, the frequent occurrences of fresh dialogues that comprise a broad range of social registers are very difficult to interpret in the target language. Finally, picture books and comic strips have abundant use of onomatopoeia, which include strong aural components, with little or no correspondence in the translated language. Among her list of recommendations, Lathey suggests that translators read a large number of comic books in the target language to become more familiar with local jokes, read aloud selected exchanges between characters to test whether the dialogue sounds authentic, and find standard forms of onomatopoeia.

In Chapter 4, “Translating dialogue and dialect,” the author moves from visual to linguistic components and deepens the understanding of typical dialogues used in children’s books, such as intensifying language, vocatives, neologisms, and slang. Fictional children’s and adolescents’ books may include special greetings, borrowed words, abbreviated terms or ‘clips’, and an extended range from standard language to regional dialects, idiolects, and street language. These frequent linguistic markers may represent a challenge for translators, who may be willing to include slang, for example, without losing readers’ comprehension. She also encourages working with intermediaries who are knowledgeable of the source and/or the target culture. Likewise, she advises translators to examine young people’s talk to maintain the tone and range of registers of the dialogues.

In Chapter 5, “Translating sound: Reading aloud, poetry, wordplay, and onomatopoeias”, Lathey explains how poetry is the most difficult of the literary arts to translate because it involves metric, rhythm, rhyme, onomatopoeias, and repetitive forms, among other components. The musicality of the aural and read-aloud qualities demands translators’ strong command of poetry in both languages as well as high levels of sensitiveness and creativity. Translators should be able to recognize idioms and wordplay from the source text and replace them with equivalent idiomatic expressions and puns in the target language. Moreover, they should pay special attention to the original rhythm and semantic content in case one of these components needs to be sacrificed in the translation. Translators may use strategies such as compensation and adaption either to retain the rhyme scheme or respect double meanings and ambiguities of the source text. When particular idioms do not exist in the target language, literal translations are also useful preferably accompanied by an explanation woven into the text. The author concedes the possibility of translating nonsense poetry as long as translators assess metre and rhyme and “keep children’s developmental fascination with the potential of language in mind” (P. 107).

Chapter 6 introduces concepts of “Retellings, retranslations and relay translations,” which are frequently used in current children’s literature. Lathey defines retellings as common practices of abridgments, adaptations, and multimedia versions of traditional stories. While these tales are characterized by crafted texts of complex plot lines and characters, retellings present simpler plot lines and shallower protagonists. Sometimes, publishers and editors discuss whether to offer a lighter retelling that may include more audiences or maintain a stronger connected retelling to the original fairy tale or popular story (Riordan 2006). Lathey also defines retranslations, which typically are reduced version of classic tales. The author mentions well-known examples, such as ‘the Arabian Nights’ and Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, both which have been retranslated into lighter versions, in different languages and time periods. The case of Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is famous, as the novel has lost its satiric elements and overall strength in the retranslating process. Likewise, Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ appears in retranslations that reduce the author’s genuine intention to a series of adventure stories and distilled episodes. Finally, Lathey defines relay translations, which consists of continuous requests of new versions of old stories. She explains that demands for these new translations generally obey to editorial needs, such as incorporating the work of a new illustrator or replacing archaic language to reach new audiences.

In the last chapter, “Children’s publishing, globalization and the child reader”, Lathey situates the translating process in a broader context. She examines current editorial practices and international trends, including e-books, audio books, films, video games, and multimedia. Moreover, she addresses practical issues of copyright, contracts, governmental funding, and intellectual property, noticing that these ‘para-translation’ or extra textual matters have direct impact on the translator’s job. For example, Lathey points out how well-known books are quickly transposed into films, games, and multimedia. This modern phenomenon causes the promotion translators’ teams in every language, speeding up the lag between the original and the translated version. However, this international success may also bring negative consequences, such as a horde of competing pirate and fake translations. As an advocate for translators, Lathey proposes concrete actions to protect their role in current competitive societies. The author encourages translators to be actively involved, joining professional associations, creating online communities, visiting World Children’s Book Fairs and approaching specialized publishing companies. To be successful in children’s literature, translators should gain familiarity with styles, authors, and topics in different languages and countries, assessing the quality and range of children’s books.


“Translating Children's Literature” is intended for both novice translators in general and more experienced professionals, who are new to the field of children’s literature. Lathey provides a consistent organization along the chapters, which also follows the general format of the Series “Translation Practices Explained,” to which the book belongs. Therefore, each chapter includes defining purposes and constructs, examples that illustrate the main points, a summary that highlights matters of the specific issue, and a proposal of suggestions. Moreover, the author concludes each chapter with discussion points, set of exercises or questions, notes and further readings. This systemic organization allows readers to continue the conversation either in ad-hoc seminars or through independent inquiries.

Lathey offers clear explanations and numerous examples that make the book accessible to a larger audience, including children’s literature specialists, storytellers, and teachers interested in reading and children’s literature. Moreover, the author provides a better understanding of the translating process, situating translators of children’s literature in the midst of several tensions. AMong others, she addresses generational conflicts between adult authors and young readers, complementary messages between written texts and illustrations, cultural and linguistic interconnectedness, and practical decisions in the global literate market. Above all, this book contributes to the literature on translating children’s literature by providing theoretical principles as well as practical recommendations useful for further research and practical applications.


Bell, A. (1985). Translator’s notebook: The naming of names. Signal 46: 3-11.

Comenius, J. (1677, first published 1659). Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Trans. Charles Hoole. London: S. Leacroft

Riordan, J. (2006). Communicating Russian folk-tales. No child is an island: The case for children’s literature in translation. P. Pinsent, Lichfield, Pied Piper Publishing. NCRCL Papers 12: 74-87.
Laura Dubcovsky is a lecturer and supervisor in the Teacher Education Program from The School of Education at the University of California, Davis. She has a Master’s in Education and a PhD in Spanish linguistics with special emphasis on second language acquisition. Her areas of interest combine the fields of language and bilingual education. She is dedicated to the preparation of prospective bilingual Spanish/English teachers, especially on the use of Spanish for educational purposes. She collaborates as a reviewer with the Linguistic list serve and bilingual associations, as well as with teachers, principals, and specialists at the school district. She has taught a course that addresses Communicative and Academic Spanish needed in a bilingual classroom for more than ten years. She also published the article, Functions of the verb decir (''to say'') in the incipient academic Spanish writing of bilingual children. Functions of Language, 15(2), 257-280 (2008) and the chapter, “ Desde California. Acerca de la narración en ámbitos bilingües (2015)in ¿Cómo aprendemos y cómo enseñamos la narración oral? Pellizzari and Pitluk (comp). Laura continues working on uses of Spanish by bilingual teachers, bilingual home/school connections, academic language across school disciplines and translanguaging in and out of the classroom.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781138803749
Pages: 162
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Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781138803763
Pages: 162
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