The ethical caveats of translating children’s literature

McGill Dalai Lama Fellow Eléonore Buchet-Deàk shares her experiences as a member of The Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative, an effort to preserve the Tibetan language by providing Tibetan refugee children in India with books that are originally written in English and translated into their native language.
Tibetan refugee children in India. Photo courtesy of Eléonore Buchet-Deàk.

By Eléonore Buchet-Deàk

Since a language inevitably embodies the norms and ideologies of a culture, to impose the ideas of one culture on another through the medium of a translated book is an act of violence. Even more intense dynamics can arise from the history that these cultures share. The Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative, a project I am working on as this year’s McGill Dalai Lama Fellow, aims to distribute to the Tibetan refugee community of India children’s books that are originally written in English and translated into Tibetan. The goal of the project is to participate in the effort to preserve Tibetan language by providing Tibetan refugee children a creative means to learn their native language in their home in exile, India. With a dearth of children’s literature cemented by the current political climate within Tibet, providing translated works is one of the ways by which the community living outside of occupied Tibet can conserve their language. However, distributing English-language books throughout India has a history of its own, and the risk of stumbling down the slippery slope to neocolonialism should not be ignored. The issue of the inherent violence of translation becomes even more delicate when dealing with the translation of children’s books, whose imaginative power have an unparalleled capacity to imprint the malleable mind of their young audience.

The choice of culturally sensitive books is therefore vital for the project’s success. My first criterion for the choice of the books was works that had already been translated into multiple languages. Beyond the obvious advantage of playing it safe with books that have proven their universal appeal worldwide, my decision was animated by a more fundamental motivation: on a psychological level, for refugee children to witness that Tibetan is as good a language as any other to tell a story is crucial for cultivating a sense of pride and connection with the language. Finally, international titles allow children to practice learning the other languages that surround them as refugees in multicultural India by comparing the different language editions of the books that are available in the community.

However, all books are not appropriate for translation into every culture, and while a child does not necessarily notice these differences, parents and educators do. Stringent differences can be unproductively violent. They have the potential to stunt any kind of growth by altering a child’s perceptions and alienating her from her community. A few issues come to mind: the race and gender of the characters in the story, the role that these characters play and the social dynamics they share, the topic, double-meanings, and historical baggage (etc). Even choosing stories in which an animal character is the protagonist risks cultural insensitivity or misunderstanding. Indeed, the symbolic or mythical significance of certain animals are buried deep in a culture. A child can suffer from identifying with a character that holds a deep-seated negative connotation.

Eléonore Buchet-Deàk.

An example of handling cultural sensitivity arises when dealing with a book like Stellaluna, a beloved story that tells the tale of a fruit bat that loses her way and gets adopted by a family of birds. On the surface, the book addresses issues of identity, loss and love. Although she has no national or racial affiliations, her species presented an unforeseen issue. The problem is that mythology across the world has long associated bats with darkness, vampires, and disease. Bats’ stigmatization is largely due to the combination of their nocturnal nature and their status of liminal creature—beings that do not fit into obvious classifications and therefore challenge cultural networks of meaning. Both mammals and capable of flight, bats are traditionally perceived as suspicious beings.

Janell Cannon, the author of Stellaluna, was fully aware of this stigma. With the goal of raising awareness about bats and the irreplaceable role they play in our ecosystem, Cannon wrote and illustrated the story of a positive bat character with who children across the world could foster a positive relationship. However, Cannon’s veiled environmental activism became more loaded when I learned where bats fit into the equation of cultural baggage from the past and present-day politics. For while Tibetans share the same superstitious attitude toward bats as most cultures of the world, Chinese lore holds that bats are a symbol of longevity and happiness. The current political atmosphere in Tibet begged the question of whether this book was appropriate for Tibetan children.

With this politic climate in mind, we had avoided red book covers or stories related to China. But the bat situation seemed different. Cannon’s message is one of love and compassion for bats and the planet that children around the world have shared for decades. To deprive Tibetan children of the story because of politics seemed wrong. My advisors and an assembly of Tibetan mothers agreed. They decided that children would gain more than they would lose from circulating the Tibetan translation. The committee deemed that the environmental awareness that the book would introduce outweighed the imaginable nefarious consequences. Further, they recognized that the uncertainty of such decisions unlock degrees of intellectual freedom. The notion of degrees is key here. No one expects a single children’s book to solve our rapidly deteriorating environment. But just as my project aims to participate on some level with the greater effort to preserve Tibetan culture and cultural diversity as a whole, Stellaluna will contribute to the appreciation of biodiversity. I know from experience that the book has already taught many children the world over to think twice about under-loved yet necessary creatures like bats—what will come of this is uncertain, but the book opens more possibilities than it does close.

The Tibetan advisors added that the art in books like Stellaluna is as important as the words. One of the advisors is Mr. Gyatsen, editor of a children’s magazine distributed to refugee schools all across India, Nepal and Bhutan by the India-based government in exile’s Department of Education. He explained that the art in translated books is invaluable to the Tibetan community—at least at this point in time. “Finding high quality illustrations is a challenge for us,” Mr. Gyatsen said. “Through these illustrations, our children gain access to new dimensions”. I heard a similar statement from Geshe Lhakdor, the director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the intellectual research branch of the Central Tibetan Administration. He told me that the Tibetan community has a dire need for imaginative illustrations for children’s books because the art that is taught in the community is mostly traditional and does not stimulate the children’s imaginations as it should. “The children read the pictures,” he says, “and the art of Tibetan illustrators do not have magic yet.” This magic, or capacity to trigger wonder, is essential to a child’s intellectual development. The art and story take on a life of their own in a young mind and stretch the child’s imaginative faculties, the foundation of all thought.

Mr. Gyatsen and Geshe Lhakdor’s comments heartened the conviction that, like poetry or modern art for an adult, children’s books play a foundational role in the development of human creativity and intelligence. The art in these children’s books does not simply complement the stories: the illustrations are essential in opening children’s minds to the possibilities of the world. By planting the seeds of wonder, children’s illustrations—like art in general—challenge stale assumptions and expand the mind of an individual in his or her most developmentally critical years.


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11 years ago

So instead of exposing children to multiple worldviews and cultures — even those of the culture which may have oppressed them and which their families and society may encourage them to hate — is a bad thing? Tibetan children can come to understanding of Han culture through positive children’s books, just as Han children should be given Tibetan children’s books and be exposed to positive portrayals of truly Tibetan culture and ideals.