The English-speaking world has, over the years, been spoilt by a wealth of great literature for children.
Authors such as Roald Dahl, A A Milne, Enid Blyton, Theodor Seuss Geisel (he of Dr Seuss fame), and even Huckleberry Finn-creator Mark Twain have enriched most of our lives at one point or another, transporting fledgling imaginations off to worlds full of colour and mischief.
But what about the vast amount of literature created by non-English speakers? How many of your favourite childhood stories were actually written in another language and only later translated into English?
It might surprise you to find that less than 3% of all books sold in the UK are fiction that has been translated into English. It means English-speaking children are missing out on a rich seam of literature from cultures distinctly different to their own that has the potential to offer them a unique and personal view of the world.
The issue is one that the Guardian newspaper also feels is important to address, and to this end it recently spent a week showcasing some of the best and most popular works of children’s fiction to come out of Europe and the rest of the world.
The popular daily sent out a call to authors and laymen alike, asking for their favourite books written in another language and translated into English.
Here is a selection of some favourites as recommended by the paper’s readership:
- Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner.
Translated from German, this 1929 classic tells the tale of a young boy travelling to his grandmother’s in Berlin. Along the way he loses money given to him by his mother, money that he is determined to recover.
- In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda.
The acclaimed Italian novel follows a 10-year-old boy on his five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy to claim asylum.
- Tam Sventon, Private Detective by Åke Holmberg.
Tam is a private detective and main character from a series of Swedish children’s books. He is known for his lisp and riding on a flying carpet.
- The Moomins.
These very strange yet extremely endearing creatures come from the mind of Swedish writer Tove Jansson. The hippo-shaped Moomins live in a magical land inhabited by witches and all many of little fairy-like folk.
It was not only the public’s favourites that were highlighted by the paper. The Guardian also picked the brains of celebrated translator, Anthea Bell, for her list of the best translated books for children.
Bell made her name translating the fantastic Asterix series – the French comic first written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo which follows the adventures of Gaul hero Asterix and his friend Obelix as they hunt boar, defeat Romans and cope with life in a Gaulish village surrounded by legionnaires.
Here are some of the translated titles that she says should be on any child’s bookshelf:
- Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Not for the faint-hearted, the original versions of these classic German tales don’t always deliver a happy ending.
- Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
Denmark’s national treasure produced some of the most popular and enduring ‘fairy tales’ of all time.
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.
Swedish Pippi is an unconventional youngster with superhuman strength who loves nothing more than to pour scorn on any adults that she deems worthy of her contempt.
- The Adventures of Tintin by Georges Remi (wrote under the name Herge).
The most popular European comic of the 20th century documented the adventures of the young Belgian reporter Tintin as he solves crimes and foils conspirators.
All literature gets its inspiration from the environment and culture in which its authors have grown up. This means stories forged in the minds and imagination of writers from distant lands cannot help but carry with them centuries-worth of ancient imagery and folklore.
And this is exactly what captivates the burgeoning thought-processes of youngsters around the world. So the next time you stand in front of a bookshop shelf looking for children’s literature, consider picking up a translated story and help to make a child’s world a little smaller, and at the same time endless with possibility.