The Blagger's Guide To: Children's books in translation

Once upon a time in Icelandic, Danish, German, French ...

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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time, two bookish parents – one German-American and one French – went looking for the books that they had loved when they were little, in order to read them to their own children. But no English translations existed, so Adam Freudenheim and Stephanie Seegmuller set up a new imprint and published the books themselves. The result is Pushkin Children's Books.

The new imprint has already published The Story of the Blue Planet by Andri Snaer Magnason, an eco-fable with a Roald Dahl-ish dark twist. The book is set on a happy blue planet that has no grown-ups on it, until one arrives on a rocket ship promising to make life much more fun "with flying powder and coated skin so that no one ever has to bathe again". The book won the inaugural Icelandic Literary Prize, has been published in 12 languages, was turned into a play, and has sold 100,000 copies in Iceland alone. The next book, to be published on 4 June, will be Oksa Pollock by Anne Plichota, about a 13-year-old girl with magical powers. It is the first of a series of five books, already translated into 26 languages and dubbed, inevitably, "the French Harry Potter", but this is the first time it has been published in English. The film rights have just been acquired by the production team behind Twilight, so it's coming soon to a 12-year-old near you. Pushkin Children's Books will also publish Kim Fupz Aakeson and Niels Bo Bojesen's adventures of Vitello, a mischievous little Danish boy, which are described as "subtly subversive".

In the UK and Ireland, about 2.5 per cent of all books – 4.5 per cent of fiction, poetry and drama – are translations, according to the latest research by Literature Across Frontiers. That's compared with about 14 per cent of books in France. But although most European countries actively monitor the number of translated books that they publish, the UK does not, and there are no current figures for children's books. It's strange, because some of the best loved children's books in the UK were originally published in other languages.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales, 1812) was not originally published for children, but the collection of fairy tales really took off when it was printed in a "small edition" in 1825 with illustrations by brother Ludwig. Grimms' Fairy Tales are now available in 160 languages. When The Adventures of Tintin were first translated into English, for The Eagle comic in 1951, Snowy retained his original French name, Milou. The comic described Tintin as "a French boy". Its translators for Methuen in 1958 worked closely with Hergé to ensure that they captured the word play of the original, instead of translating literally into English. Other favourite children's books that first appeared in languages other than English include The Moomins, Asterix, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Pippi Longstocking and Emil and the Detectives.

The 2013 Marsh Award, for Children's Literature in Translation, was won by Howard Curtis for his translation of In the Sea there are Crocodiles, by Fabio Geda. It was presented by Daniel Hahn, who stressed that literature in translation "isn't less important for children, but more. How could it not be vital for readers who are uniquely open to explorations of their own language; how can it not be essential for readers who, just now, are beginning to define the horizons of their experiences of the world."