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World Book Day and the Importance of Translated Texts

There are many key dates on the school calendar, but few are given as much exposure as World Book Day. Pictures are shared every year. Creative costumes and competitions, we recommend books, talk about books, act them out, and give them out – for free.

Over 100 countries mark WBD, which was created by UNESCO. UNESCO’s goal is to promote world peace through international cooperation in education, art, science, and culture.

Something else overlooked, or at least taken for granted, is the ubiquitousness of the English language. However, over 90% of the planet does not speak English as their first language. Approximately 75% do not speak English at all. Think of all the stories that we are potentially missing out on…

Luckily, there are translators that bring (some of) these stories to new audiences. Plus, much needed exposure to voices that would otherwise go unheard. Translators like Sarah Ardizzone, who is responsible for some of my favourite books. Interestingly, the skill of translating isn’t just replacing words for their English equivalent, for instance. It’s having advanced knowledge of a second language, and a deep cultural knowledge too. Oh and strong idiom skills. You do? Bob’s your uncle, you’re on your way to being a translator.

Books translated from French by Sarah Ardizonne

Translated stories are important as they connect us to cultures and points of view that are different, but also the similarities of the shared human experience. Additionally, translated texts can also connect children to their own heritage.

When specifically talking about contemporary texts, they do the important job of connecting us to the ‘now’, and the relevant issues prevalent in children’s worlds. All children. Growing up, climate change, children’s rights, racism, equal rights… books from other cultures show that children around the world are a united force to be reckoned with. Look at the way Greta Thunberg has inspired a (global) generation, for example. Recently released Saving Celeste by Timothee de Fombelle and Sarah Ardizzone is a story linking pollution and a teenage relationship. It perfectly addresses the issues in our young people’s lives.

Many schools may not have contemporary children’s texts in translation. Most global literature in schools might consist of folktales, fairy tales, and retellings of myths and legends. Specific translated texts most schools have might include children’s classics such as Moomins, Pippi Longstocking and Tintin. Children may not even know that these texts are translations. This prompts some questions for readers: is it important to know that a text is a translation? Can you always tell if a work is a translation? Can a translated text be an original text in its own right? Do we need to increase our knowledge of translated texts and their authors/translators? This last question is the only one I would say has a straightforward answer.

How can we use translated text in education? A link to class topics and subjects is the obvious one. I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker by Michal Skibinski (trans. Eliza Marciniak) is an extended picture book that gives a Polish boy’s perspective on the outbreak of WWII. For KS3 + readers Edelweiss Pirates by Dirk Reinhardt (trans. Rachel Ward) gives a unique view from German teenagers rebelling from the Nazi regime. This is a Dictatorship by Equipo Plantel (trans. Lawrence Schimel) is from Spain. Written after the death of Franco, the picture book’s goal is to explain what dictatorships are to new generations. Also, use authors and illustrators from countries studied on your geography curriculum. It’s a great way to bring other cultures into the classroom and makes for a great hook too.

When publicised, translated texts can also help build relationships between schools, parents and the local community. Books familiar with those who are first or second-generation immigrants can help encourage library use in their children, and can also help nurture family bonds and connect children to their family’s country of origin. Polish classic Detective Nosegoode by Marian Orton (trans. Eliza Marciniak) is a humorous and gentle, illustrated middle-grade series well known to generations in its homeland. Contemporary graphic novel series Akissi: Tales of Mischief by Mathieu Sapin from the Ivory Coast offers a link to West Africa. Children and adults will recognise the universal humour of child mischief, but with a distinct cultural identity.

Many organisations are promoting and supporting global and translated children’s literature. Publishers Pushkin Children’s, who have published numerous texts in translation, want to open up readers to “new horizons”. Independent Book Island publish “thought-provoking” picture books from around the world. 

Raising awareness of children’s literature and stories is important in helping us become global citizens. Another organisation, IBBY (The International Board on Books for Young People) is a nonprofit representing a network of people “committed to bringing books and children together”. They promote and support the industry across the world, especially in developing countries. Benefiting those less fortunate, one such scheme was the Silent Books project in 2012. A library of wordless (“silent”) books. The library was located on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Somewhere many refugees arrive from Africa and the Middle East. It held stories that could be enjoyed and understood regardless of language. 

To fuel promotion in the industry, the annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair is a World Book Day Week for adults. It brings together over 1,400 exhibitors and 30,000 professional visitors. Its main purpose is the buying and selling of rights to work for books, translations, and other media, for example. That being said, publishers, agents, editors, booksellers, authors and illustrators, and anyone working in the world of children’s literature gather to promote and discover, what’s going on in this colourful and diverse world.

Children’s literature is truly global, and we do only see a part of it. However you celebrate World Book Day, remember that we read a fraction of the voices waiting, yearning to be heard. And who knows what they could be saying? It could be exactly what someone needs to hear.

Five things to do with translated books on World Book Day

  • Talk about translated books. Where can you find the name of the translator? Do any authors write their own translations? Which language was the book originally written in? Can you think of any good reasons that we should read books translated from other languages?
  • Make a list of translated books available in your school. Print book jackets and display them on an enlarged map, showing where the books originated.
  • Use resources from the Multilingual Hub to organise a translation workshop in your school.
  • Find out about the Translation Exchange. They organise university students to run translation workshops in schools
  • Make a collection of wordless books from other countries. See IBBY’s Silent Books resource. If you have a school community with many different languages, you could run a parent child workshop using these suggestions from IBBY

Sarah Ardizzone podcast.

See our collection of books in translation

Further information