World Book Day: Children’s Literature and/in Translation

It is good to see that, to celebrate World Book Day, Sainsbury’s has published a list of 50 books which every child should read by the age of 16. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes the top spot, followed by Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Winnie The Pooh and Black Beauty. I was pleased that some of my favourites, shared (and joyfully rediscovered) over recent years on page and screen with my own family, are there, including A Bear Called Paddington, The Railway Children, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web and Watership Down. And with recognition of Mark Twain, Eric Carle, Dr Seuss, L. Frank Baum, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maurice Sendak and others, there is – despite the recent impoverishment and indeed provincialization of the GCSE English syllabus — an eloquent celebration of a wider body of literature in English from which young people have much to learn and in which they can take great delight. (John Sutherland helpfully suggested in The Guardian the ‘10 [Anglophone] American writers that English children should study for GCSE’.)

I was concerned, although perhaps not wholly surprised, to see only one work in translation on the Sainsbury’s list. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is an important, powerful text, and a key one in Holocaust education. In the context of the survey and more generally, it is undoubtedly a title I would have suggested as incontournable. The diary is now the most translated Dutch book of all time, with the first translation, in German, appearing in 1950. English translations for Britain and the United States followed two years later, and the text has subsequently been translated into more than 60 languages.

There are, however, plenty of additional contenders for inclusion in the Sainsbury’s list. Although the appetite for and visibility of literature in translation continues to grow, there is clearly still much work to do on raising awareness of the rich diversity of texts available thanks to the tireless work of translators. There was an excellent special issue of In Other Words published by the British Centre for Literary Translation  on the subject in 2012,  the English-Speaking Union offer a prestigious annual prize (the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation), and – to complement the Sainsbury’s list – I suggest as an excellent starting point Anthea Bell’s recommended top 10 books for children in translation.


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