Friday, 2 February 2018

Where are the children's books from non-English speaking countries?

It’s strange that while printed children’s literature in India had its origins in translation, today we rarely come across translated children’s books in bookshops. Many of the books first published in India for children in the 19th or early 20th century were well known English books such as Aesop’s Fables, Alice in Wonderland and stories from the Bible translated into Indian languages. In the second half of the twentieth century, along with a flood of books from UK and USA, Indian children also enjoyed perusing Russian stories translated into English and made available by the Soviets for throwaway prices. 

As a child, I remember reading the Bobbsey Twins series and being especially delighted with those books in which the twins travelled to other countries. Ironically, my introduction to Japan came through The Bobbsey Twins and the Goldfish Mystery in which the children visit Japan and learn several Japanese customs (heavily stereotyped and orientalized, no doubt), and I learnt to say Sayanora and Konnichiwa. I read the English translation of that most famous of Japanese children’s books, Toto-Chan only years and years later.

Ilan Stavans, a publisher of children’s books says, “It is precisely at a young age … when the strongest impact can be made in terms of exposing people to other cultures. A new sensibility can emerge”. However, if you visit a school library or the children’s section of a circulating library, you will probably find a large collection of books from USA and UK and a few from India, and almost nothing else. I do not recollect seeing books from any of our neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh or other Asian countries such as China, Singapore, Thailand or Vietnam. 

Just imagine, if three generations of Indian and Pakistani and Bangladeshi and Sinhalese children grow up reading books from each other’s cultures, South Asians could live without mutual hatred and suspicion. We fear that which is unknown. If we grow up reading stories from other countries, they will become as familiar and beloved to us as stories and people from our own country.

It is true that there has, in recent times, been some recognition of the need to expose our children to multicultural literature. Like Rudine Bishop said, children deserve to read both mirror and window books – books that reflect a culture and society that they are familiar with, and books that offer them a glimpse into other cultures. There have been some attempts on the part of enlightened publishers like Ekalavya, Pratham, Tulika and Tara to offer books that reflect the vast and rich multiple Indian cultures. However, this is not the case with translated books. Forget about translations from other countries, we rarely translate children’s books from one Indian language to another.   The problem is not with publishers alone, as the market reality is such that parents (if and when they buy books) would rather pay for a well-known ‘phoren’ (US/UK) author rather than venture to read an interesting book by an ‘unknown’ author from an ‘unknown’ country.


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