Children’s literature

2. Internationalism, the universal child and the world of children’s literature

 

Emer O’Sullivan

 

’World literature’ - international classics

 

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils falls into the hands of a bronze colored child at Singapore or Calcutta . Meanwhile, far away, near the borders of Lapland, a child bundled in furs and hugging the fire reads the Arabian Nights, adapted for his enjoyment.

(Hazard 1944: 151f)

 

The Swedish children’s literature specialist Mary 0rvig expressed her amazement ‘to see over and over again how readily ... one tends to generalize about the internationality of (children’s books) on the strength of some classical novels’ (0rvig 1972: 24). But how international are the classics? Often one famous example, translated into countless languages, is cited to prove that children all over the world have the same taste. If we take one such example - Alice in Wonderland - which, although almost untranslatable, has been translated into most languages, what do we see? Rather than any evidence of global child preferences, we find Alice ‘rendered lovingly into exotic languages by English missionaries or anglicised colonials - much like the Bible and for many of the same reasons’ (Garrett 1996: 3). And, as Jeffrey Garrett goes on to remind us, the Australian edition of 1975 in Patjantjatjara was not created in anticipation of any demand from aboriginal children or their parents but was commissioned by the Department of Adult Education at the University of Adelaide and decorated with ‘aboriginal’ illustrations by a Texan artist. Here, ‘international’ classics serve as an instrument of cultural hegemonism. Looking at the European reception of the same classic, we find that many German books with the title Alice im Wunderland cannot be equated with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Compared to its reception in England and in other countries, Lewis Carroll’s book simply wasn’t a success in Germany, for which the poor quality of many of the thirty-one translations issued in the course of 130 years is partially responsible (cf. O’Sullivan 2001). The translations themselves are clear indicators of how translators and publishers felt such an excitingly innovative but also puzzling book should be presented to young German readers. The notion that children the world over selected Alice in Wonderland as their favoured book and that the version they were reading in their part of the world bore more than a passing resemblance to versions elsewhere is little more than a myth.

Children’s books - especially the classics - are frequently regarded and referred to as the product of an international culture of childhood. Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, the Grimms’ fairy tales and those of Hans Christian Andersen, Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, Heidi, Pinocchio, Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Pippi Longstocking, to name but a few, originate almost exclusively in the northern and western European countries and the USA. Due to the conditions of the production and export of children’s literature, the dominance of ‘foreign’ products, particularly children’s literature in English and the classics in translated and revised form produced without much trouble or expense, can undermine the development of indigenous children’s literature. As Sunindyo reminds us: ‘The traditional classics of Western literature have been translated and published over and over again [in Indonesia] by different publishers. In a developing country this is wasteful of precious capital’ (Sunindyo 1980: 53).

Children’s literature - predominantly in English - has become an international commodity in an increasingly global market, and among the most fruitful branches of this commodity are its classics. It is an extraordinary indication of the dominance of English-language publishing that today a number of German editions of Heidi by Johanna Spyri are actually translations from English. The novel, written in German and hailed as Switzerland’s envoy, has been adapted countlessly for the English market, and global players such as Dorling Kindersley have sold the rights to their versions to be (re)translated into German.