Children’s literature

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

 

Emer O’Sullivan

 

The international market

 

‘Every country gives and every country receives - innumerable are the exchanges’: that was Paul Hazard’s vision of the international exchange of children’s books. The proportion of translations in children’s literatures varies greatly, ranging from 1 per cent to around 80 per cent. The countries that ‘give’ (export) the most also ‘receive’ (import) the least: they are Great Britain (approximately 3 per cent imports) and the USA (approximately 1 per cent imports), the mighty leaders in the production tables of children’s literature. In the developed children’s literatures the Scandinavian countries top the list as those who are most welcoming to literature produced outside their linguistic areas, with Finland leading at around 80 per cent. Figures for the Netherlands and Italy are above 40 per cent, and Germany produces around 30 per cent translations.

The culture-specific attitude towards foreign literature is one of many determining factors which encourage or discourage translation activity. The publisher Klaus Flugge described the bleak British situation:

 

Over the last few years ... the British children’s book market has changed. I feel the British have more or less turned their backs on foreign books for children and, to my regret, the number of translations I publish has diminished to one or two, in a list of at least forty titles a year. You may be surprised to know that this is more than most publishers. The reason for this is not so much that British editors or publishers don’t read foreign languages or don’t want to spend money on translations but simply that there is a lack of interest in this country in anything foreign.

(Flugge 1994: 209)

 

Flugge was writing in 1994 but his assessment still holds valid today. The translator Anthea Bell, winner of the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation in 2003 for her translation of Where Were You, Robert? by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, related how a British publisher rejected the time-travel novel because ‘There is nothing in this book that English readers need to know.’ As Anthea Bell commented laconically:

 

She meant, I suppose, that one episode in 1950s Soviet Russia, one in just postwar Australia, a third in pre-war Nazi Germany, a fourth in 19th-century Norway, a fifth in a petty state of 18th-century Germany, a sixth in Germany of the Thirty Years’ War and the final chapter in the Netherlands some forty years before that were beneath the consideration of young English readers because no episodes of British history were described.

(quoted from private correspondence)

 

Most cultural commentators agree that this kind of cultural narrow-mindedness leading to the exclusion of works translated from other languages in Britain and the USA ‘is a form of cultural poverty and testifies to a lack of imagination in an information-rich world’ (Stahl 1992: 19).

Alongside these countries which only export children’s books while almost failing entirely to import any are those which provide a market for the global corporations - 70 to 90 per cent of books available to reading children in non-European/American cultures are by European or American authors - but whose own books rarely cross the linguistic, political or cultural divide to partake in the Western market. A few organisations and individual publishers actively address this situation and undertake to distribute books from distant countries. The Swiss Baobab children’s book foundation (http://www.evb.ch/index.cfm?page_id=461), for instance, funds the publication of literature for children and young people by authors from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Producing three or four Baobab books (in German translation) every year, it also provides reading lists of children’s literature on the subjects of the Third World and ethnic minorities. And Vagn Plenge, proprietor of the Danish Forlaget Hjulet (‘The Wheel Press’) has been purchasing translation rights and books from countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania (which he calls collectively ‘the warm countries’) and initiating co-productions since 1976 (cf. Plenge 1999).

Baobab and Forlaget Hjulet are unconvinced by the notion that a genuinely international literature is available for the children of the world and they try, within the scope of their scant resources, to redress the situation. They address what Anne Pellowski, founding Director of the Information Center on Children’s Cultures of the US Committee for UNICEF, recognised when, in 1968, she published The World of Children’s Literature, an extensive annotated bibliography on the development of children’s literature in every country. Unclouded by idealism but nonetheless fuelled by hope for a genuinely international literature for children, the assessment of this far-sighted woman has lost none of its pertinence today:

 

There has been a tremendous increase in the number of translations and exchanges, but the greatest proportion has involved the dozen or so countries which produce three-fourths of the world’s books. Exchanges among these countries are not to be disparaged, because there is as much need for understanding among them as there is anywhere else. Yet might it not be true that the commercial and governmental channels are so taken up with the volume of materials to be contended with from these dozen countries, that they have no time, patience or resources left to explore sufficiently the possibilities of exchange with their neighboring nations and with others passing through the same phases of development? Are the private and governmental publishers too concerned with the profits (both monetary and ideological) of exchange, to the detriment of quality? Is there sufficient exchange between the economically advanced and the developing countries, or is this pretty much a one-way passage? What can possibly be the results of world education which relies on so few countries for its textbooks and materials? Will it work for the common good and for mutual understanding or will it rather stifle the creative impulse to search for new and better forms? The massive programs of international aid in the production of reading and teaching materials would do well to consider these questions more carefully.

(Pellowski 1968: 10f)

 

References

Batchelder, M. L. (1972) ‘Translations of Children’s Books’, Minnesota Libraries Autumn: 307-15.

Batty, N. E. (1999) ‘ “We are the World, We are the Children”: The Semiotics of Seduction in International Children’s Relief Efforts’, in McGillis, R. (ed.) Voices of the Other. Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context, New York and London: Garland, 17-38.

Crampton, P. (1977) ‘Will It Travel Well? International Understanding through Children’s Books’, Bookbird XV, 1: 3-7.

Flugge, K. (1994) ‘Crossing the Divide: Publishing Children’s Books in the European Context’, Signal 75: 209-14.

Fremde Welten (2001) Kinder- und Jugendbucher zu den Themen: Afrika, Asien, Lateinamerika, ethnische Minderheiten und Rassismus empfohlen von den Lesegruppen des Kinderbuchfonds Baobab, 14th edn, Basel: Baobab.

Garrett, J. (1996) ‘The Many Republics of Childhood’, in Preiss, B. (ed.) The Best Children’s Books in the World. A Treasury of Illustrated Stories, New York: Abrams, 3-5.

Hazard, P. (1932) Les Livres, les enfants et les hommes, Paris: Flammarion.

- (1944) Books, Children and Men, trans. Mitchell, M., Boston: The Horn Book.

Latrobe, K. (2001) ‘Children’s Literature: International Perspectives’, World Literature Today Magazine 75: 98-101.

Lepman, J. (1964) Die Kinderbuchbrucke, Frankfurt: M. Fischer.

- (2002) A Bridge of Children’s Books, trans. McCormick, E., Dublin: O’Brien Press in association with IBBY Ireland and USBBY.

Lotman, J. (1977) ‘The Dynamic Model of a Semiotic System’, Semiotica 21, 3-4: 193-210.

McGillis, R. (2000) ‘Introduction’ in McGillis, R. (ed.) Voices of the Other. Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context, New York: Garland, xix-xxxii.

Mahony, B. E. (1944) ‘Publisher’s Preface’ in Hazard, P., Books, Children and Men, trans. Mitchell, M., Boston: The Horn Book, v-vii.

Nikolajeva, M. (1996) Children’s Literature Comes of Age. Towards a New Aesthetic, New York and London: Garland.

Ørvig, M (1972) ‘One World in Children’s Books?’, Top of the News June: 399-422.

O’Sullivan, Emer (1996) ‘The Development of Modern Children’s Literature in Late Twentieth- century Ireland’, Signal 81: 189-211.

- (2001) ‘Alice in Different Wonderlands: Varying Approaches in the German Translations of an English Children’s Classic’, in Meek, M. (ed.) Children’s Literature and National Identity, London: Trentham, 23-32.

- (forthcoming) Comparative Children’s Literature, London and New York: Routledge.

Paterson, K. (1999) ‘Missing Persons. Acceptance Speech - Hans Christian Andersen Award’, in Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (Indian BBY) (ed.) Peace through Children’s Books. Proceedings of the 26th Congress of the International Board of Books for Young People, New Delhi: Indian BBY, 17-23.

Pellowski, A. (1968) The World of Children’s Literature, New York and London: Bowker.

Plenge, V. (1999) ‘Getting Books from South to North’, in Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (Indian BBY) (ed.) Peace through Children’s Books. Proceedings of the 26th Congress of the International Board of Books for Young People, New Delhi: Indian BBY, 420-9.

Rose, J. (1994) The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, rev. edn, London: Macmillan.

Scherf, W. (1976) ‘Observations on International Aspects of Children’s Books’, Top of the News 32, 2: 135-48.

Shavit, Z. (1986) Poetics of Children’s Literature, Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press.

Singh, G. P. (1999) ‘The Impact of Globalisation on Children’s Book Trade’, in Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (Indian BBY) (ed.) Peace through Children’s Books. Proceedings of the 26th Congress of the International Board of Books for Young People, New Delhi: Indian BBY, 124-5.

Stahl, J. D. (1992) ‘Canon Formation: A Historical and Psychological Perspective’, in Sadler, G. E. (ed.) Teaching Children’s Literature. Issues, Pedagogy, Resources, New York: MLA, 12-21.

Sunindyo (1980) ‘Publishing and Translating in Indonesia’, in Lees, S. (ed.) A Track to Unknown Water. Pacific Rim Conference on Children’s Literature, Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne State College, 44-54.

Tomlinson, C. (ed.)/USBBY (1998) Children’s Books from Other Countries. Lanham, MD and London: Scarecrow Press.

 

Further reading

Chambers, A. (2001) Reading Talk, South Woodchester: Thimble Press.

Lathey, G. (2001) ‘The Road from Damascus’, in Meek, M. (ed.) Children’s Literature and National Identity, London: Trentham, 3-9.

Mackey, M. (1998) The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children, New York: Garland.

O’Sullivan, E. (2000) Kinderliterarische Komparatistik, Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C.

Pellowski, A. (1980) Made to Measure: Children’s Books in Developing Countries, Paris: UNESCO.