4-4 Translating out of the Business Box and into the Wonderland of Children’s Books




“Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Helen…”

Helen Iwata has a lifetime love of languages, and in addition to a successful career in business translation, has recently translated three children’s books from the popular Guruguru and Gorogoro series. In her whimsical presentation, she encouraged the audience to chime in and volunteer translations for real examples as she introduced the key concepts and challenges inherent to this particular area of translation.

With any work of fiction, the objective is not to translate the source text directly, but to create an engaging story that the target language audience will follow naturally. This need is even more pronounced when translating children’s books. So as not to lose the interest of the audience, Iwata stresses that the most important thing is to keep the story fun and use simple language as much as possible. Simplicity is not the only linguistic concern, however; children’s books also tend to have a particular rhythm. As one parent in the audience pointed out, story time can fall flat when translators fail to take this into account.

Even for an expert translator, it takes practice to achieve a natural story flow. Picture yourself inviting a guest into your home. It’s easy enough to tell them ゆっくりしていきなさい (“Make yourself at home”), but if they respond おじゃましまーす!, what are they really trying to say? A literal “Sorry to barge in” would be incongruous in English, so it’s helpful to imagine a real-life conversation. Then it should be obvious that a simple “Thank you” will do.

In addition to dialogue styles, storytelling conventions can also differ between cultures. For example, while Japanese uses past tense, present tense is more common English children’s literature. Names are another such convention. While it wouldn’t be strange for a Japanese character to be referred to only as おじさん, English readers expect most characters to have names – in this case, the old man at the cookie factory was renamed “Mr. Crumbs.”

Renaming can also happen with foreign names. Children in particular might have a difficult time relating to characters whose names are difficult to pronounce, so Iwata tends to use more familiar names. Kappa no Kyuusuke, for example, became Mack the Kappa – a pun on the word for raincoats (“kappa” in Japanese and “mackintosh” in UK English). The kitten protagonists Guruguru and Gorogoro were already an established brand in Japan, so they were able to keep their original names, which also happen to be appealing to English-speaking children, who have a decided preference for alliterative and funny names.

Another major element Iwata touched on is illustrations, which are an enormous part of storybook culture and have their own set of challenges. Sometimes space is a problem; text may overlap with pictures, or pictures may divide the page so that there is little room left for text. This is especially difficult in JP>EN, as Japanese text can be squished into narrow vertical spaces whereas English can only be written horizontally. The children’s book translator needs to be creative in getting around these hurdles.

Illustrations also tend to contain source-language text that needs to be translated. This often requires a more liberal hand than with the rest of the story. One example Iwata gave was a framed calligraphy piece on the wall of Grandpa Kappa’s pond dwelling, saying へのかっぱ. Instead of worrying over a direct translation, she flashed back to those ubiquitous cross-stitch samplers and came up with “Pond, Sweet Pond” (Home, Sweet Home), creating a cozy atmosphere.

Artwork can also serve as the translator’s ally. In children’s books, pictures don’t just accentuate the action – they also advance the story on their own. This means that thrifty translators can infer what information the audience already has and cut it from the text as necessary. Iwata demonstrated this with an illustration of Mack the Kappa under his あめふりがさ (an umbrella which makes rain to keep him wet). The text read 「かさの しただけ しとしと あめが ふっています」, but since the picture shows that there is drizzle under the umbrella while the sky above is clear, this information can be cut for a simpler, cleaner translation – in this case, “It’s raining underneath the umbrella!”

Overall, Iwata’s presentation was an interesting showcase of the unique characteristics of translating for children, and the audience left with a greater appreciation of the art form. Her most recent children’s book, The Balloon Monster, was released on December 3 – just in time for Christmas.