Lost in translation? The tricky business of translating children’s books

This summer my son discovered the Findus and Pettson series by the Swedish writer and illustrator Sven Nordqvist. On the face of it the series is an unlikely hit with kids: the main characters are a lonely old man and his cat—not exactly bestselling children’s fodder, especially not in the age of Disney and Pixar. But bestselling it is: the books have been translated into many languages and have sold over 6 million copies worldwide. Findus and Pettson are superstars in Sweden, very popular in much of Europe, but not well known in America. Why?

Old man Pettson is not magical or super-heroic, or special in any sense. He has no twinkle in his eye. No, he is well over sixty, frumpy and occasionally grumpy, drinks coffee by the gallon, and lives in a farmhouse in the wilds of the Swedish countryside. His neighbors consider him a bit of an oddball, not least because he talks to his cat. (But don’t we all?)

Findus the talking cat is the undisputed star, but not in a cute, Disney-esque sense. Opinionated, stubborn, curious, and not always nice, Findus is the feline equivalent of your elementary school child—and herein lies the attraction for kids. The 5+ crowd can identify almost instantly with Findus, but I suspect that many adults (who would be reading the books to their children) are disinclined to identify with Pettson and his coffee-drinking, hermit-like habits. In an American environment, adults—especially when in charge of a cat/child—are expected to be positive role models, not oddballs! This cultural difference may be one reason why the series has not caught on in America.

However, the other reason may well lie in the translation of the text. One translation is published by Hawthorn Press (UK) as the Findus and Pettson series. However, Carolrhoda Books (USA) published an slightly earlier translation targeted specifically to the American market. This edition is called the Festus and Mercury series, with Mercury being the cat. Why the name change? You may well ask, as did I.

So off I went on an Internet hunt and came across an article by BethAnne Yoxsimer Paulsrud that gives an interesting account of two warring theories of translation being at work here. The American translation “domesticates” the foreign work to make it more accessible to American readers and includes references to Fourth of July fireworks and the Star Spangled Banner anthem—not something likely to be found in Sweden, where the stories are set!  Furthermore, the characters’ names were changed to sound American (however: Festus?). The UK translation, on the other hand, proceeds on the assumption that children are clever enough to appreciate the “foreignness” of a book and don’t require a domesticated version.

In the case of this series, the differences in the two translations are eye opening. Here is an example taken from Paulsrud’s article:

Domesticated Foreign
“Looks great,” said Mercury when they stood the exploding hen in the yard They set up the hen on the ground in the yard and stood looking at it.“It’s fine,” said Findus.“Mmm,” said Pettson proudly.Then they were silent a moment.

And here is another one:

Domesticated Foreign
But the more he thought about it, the more of a challenge it seemed. He looked all around the farmyard and had an idea. Then he led Mercury back to the toolshed. But at the same time he began to wonder how he could arrange a good spooky scene. And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like fun.So soon he was back in the yard again mumbling to himself and looking up into the air to the right and to the left. Then he said: “We’ll build a ropeway now. You’d better come too, Findus, so you don’t get any firecrackers going off your backside.”“Sss, rubbish,” said Findus, but he went along anyway.

The difference is startling, isn’t it? The “domesticated” translation has none of the quirkiness and detail of the “foreign” one, which is an almost a word-for-word equivalent of the original Swedish text. And while the “foreign” translation may not use elegant prose, it is nevertheless much more lively and challenging.

Now I’m wondering: how many books in translation have we read as children and not appreciated, because they were too “domesticated”? And how many “foreign” ones did we appreciate? And which were more memorable?

As a child I found it thrilling to read about children in faraway places, even if their environment was utterly unfamiliar to me. Girls from Africa, England, Sweden (Pippi Longstocking, anyone?) were part of my imaginative world, and though I probably found it challenging to imagine life in a Tanzanian village, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying reading and puzzling about it. In my view, translations of foreign children’s books should challenge kids to look at the unfamiliar—this is how they develop curiosity about the world they live in, which can only be a good thing.

But let’s get back to the series my son loves so much (and yes, we read the “foreign” translation). As mentioned, the book’s author is also its illustrator, and, thankfully, the pictures need no translating! In fact, the illustrations really make the books stand out. Nordqvist draws images you linger over and savor for their inventive quirks and irrelevant details. The more you look, the more you find. They gives the stories a whole new dimension and ensure that children and adults alike are entertained.

In case anyone is on the quest for interesting and fun children’s books—especially something a little off the beaten path—I highly recommend this series. You can find Findus and Pettson on Amazon.

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