Do We Overly ‘Domesticize’ Translations for Children?

B.J. Epstein has an interesting new paper called “Manipulating the Next Generation: Translating Culture for Children.”

Epstein argues that when we translate children’s literature (such as the Clifford books, or the Magic School Bus series) from one language into another (in this case, English into Arabic) we may tend to overly “domesticize” the translation, changing the foreign cultural cues to make them local.

“Foreignizing” vs. “domesticizing” is a big issue in translating grown-up lit. Should an Arabic book in English (or vice versa) feel “foreign” to the reader, or should unfamiliar cultural concepts be “translated,” to make the reading seem more seamless and comfortable and familiar?

Epstein looked at middle-grade and YA translations, and focuses on how dialect is rendered (such as in Huckleberry Finn) and allusions in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

But “domesticization” occurs in literature for younger children, too. Ms. Frizzle, of the Magic School Bus, becomes Fairouz, and Arnold becomes Rami. In the Clifford books, Clifford is now Gabali, and Emily Elizabeth is Noor. Apparently, in the Magic School Bus books, the outfits were also made a little more modest for Arabic-reading audiences.

But these seem to me, ultimately, like very slight adjustments. In one Clifford book my son owns, the children hunt for Easter eggs. While they have different names in the Arabic version, everything else seems to scream AMERICAN CULTURE. In another book, the Clifford friends go see a scary movie on Halloween.

Indeed, more than “overly domesticizing,” I find that many of the translations seem quite foreign to a Cairo reality—my sons and I enjoyed قط و فرخ, a translation licensed from Scholastic—but it didn’t really seem to reflect Cairo realities of pollution problems and solutions. Waleed Taher’s سعيد… سعيد made much more sense to a Cairo reader.

Translations certainly have a role in children’s literature. I wouldn’t want a world without السمكة الملونة هربت, translated from the Japanese (and neither would my two-year-old!) But I also believe we also need more children’s literature that addresses the needs, realities, and concerns of each specific audience: be they Egyptian, Lebanese, Qatari, Moroccan, Syrian, Palestinian, or other.

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