Children are lost without translation

On Monday this week, International Translation Day, we celebrated the invaluable role of children's literature in translation in bringing children together through stories. 

What greater hope could we have for our youngest citizens than that they grow up marvelling at and wanting more of the treasury of stories from the vast patchwork of world culture, past and present? Stories that have travelled and crossed borders through translation allow us all to discover what it means to be human, in both unique and shared ways. 

Reading memorable stories from near and far in our own languages of course also stimulates the writing of other memorable stories, inspiring potential and actual authors to conjure up new stories from old and, in the process, to take ownership. It's what has always happened. 

But is this something we can celebrate in multilingual South Africa? 

Not a problem for English-speaking and some Afrikaans-speaking children who hear and read collections such as Grimms' Fairy Tales and classics such as Pinocchio as a normal part of childhood. 

But sadly they rarely, if ever, get to read stories written or retold in African languages and then translated into English. And African-language-speaking children are simply left out in the cold. 

I believe that the translation industry in South Africa, the cradle of humankind, could and should be like a deep river, carrying and depositing the finest flow of children's stories from here, there and everywhere to all our children and not only to those who happen to speak English. 

A flowing river of stories implies a lively children's literature coaxing children into books. It also implies that translation is valued and growing as an industry, making know-ledge of one another's languages potentially an economic good. But it's not. At best we struggle to nurture a trickle of translations from English into African languages and almost none in other directions. 

The relatively youthful history of written children's literature is also a history of translation. A distinctive literature for children came about over time with the adaptation of adult texts for child audiences. 

This was done largely by translators, the "invisible storytellers", who retold stories in what were considered appropriate ways, in accordance with the dominant societal views of childhood. Although a separate children's literature only emerged in the 18th century, translated tales have been enriching children's lives since medieval times. 

In the 21st century, is it right for African-language-speaking children to be excluded from access to the world canon of children's literature, including African literature? No? Well, in 2013 they are — and to a significant extent. 

It is a travesty that children in other parts of the world are able to read beautifully illustrated and retold-for-children versions of stories from African literature in their own language, while so many African-language-speaking children cannot. The loss of storytelling — without even substituting it with story reading — leaves children increasingly vulnerable, especially in the current global skills- and test-obsessed education climate. 

Consider the difficulties so many youngsters have in learning to read and write. If we accept the strongly established link between the motivation to read and learning to read, we should not be surprised that it is often such a painful and humiliating fiasco. 

One major contributing factor is the paucity of anywhere near sufficient access to what tends to make learning to read easy and enjoyable. At something like R1 a word, translation is not cheap. But how much more expensive is the ongoing wasted potential of South Africa's youth? 

The Nal'ibali National Reading for Enjoyment Campaign is helping to address this situation. We are creating and delivering stories in several languages and using them daily in reading clubs. 

To access children's stories in a variety of languages, go to the Nal'ibali web page, or the Nal'ibali mobisite,

Dr Carole Bloch is the director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, which is a founding partner in the Nal'ibali campaign 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday