On the marginalisation of children’s literature

Yesterday, Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 by the Swedish Academy. It is the first time in history that a songwriter wins the award and this situation has spurred polemical reactions with some people supporting the decision and others criticizing the fact that it’s not a novelist or a poet who won the prize.

Interestingly enough, The Nobel Prize in Literature has only been awarded once to a children’s book author since its origin. The laureate was Rudyard Kipling, famous for his novel Jungle Book. Even though he didn’t write exclusively for children, it is the closest to a children’s writer that wins the Nobel Prize.

Generally speaking, children’s literature has always been marginalised and it is considered in many cultural systems as a peripheral phenomenon. Writing for children has widely been considered a women’s issue, not many scholars focus their studies in children’s literature so there are not many universities that offer it in their programs, there are a huge amount of stereotypes about its conventions and therefore its status and consideration is quite inferior amongst literary canons.

The prestige of children’s literature is still not as high as it should be and its writing is considered simplistic and flat by a majority of people. Not even the great children’s author Maurice Sendak could escape the discrimination of the genre that has given him prestige and recognition in his field – after winning a prize for illustrating children’s books, Sendak’s father asked him if the award would allow him to finally focus on “true literature”.

The best description of this situation and its implication for the translation community could be found in the following quote:

Outside the field, it [children’s literature, ChL) is little appreciated and, until recently, most authors of ChL adopted pen names because of this attitude. […] Owing to their inferior status, translations of ChL are often not declared as such and the translator’s name is usually left out. Children’s books are rarely reviewed and translations and their translator have been – and still are – totally ignored. As a consequence, this situation is reflected in translations where deletions, additions, didactic remarks, lecturing and trivialisation are not unusual.

Thomson-Wohlgemuth, 1998: 3*

Translating a children’s book requires creativity, empathy, knowledge of the general culture (due to the frequent cultural and intertextual references) and most of the times also poetical skills, amongst many other traits. If you add the complexity of translating the interaction between text and images, which can cause many problems of translation, you find out that translating for children is not as simple as it is claimed. Children’s literature is full of rythm, sounds, wordplays, nonsense and other orality features. It is of vital importance that the task of the translator of children’s books (and author in general) is valued accordingly to all these features.

Now that Dylan has – very rightfuly – won the Nobel prize and opened a door for a better understanding of what literature means and represents, maybe it’s time for people to realize that there are way more options than the mainstream ones and that children’s book authors deserve a better recognition. I can easily think of many candidates from this genre such as Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, A. A. Milne or J. K. Rowling, amongst others.

Maybe that would help people interiorize the fact that children’s literature is indeed true literature.

*References:

THOMSON-WOHLGEMUTH, G. (1998): Children’s Literature and its Translation: An Overview [online], School of Language and International Studies, University of Surrey. [Consulted on: 14th October 2013]. Available at: <http://homepage.ntlworld.com/g.i.thomson/gaby-thomson/ChL_Translation.pdf>.

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