skip to Main Content

Children’s Book Week 2021: Exploring some of the best-loved children’s books from across the globe

Children’s books introduce kids to different cultures from an early age. Translators play an important role in facilitating this early education, and entertainment, by making the cultural nuances accessible to kids.

For Children’s Book Week, Senior Marketing Executive, Imogen McCaw, dives into some interesting facts from the some of the world’s best-loved children’s book.

Having recently joined the translation and localization industry, I keep noticing the vital role that good translation plays in connecting people across cultures and languages. In this blog I explore the creativity required for translating children’s books and the shared experiences they bring to children across the world.

Sweeden flag lingo24Pippi Longstocking – Sweden

The Pippi Longstocking books had to be included in this list, not only were they the first to jump into my mind, but the discussion circulating the various translations of Swedish – English could not be overlooked.

There are three Swedish – English translations; the 1954 British translation, by Edna Hurup, the 1977 American English translation, by Florence Lamborn, and the 2011 British translation, by Tiina Nunnally.

There are several notable differences between the versions, but I want to focus on one key feature: the cultural adaptation. In the American English translation, the text retains Swedish words which, personally, makes the reading experience more special. By referring to “pepparkakor — a kind of Swedish cookie,” it’s a charming, passive way to absorb a new language. And doesn’t “pepparkakor” sound more appealing than a “ginger snap”?

You can examine more cultural differences in this heartwarming review.

By referring to “pepparkakor — a kind of Swedish cookie,” it’s a charming, passive way to absorb a new language.

I’ll leave you with this last thought on the books, the girl we know and love as Pippi Longstocking, has a completely different name depending on the language translation1. In Greek, she’s ‘Pippi the freckle-nosed girl’, but I’m sure they love her just the same.

Japan flag lingo24Totto-Chan – Japan

Totto-Chan is the bestselling book in Japanese history2, with over 5 million copies sold in its first year of publication, 1981.

The following year, translator Dorothy Britton brought Totto-Chan to English readers. It has since been translated into over 25 further languages, including many local Indian languages3.

Britton’s tactful description of Japanese customs allowed the reader to understand the character’s environment without disturbing the flow of the book4.

One of the most pleasant things I encountered, while researching this blog, was the reviews section on Goodreads for Totto-Chan. Scrolling down, I saw entry after entry, of 4 and 5 star reviews in a multitude of languages. The variety of linguistic scripts really brought home the way books like Totto-Chan connect readers across the world, drawing out similar emotions and sharing unique stories.

Reviews in a multitude of languages really brought home the way books like Totto-Chan connect readers across the world, drawing out similar emotions and sharing unique stories.

UK flag Lingo24Harry Potter series – UK

*Spoiler alert – if you haven’t yet read the books*

How do you say Muggle in French? And, what about translating the illuminating anagram ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ to ‘I am Lord Voldemort’ in Mandarin?

As a member of the Harry Potter generation, it would be remiss of me to leave out this worldwide phenomenon.

Alongside absorbing the magical world created by author J.K. Rowling, even as a young reader, I enjoyed the depth and meaning behind Rowling’s vocabulary. From the Latin roots of spells, to the wordplay and witticisms behind the characters’ names (Longbottom comes quickly to mind). Translating this lexicon poses a very real challenge to translators.

How do you say Muggle in French? And, what about translating the illuminating anagram ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ to ‘I am Lord Voldemort’ in Mandarin?

But, translate they did, as the Harry Potter books appear in 80 languages worldwide, including Ancient Greek. Each translator made different decisions for translating the books. For example, some translated character names, others left them in English. Andrzej Polkowski, who translated the series into Polish, created a glossary of the names, so curious readers can learn more about the meaning behind the word choice.

Translators needed to make these decisions quickly, to meet the intense deadlines to keep up with the reader demand.

Even before the height of the Harry Potter craze, American English translators opted to localize the title of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ for American children. They renamed the book ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ fearing kids would be put off if they thought the book was about philosophy5.

US flag Lingo24Dr Seuss – USA

The problem with words,
paired neat in a line,
is that in other languages,
they might not quite rhyme.

The poetic nature of Dr Seuss’s books is hard to replicate across different languages. Some translators look to other wordplay – alliteration, repetition or onomatopoeia – to maintain the playful nature of Dr Seuss’s writing, even if the words do not rhyme.

Dr Seuss goes Kosher in the Hebrew version of ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ which is carefully localized to avoid any mention of ham at all6. The translation ‘Lo Raev, Lo Ohev’, by Leah Naor in 1982, roughly translates into English as, “Not Hungry, Don’t Love it”.

The creativity of the translations for these books, show the art and skill required by translators of children’s books, to carry the meaning and poetry into another language.

What’s my favourite translation? I feel the Dutch translation for Dr. Seuss’ book ‘One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish’ shows that when it comes to translating Seuss, translators must be poets themselves:

Visje een visje twee visje visje in de zee
(translates as One fish two fish fish fish in the sea)

You can read more title translations here.

Nigeria flag Lingo24Akata Warrior – Nigeria

I confess, this book is now in my shopping cart, the reviews were that full of praise, calling it the Nigerian Harry Potter. Akata Warrior is rated in Nigeria as a favourite book for young adults.

Akata Warrior is the second in The Nsibidi Scripts series by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor. Published in 2017, it’s already scooping up awards.

Interestingly, Akata Warrior is known by another name in one of the author’s homelands. It’s called ‘Sunny and the Mystery of Osisi’ in Nigeria, and the UK, due to controversy around the name7.

Akata Warrior is known by another name in one of the author’s homelands.

Akátá is derived from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, meaning “wild cat” or “cat that doesn’t live at home”. It’s become known as a derogatory term, mainly towards African Americans, and it’s considered a slur in the states8. Despite this, Okorafor opted to keep Akata in the title in the US, to face and criticize its derogatory meaning head on9.

Italy flag Lingo24Pinocchio – Italy

The Adventures of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a boy, is the fourth most translated literary work. It is only outranked by The Bible, The Little Prince, and What Can the Bible Teach Us?

Originally published in Italian, and written by Carlo Collodi, it has been translated into over 240 languages. It’s wild to think that a fairy tale from Tuscany has reached the hearts and minds of so many, and makes children from different cultures question if their noses really will grow if they lie.

It’s wild to think that a fairy tale from Tuscany makes children from different cultures question if their noses really will grow if they lie.

Syria flag Lingo24

Ali Baba & the forty thieves – Syria

Open sesame

It’s a classic phrase, part of everyday lexicon and used everywhere, from children’s games and even passwords. And a lot catchier than the original English translation:

Open, O Simsim

The tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is synonymous with the phrase Open Sesame. Ali Baba’s fate-turning adventure was added to the story collection One Thousand and One Nights by Antoine Galland. Gallard translated the stories into French for his volume Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704–1717). The story goes that Gallard heard ‘Ali Baba’ being told by Syrian Maronite story-teller, Hanna Diyab, in Paris10.

In Galland’s French version, Ali Baba says “Sésame, ouvre toi!” In 1885, Richard Burton translated the collection into English, changing the magic opening password to “open, O Simsim,” which is the English translation of the Arabic word “sesame.” However, over time, through revisions in different media it’s ‘Open Sesame’ that’s stuck.

Chile flag Lingo24Papelucho – Chile

A classic for Chilean children, author Marcela Paz wrote 12 books in the Papelucho series. It’s a unique series, as all the books are written as if the main character, Papelucho, was journaling in his diary. They tell the story of Papelucho growing up in a middle-class family in Santiago. It’s treasured for showing the every day adventures of children, and the reality of family life.

Books in the series have been translated into French, Japanese, Greek, Italian, English, and a bilingual Spanish-English edition.

It’s treasured for showing the every day adventures of children, and the reality of family life.

At more than 5 million books sold across the series, there’s no doubting Papelucho is a loved story.

What’s your favourite global children’s book?

At Lingo24, I see everyday the role translators play in helping enterprises connect with their customers and in this blog we’ve seen how translation of children’s books helps connect children – and adults – across the world with shared experiences.

It was a joy to revisit so many old friends – Harry, Pippi and Pinocchio – while exploring the meaningful impact translation makes on children’s literature. And, if you hadn’t guessed my favourite book already, I’m a Potterhead through and through.

1 Bridget, “Pippi Longstocking around the world”, First Edition Translations, July 2012, https://www.firstedit.co.uk/blog/2012/07/806/

2 “Totto-Chan is Japan’s all time bestselling novel,” Red Circle, March 2018, https://www.redcircleauthors.com/factbook/totto-chan-is-japans-all-time-bestselling-title/

3 “Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, October 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totto-Chan:_The_Little_Girl_at_the_Window.

4 Chira, Susan, “Growing up Japanese” , The New York Times, November 1982.https://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/21/books/growing-up-japanese.html November 2021

5 Rosell-Aguilar, Fernando, “Harry Potter and the Translator’s Challenge,” Open Learn, July 2017, https://www.open.edu/openlearn/languages/learning-languages/harry-potter-and-the-translators-challenge

6 Zaltzman, Lior, “Dr. Seuss In Hebrew Is More Amazing Than You’d Think,” Kveller, March 2018, https://www.kveller.com/dr-seuss-in-hebrew-is-as-amazing-as-youd-think/

7 Onyeakagbu, Adaobi. “Is there a controversial meaning behind Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata series?” Pulse, August 2018, https://www.pulse.ng/lifestyle/food-travel/pulse-opinion-is-there-a-controversial-meaning-behind-nnedi-okorafors-akata-series/jzwbb6b. November 2021

8 Baker, Aryn. “ Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor” Time, October 2020, https://time.com/collection/100-best-fantasy-books/5898517/akata-witch/, November 2021

9 “Akata Witch” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, November 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akata_Witch.

10 Goodman, John. “Marvellous Thieves adds a new chapter to Arabian Nights” North Shore News, December 2017, https://www.nsnews.com/local-arts/marvellous-thieves-adds-a-new-chapter-to-arabian-nights-3063949, November 2021

Imogen McCaw, Senior Marketing Executive, Lingo24

As Senior Marketing Executive, Imogen works to share the role translation plays in connecting people across cultures and languages. New to the localization industry, Imogen enjoys discovering more examples of the importance of translation in everyday life. As a wanna-be linguist, she has tried her hand at mastering Spanish, French and, most recently, Arabic.

Back To Top
Search