This is a guest post by Ofer Tirosh. ** This article is updated regularly. It was last updated in April 2021 **

The most basic principles of translation are the exchange of words in one language with their linguistic counterparts in another language, the two languages forming what is known as a “language pair.” While this may be factual in theory, the true nature of translation services is far more technical and involved. In 2021, this is even more pertinent as children are using online resources for their educational or recreational needs.

There are cases where literal translations are all that is needed, though as any translator and interpreter will know all too well, translation is also about context. Translation services, which include the process of interpreting, is a nuanced field, requiring a keen understanding not only of the lexical meaning, but also the ideas behind the words being used.

Nowhere is this subtle nuance of translation more readily apparent than when translating material for children. Children being children, most of these translations for kids are based on either educational materials or entertainment, though occasionally combining the two. Most books written for children are at least semi-educational in nature, even the dreaded comic books that seem to be loathed as much as they are loved by so many. Translation services for children though, do present some interesting conundrums that are unique in nature.

Why Translation for Children is Challenging 

As was noted by Evelyn Arizpe, Professor of the University of Glasgow, School of Education, in a study posted on the Research Gate website; “Though the study of children’s literature is now well established as an academic discipline, the study of its translation has only recently begun. One reason for this neglect in the English-speaking world is the very small amount of foreign children’s literature currently translated into English, and the domination of foreign markets by translations from Anglo-American children’s books. Latterly, however, issues of multiculturalism, and recognition of the global influence of children’s books (revealed by, for example, the unprecedented success of the Harry Potter series), have led to questions about the principles that should govern such translations, and about their cultural impact.”

What then are the guiding principles of translation of literature for children? While this study goes on to list many guiding principles of translation for kids, most of it seems best left for academics and philosophers to ponder. What it does point out in layman terms, is that there are moral concerns, cultural concerns and a major concern for the translation of age-related expressions and “neologism”. Neologism effectively means when people including kids and authors merely make up words to suit their own needs, though it may also apply to expressions that are newly introduced as well.

Shakespeare may have started this trend, but the translations of his works are hardly counted among the favorite resources for children. How does a certified translation professional approach Dr. Seuss and his litany of literary neologism? How does a translator approach the translation of comic books or pursue the translation of video games with so many made up words? How does one translate rhymes and riddles for children and keep them both true to their original meaning and entertaining?

Add in the generation gap of language and translating for children becomes even more challenging. Think back to when you were a child. You and your friends had your own expressions and sayings that even your grandparents could not understand. When translating for kids, all of these factors combine to create many challenges for translating literary works and other materials for children.

Why Translating for Children is Important

One disturbing result of the technological revolution seems to be a decreased focus on reading as video and other electronic distractions attract the attention of children. This is especially troubling as was noted on The Conversation website where it reported that “Only 35% of fourth graders read at or above their grade level, according to the results of a federal standardized test. It’s also an issue because merely 13.5% of American 15-year-olds could distinguish between fiction and fact when they took another assessment, which measures student performance around the world.”

Whether you love or hate comic books, they often provide the child with the necessary motivation to learn to read. Many schools actually use comic books as a means not only to encourage children to read, but also in order to help them to expand their vocabulary. Once these children have mastered the comic books, they may be more encouraged to begin reading more classical literature that has been translated time and again through the ages.

Why is this important? Given the fact that most children cannot differentiate fact from fiction, does translating kids’ books into different languages and teaching the children to read not confuse them even more? Fortunately, while reading has been shown to help children increase their imagination, this also stimulates the growth of a better sense of reason at the same time.

When cartoons, comic books and other books for children are translated into the native language of the child, and the child is read to by their parents, the mental stimulation does help to develop creative cognitive capacity in the child. The child with a more active imagination will not only be more open to new ideas and more learning opportunities, but also better capable of mastering reasoning and logic as well.

Translation services, which can expand understanding of even rare or new languages, can help children by enlightening even the most complex books or documents. Translation services must provide a literal translation where possible, while at the same time being able to translate or to interpret the contextual meaning of the conversation. Translation services that provide meaningful translations of literature for children provide invaluable resources for the mental development of those children. Encouraging the children to read can only be made easier by providing them with a wider selection of better written (and better translated) selection of books and other learning resources, even to the point of video games.

Video Game Translation for Children

The video game industry is a multi-billion dollar industry but who would have ever thought that it was beneficial to both children and adults? Video games can be translated by translation services to help provide the necessary tools to help all people in regards to their mental health.

This fact seems especially poignant these days as we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic with unprecedented numbers of children and adults stuck at home, often with little to do besides playing video games to pass the time. This propensity to play video games however, may have an unexpected side effect as it has been scientifically shown to improve the mental health and even cognitive function of gamers.

In a 2018 report published in Psychology Today, it was noted that “analysis of the correlational studies revealed, overall, strong positive relationships between amount of time gaming and high scores on tests of perception, top-down attention, spatial cognition, multitasking, and cognitive flexibility (ability to switch strategies quickly when old ones strategies don’t work). Their analysis of the intervention data indicated that even just 10 to 30 hours of video play, over the duration of an experiment, significantly improved performance on tests of perception, attention, spatial cognition, and cognitive flexibility.”

Translation services are an integral part of video game design these days, and for a good reason. Translation, of course, ensures that the video games may be enjoyed by children from all around the globe. Localizing video games, meanwhile, is used in conjunction with video game beta testing to ensure that none of the languages, no character names or other verbiage unique to the video game will be offensive to the potential audiences. Further consideration is given to any cultural and social taboos that may also inhibit the ability of the game makers to release the video games in as many markets as possible.

Video games are also increasingly popular as a means to master foreign and even native languages. Some of these video games are developed specifically as a means to help people learn a foreign language, though others merely encourage communications among people of a very diverse array of groups. While video games may be beneficial, and translation services may be relevant, they do not directly address successful methods to consider when translating for children.

Research conducted by Astrid Ensslin, University of Alberta, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies about the impact on language regarding the video game industry revealed the following statistics:

  1. 67 percent of American households play computer or video games and own either a console and/or PC used to run entertainment software.
  1. The average game player is 34 years old and has been playing games for 12 years.
  1. The average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 40 years old. 42 percent of all game players are women.
  1. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (20 percent).
  1. In 2010, 26 percent of Americans over the age of 50 played video games, an increase from nine percent in 1999.
  1. 64 percent of parents believe games are a positive part of their children’s lives.

Top Tips to Successfully Translate for Children

Religious texts are among the most commonly translated books in the world, but at least according to this article in Wikipedia, Pinocchio has been translated into more languages than any other non-religious text. Surprisingly perhaps, the translation of literature for children tops the list when it comes to those books that have been translated the most. Fortunately, this provides something of a solid foundation of methods necessary for the successful translation by translation services of literature and other materials for children.

If it is at all possible, meet the original author, even to the point of working with them directly if it is at all possible. It may be that the translation services have been commissioned by a publishing house, but if the author is still around, who better to work with to keep the translation as close as possible to the original form.

If it is not possible to consult with the original author of the book that needs to be translated, try to associate not only the words together, but the words in conjunction and “agreement” with the original illustrations, and any other underlying messages that may otherwise be literally lost in translation.

Study the psychology and the habits of the intended audience, including not only their languages and local vernacular or expressions, but also trying to determine their frame of mind. Discovering what is important to the audience is one thing, but conveying the message for a document translation, should also include some of the basic principles of localization techniques as well. Speaking to the audience in a language that they understand, in a way that reverberates with them, should boost interest as well as sales.

Whenever possible, the first draft of the translation should be set aside, ideally for a couple of weeks. This will allow the translator to go back and read what was actually translated and written, not just what the translator meant. This is a common tactic for many authors, even without the need for translation services. Many editors will appreciate the translators who make these additional efforts.

Except in cases when they may not fit, or may translate into a derogatory word, character names and other “made up” words should not be changed when translating books for children. An African character may be fine with the name Chinga, but in Hispanic or other Spanish translations, this would potentially be seen as a “bad” word. In a Russian translation, it may be seen as a disease requiring treatment. Again, translation strategies are an important part of translating a book.

Translating for children, whether it be for reasons of education or entertainment, will always present some interesting challenges, even for professional translators. There remains however, a great sense of satisfaction for a translation job well done, and knowing that translation services have helped to make the future a little brighter and better for kids around the world.

Ofer Tirosh is CEO of Tomedes, a translation company which has since 2007 served 50,000 businesses, translating in more than 1000 language pairs, relying on thousands of superb in-house and freelance translators.