When I agreed a few years ago to put together a new edition of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature I was determined that one of the ways it would be different from its 1984 predecessor was that it would have much better coverage of non-Anglophone writing. The Companion is, after all, supposed to represent our whole world of children’s literature – all times and places, for children and teens of all ages (a crazy undertaking, obviously, but I won’t dwell on that); but while the old edition was a really wonderful book, truly a masterpiece of its genre, it was very firmly, comfortably rooted in the Anglosphere of children’s lit, and I wanted to change that. But the book I finally published last week (oh, these things do take time…) has in fact only a relatively modest increase in its coverage of translated work. Why?
Well, it’s a rather grim story. (Not to be confused with a Grimm story, which would obviously be great.) Those of us in the UK’s translation family have long complained about our country’s resistance to literary import, and we’ve done a lot of work – with organisations like English PEN, among others – to try and change that bad habit, to improve the ‘bibliodiversity’ of UK publishing, to increase the variety of voices to which our readers have access. And things do seem to be getting better – with more being translated, and more visibly, and translators themselves more dynamic and more appreciated. It’s a slow process, certainly, but it’s all good. But one area where we haven’t made our progress yet is in books for children; in recent years our children’s publishing world has been as closed to work from other languages as it’s ever been.
The truth is, of course, most of us grew up on diets of translated books as much as anything else. For me it was Asterix and Tintin, the Moomins, Emil and the Detectives and others. It could just as easily have been Andersen and Grimm, Astrid Lindgren, The Swiss Family Robinson or so many others. (Did I even know I was reading translations? Probably not – it hardly mattered.) But now?
New books for children published in English translation are desperately hard to find. (Books, in other words, originating in any of the languages spoken by some 6.7 billion of the world’s population.) Submissions to the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, which I recently judged, while extremely high in quality, are pitiful in quantity. And yet I’m writing this post from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (where I’ve been deployed with a grant from Arts Council England to try and identify good books for potential translation by English publishers), and the whole world is here in this huge hall and it’s excited and energetic, and productive, and diverse, full of books that sound and look utterly wonderful – and how frustrating not to be able to read any of them, nor to have any prospect of doing so any time soon.
It’s hard to deny, of course, that the Anglosphere is an extraordinary source of great children’s writing, and it has long been so. (Lewis Carroll’s first Alice book turns 150 this year.) The 3640 entries that make up my Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature do, I hope, demonstrate that – that richness, that variety, the scope of talent and inventiveness we’re so lucky to have access to. But I hope it gives some suggestion, too, of what we’re missing. What we see as our ‘world of children’s literature’, as I’ve been able to describe it to my Anglophone readers, actually has so very little of the world in it. We still have some way to go.