It’s only recently that I’ve started to read and become a lot more interested in literature in translation. To be completely trite, a whole new world has opened up for me. That’s why I was drawn to Wei Ting’s piece at Electric Lit in which she explores a little of the history of Eastern translation, looks at the differences between Eastern and Western children’s lit, and advocates for more books to be translated, so that we as readers can understand the world and others just a little bit better.
Translation holds a particular and peculiar power. It is how we come to understand the world outside our own; that is, the world that exists outside of our own language. The Latin root word for translation comes from latus, the past participle of ferre or “to carry”; in Teju Cole’s beautiful metaphor, the translator is a ferry operator, carrying words from one shore to the other. To take this metaphor further: if the translator is the ferry operator, language is a current.
Soon after I gave birth, my writer friends arrived at my house with piles of classic English picture books. Determined to have my children rooted in their own culture, I set out to find children’s books with characters that not only looked like them, but stories that would help them navigate the complex world they will inherit. Just by the act of searching, I came to read wonderful writers from Japan, South Korea, and China with a completely different sensibility from Western children’s literature.
Reading children’s literature again as an adult, the difference between Western and East Asian stories was startling: Western children’s books are often centered on the individual’s journey, while stories by Chinese, Japanese and Korean authors emphasize respecting other people’s feelings, patience, and acceptance. As a child, I found many of these old Chinese stories moralistic and preachy. But to my surprise, I also discovered many wonderful children’s books which conveyed these same values without being didactic, and helped me as a mother understand my own feelings and moderate my response towards my child’s behavior.