My Favorite Children’s Book and some Thoughts on Translation

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I came across a translation website called Smartling a few weeks ago, which sparked off some of my own thoughts on translating literature. Most of my own translation work has been nonfiction but I have read children’s books in French, German, Italian and Spanish (much more so when I was a K-12 librarian of an international school.)

Below is a brief review of ONE of my favorite books and then I share some musings on translation.

charTitle: Charlotte’s Web

Written by: E. B. White

Illustrated by: Garth Williams (and Rosemary Wells)

Published by: 1st published in 1952 by Harper Collins

Themes/topics: loyalty, loneliness, friendship, farm life, the passing of time

Ages: 8-12

Charlotte’s Web has sold more than 45 million copies and been translated into 23 languages.

Awards and nominations include:

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (1984)


“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”


After sparing the life of a piglet almost slaughtered by her pig-farmer dad as the runt of the litter, a little girl named Fern Arable nurtures it lovingly, naming it Wilbur. Fern is the only human in the story capable of understanding animal conversation.

When he is a little older, Wilbur is sold to Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman. Fern is able to visit Wilbur, but is unable to see him as often. Out of boredom, Wilbur begins to befriend other animals in the barn, who often patronizingly instruct the still naïve little pig in the ways of life. He is snubbed by most of these barn animals, until befriended by spider named Charlotte, living on a web overlooking Wilbur’s enclosure in the barn. When Charlotte discovers that Wilbur is intended for slaughter, she promises to hatch a plan guaranteed to spare his life. Secretly she starts to weave messages praising Wilbur (such as “Some Pig“) in her web in order to persuade the farmer to let him live. This attracts publicity among Zuckerman’s neighbors who attribute the praise to divine intervention.


As time passes, more engravings appear on Charlotte’s webs, increasing his renown. Therefore Wilbur is entered in the county fair, accompanied by Charlotte and the rat Templeton, whom she employs in gathering inspiration for her messages. There, Charlotte spins an egg sac containing her unborn offspring, and Wilbur, despite winning no prizes, is later celebrated by the fair’s staff and visitors thus making it impossible to kill him. Exhausted apparently by laying eggs, Charlotte remains at the fair and dies shortly after Wilbur’s departure.

Having returned to Zuckerman’s farm, Wilbur guards Charlotte’s egg sac, and is saddened further when the new spiders depart shortly after hatching, leaving behind only the three smallest. Pleased at finding new friends, Wilbur names the spiderlings Joy, Nellie, and Aranea. White ends the book with Wilbur mentioning that more generations of spiders kept him company in subsequent years, but he never had quite the same depth of relationships with Charlotte’s descendants as he had had with her.

What would be the most important aspect you would like to remain consistent between languages when translating literature  How does the language of the piece bring the story to life?

Translating fiction for adults and for children is essentially the same. However, translators of children’s literature must constantly consider how well their readers can grasp the experience of foreign cultures, idioms, tropes and other unknown elements of the story. This struggle between keeping most of the original sense and regard for the intended readers is a fundamental concern and one of the greatest obstacles in creating high quality translation. In order to produce a good translation of a children’s book, translators must understand their target audience: their knowledge, level of experience, emotional age, ability to adapt and learn new things.

The translator’s role is to stay faithful to the original work (story, vocabulary, rhythm etc), but also to incorporate additional adjustments while keeping the writer’s form and ideas. I think children can tolerate a lot that is strange and unknown (many love fantasy worlds, after all), but too many cultural differences can cause a child to distance herself from the story. Translation is never easy, and of course, the translator must respect translation theory, linguistic rules, follow the main story line correctly and make sure that nothing is incorrectly represented. Publishers obviously also have an important say in the translation of children’s literature (and it can be  reason for resisting rhyming texts.) I would like to note that I also think it is very important to note a translator’s name (not just author and illustrator) if one is reviewing from a translated text.

I think one of the keys to a good translation of Charlotte’s Web is understanding animals in children’s books. Animals are not puppets, they are symbols of human lives with human emotions and responses and yet also with a life of their own. When animals are used so porignantly as E B White does with Wilbur, Charlotte and the others, the translator needs to also capture this wonderful anthropomprophic balance, and special kinship Fern has with animals, all of which are hard enough to portray as the writer, IMHO!

As E B White has noted, a farmyard with farmyard animals is a very specific environment in which to set a story, and he manages to portray the violence, the relationships and theme of salvation with such evocative storytelling that I have yet to see a reader of Charlotte’s Web who has not been brought at least near to tears. A translator needs to find the right words to convey the level of loyalty we find in this book. Wilbur finds himself facing a life-or-death situation and can’t survive alone. Charlotte is so devoted to Wilbur that nothing can diffuse her dependability. Charlotte is willing to sacrifice her life to help out her best friend. And over time Wilbur learns what it’s like not just to have a faithful friend, but to be one, too.

The description of the experience of swinging on a rope swing at the farm is a wonderful example of rhythm in writing, as the pace of the sentences reflects the motion of the swing. A good translator will pick up on this sort of cadence, as they will on the sense of wonder in simple things, that E B White excels in showing. The prose is breathtakingly beautiful and a good translator will labor painstakingly to reproduce the beauty and simplicity of language used for paragraphs such as the following:

“The autumn days grew shorter, Lurvy brought the squashes and pumpkins in from the garden and piled them on the barn floor, where they wouldn’t get nipped on frosty nights. The maples and birches turned bright colors and the wind shook them and they dropped their leaves one by one to the ground. Under the wild apple trees in the pasture, the little red apples lay thick on the ground, and the sheep gnawed them and the geese gnawed them and foxes came in the night and sniffed them. One evening, just before Christmas, snow began falling. It covered the house and barn and fields and woods. Wilbur had never seen snow before.”

This book has some of the best opening and closing lines of any book I have ever read. Let me leave you with the last line.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” 

By the way, I know of at least two different title translations to this novel in French – La Toile de Charlotte (literal translation) and Le Petit Monde de Charlotte (Charlotte’s little World). I would have stuck with the former, but it shows the challenge of good translating.

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9 Responses to My Favorite Children’s Book and some Thoughts on Translation

  1. I\’ve not thought much about book translations and what qualities are necessary in order to maintain the spirit of the book (which is weird because I\’ve read a lot of translated books/stories in my life). Thanks for a thoughtful post which will remind me to consider future translated texts more fully.

  2. Great way to look at a piece of familiar writing. I remember figuring it out pretty quickly that it is quite a feat to translate into a second language – easier into one’s first, yet no stroll in the park! Metaphors alone!!! As a young person, quite assured of ‘knowing better’, I used to find film title translations in German deplorable. It’s just not all about word-for-word, is it?

  3. Wow, Joanna. What a considerate post. I agree about Charlotte’s Web. The understanding of animals is key in translating that story. The language of story is so important for MANY reasons. I had never considered all of this. I will look at my stories in a new way now, my friend. I will read translated books in a new way too. Fantastic. Sharing. xoxo

  4. Great insights about translating. I love that book and film. I read a book of poetry that had been translated, wasn`t impressed. How can you get the rhythm just right especially when it`s rhyming.

  5. Wow! I’ve never given much thought to what needs to happen when a book is translated. Your post is excellent. It made me see how similar this process is for screenwriters translating an optioned book for a movie or theater. Capturing the essence of the story and communicating it such a way that the translator stays faithful to the original work.

  6. :Donna says:

    Joanna, I never looked into this and typically, translation comes to mind with books that rhyme. I always wonder how they can translate AND keep it rhyming! And seeing as how you love CHARLOTTE’S WEB, you may enjoy a guest post I did on it:

    • Joanna says:

      Donna, thanks for the link, I love your thoughts on CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I was unable to leave a comment on Sheila’s page. Translation and rhyme really don’t mix easily and there has to be some change of meaning to pull off good rhyme. I did review a book of rhyming spring poetry here –

      • :Donna says:

        I checked the post, Joanna 🙂 That book looks beautiful! And there’s a good chance Sheila shut down the comments. I don’t know 🙁 Her son was recently killed in a tragic car accident. I think of her so often as I know she is mourning so deeply 🙁 🙁 🙁 I literally cry every time she crosses me mind…

        • Joanna says:

          Donna, that’s heartbreaking. I am sure she is taking a necessary break from the blog to begin to process some of her pain.

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