Books for young readers help shape children’s minds, attitudes, and viewpoints. Hence it’s crucial for young readers to have the opportunity to hear diverse voices from around the world. Today’s impressionable, thoughtful young minds need to be aware of important issues and acts of historical or social justice.
From their inception, graphic novels have lent themselves to addressing serious issues in the realm of social justice, such as one of the early, stellar exemplars, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale* by Art Spiegelman (2 vols., Pantheon Graphic Library, 1986/91, originally serialized in 1980). While not a translation, it explored issues of historical injustice of the worst kind—oppression, genocide, racism, xenophobia, and the Holocaust—for hundreds of thousands of readers, using a very personal authorial lens.
More recent graphic novels, such as the award-winning The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui (Abrams ComicArts, 2017), American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (First Second Books, 2007), and March by the late Georgia congressman John Lewis (1940-2020) and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (3 vols., Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016) serve to deeply enrich their avid young readers’ worlds and world views of North Vietnam and Vietnamese immigrants, Chinese Americans, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, respectively.
Maus, The Best We Could Do, and American Born Chinese are already multicultural in their perspectives. When one adds graphic novels in translation to the mix, one also increases the potential for shining a spotlight on issues of social justice in far-off cultures, letting these concerns enter into the narrative shared by the more “mainstream” local culture.
For example, we encounter Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi, translated into English by her husband, Mattias Ripa (Pantheon Graphic Library, 2004/2005), which tell of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. The two-volume work allows young readers to vicariously live through another child’s experience of oppression in recent history from across the globe.
A more recent graphic novel, Josephine Baker, by José-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller, translated by Edward Gauvin (SelfMadeHero, 2017), addresses deep-seated discrimination and racism that the famous African-American dancer, resistance fighter, and Civil Rights activist encountered throughout her life in Europe and the United States.
While women’s rights, discrimination, and feminism are subtexts in Josephine Baker and Persepolis, they come front and center in Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, translated by Montana Kane (First Second Books, 2018).
Graphic novels in translation also address issues of gender identity and LGBTQ discrimination in other cultures. Two recent examples are My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii (2 vols, Pantheon Graphic Library, 2017/18), which provides a fascinating glimpse of Japanese life and attitudes towards homosexuality in both Japan and Canada, and Luisa: Now and Then, by Carole Maurel, my translation, adapted by Mariko Tamaki (Humanoids, 2018), a coming-of-age fantasy about sexuality and closeted identity in which a mother’s prejudice merges with her desire for her child to have what she considers the easier life path.
Is there something about graphic novels that makes them a friendlier home for challenging issues? Perhaps so. A book in which visual art carries part of the narrative may well allow readers to identify and empathize with the characters and their problems more readily and to see beyond those characters’ “otherness” with greater immediacy than in a “regular” novel. Images immediately show how different the characters may be from the reader; yet we respond differently to faces and facial expressions than we do to “mere” words, regardless of the language.
“Traditional” Children’s Novels
In the past generation, traditional children’s novels—and by extension, those in translation—have moved more deeply into the territory of addressing difficult issues of social justice than ever before. As perhaps befits a more direct and difficult world, today’s children’s books delve into topics that would have been verboten outside of a history textbook during my own childhood in the 1960s and 1970s.
One example from non-translated YA novels is Laurie Halse Anderson’s groundbreaking Speak (Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1999), which shatters previous norms in American children’s literature by dealing with high school rape. Max, a more recent work of historical fiction for YA readers by Sarah Cohen-Scali, translated by Penny Hueston (Roaring Brook Press, 2018), is chillingly groundbreaking in the way it addresses the Nazi Lebensborn eugenics program.
Children’s Picture Books
Picture books—literature written for the youngest readers—also now treat hard topics. A marvelous picture book in translation, Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World), by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono and and translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Enchanted Lion Books, 2017), is a beautiful story that puts its important historical context of oppression, persecution, and exile into the front and back matter. Another is Hidden by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo, and translated by Alexis Siegel (First Second Books, 2014). Like Max and Maus, Hidden also deals with the Holocaust.
Words and Social Mores
Much like translators of adult literature, those who translate children’s books must deal with social justice in each and every word. For example, when translating from a Romance language into or out of English, they must deal with gendered nouns and pronouns, just one of the many ingredients that create each language’s rich stew of gender-related idiosyncrasies. Historical use of language compounds the puzzle. Does one choose to use the historically and grammatically correct third person masculine singular (he) in English to refer to someone of an unknown gender? That practice is slowly but surely changing in English—thank goodness, in my opinion—but as a translator, one’s decision of whether or not to impose modern mores and one’s personal, political preference on another writer’s words can be a fraught discussion and may make a book sound quaint rather than timely and timeless.
A much bigger topic to tackle is finding the level of cursing that might be appropriate for the target reader and culture. Cross-cultural cursing standards vary greatly. So, too, do attitudes towards behavioral issues such as bullying, name-calling, bigotry, and racism. Should these be bowdlerized, sanitized to match the target culture’s view of appropriate language for children? Sometimes that language is the point, and removing it defangs the author’s social commentary. Other times, the terminology creates a distraction, one that nonetheless shows a true glimpse of a culture and/or a different historical time. Yet leaving the problematic language intact may prevent the book from ever reaching any children’s hands in the target culture at all.
The best children’s literature in translation offers young readers the ability to turn mirrors into windows—to see “the other” with the same familiarity as readers see themselves. Children’s books in translation help broaden and shape the minds, politics and future policies of the voters, leaders, activists, and adults of tomorrow. Translating children’s literature, therefore, can be considered a near-sacred duty. Where else can one have such great influence and wield such a mighty sword?
Much of this article originally appeared in Source, the quarterly publication of the Literary Division of the American Translators’ Association (ATA), and is reused with permission.
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Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 70 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her translations released in 2021 are Magical History Tour #5: The Plague, Bibi & Miyu#2, The Sisters #7: Lucky Brat, Chloe & Cartoon, For Justice: The Serge and Beate Klarsfeld Story, LGBTQ YA manga Alter Ego, and the critically acclaimed A House Without Windows.