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The act of translation is the highest form of empathy. It is not a mechanical process of converting from one language to another. It is the bridge between cultures. Language is not only a tool that facilitates communication. Rather, language is a cultural expression and a representation of our belief systems.
For many of us, our first introductions to the world of writers like Shakespeare, Jane Austen and others writing in English were through translated versions. The text is redesigned, often condensed, and the end product is something that is faithful to the original work but also has an essence of its own. Translated literature is how we enter the universe of “the other” and learn that their joys and woes are not much different from ours.
As a child, I didn’t have much access to world literature. I missed many good books just because I couldn’t read any other language except English and Bengali. I was still a stranger to the concept of translation and how it could change lives. Things have changed for the better since I was a kid, though. Now the local bookstores in my small town are filled with parents who understand the importance of establishing the habit of reading translated literature in their children.
Today I have compiled a list of eight exemplary books of translated children’s literature that I wish I had read when I was a child. Rich in literary splendour, cultural values and remarkable life lessons, these books will keep you entertained, no matter what your age.
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono (Translated by Emily Balistrieri)
Half-witch Kiki is determined to do whatever it takes to become the witch she was always meant to be. As tradition dictates, on her 13th birthday, she must move and learn to live in a new city. Kiki flies to Koriko but gaining the trust of the locals is no small feat. Surviving in a place so far from anything familiar to her is not easy, but she has her cat Jiji to help her. Kiki slowly begins to forge new friendships in her new town, and her story is a wonderful lesson in how all kinds of magic happens once you step out of your comfort zone.
The magic library by Katja Frixe (translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp)
The departure of best friends is depressing and no one knows it better than Clara. Fortunately, she can go to Mrs. Owl’s bookstore whenever she wants. She finds great solace in the company of a rhyming cat and books that come to life. But what happens now that his beloved bookstore is about to close? Can Clara and her new friends save the day?
The secret of blue glass by Tomiko Inui (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
It’s Yuri’s turn to feed the Little People. They were brought from England to Japan by a nanny and since then every generation of children in the Moriyama family has been given the task of filling the blue glass of milk for the Little People. However, not all healthy rituals last forever. As Japan becomes increasingly entangled in World War II, Yuri does his best to keep the Little People safe. But one day, there seems to be a shortage of milk. How will Yuri fix the situation now?
penguin highway by Tomihiko Morimi (translated by Andrew Cunningham)
A young boy living in a quiet Japanese town is amazed to see penguins in his hometown. He knows it has something to do with the girl at the dentist and her supernatural powers. Now he has a mystery to solve and he is determined to get to the bottom of it. A great coming-of-age story about a young boy and the quirky characters he encounters along the way, this book will be a delightful read for kids and adults alike.
Summer temple aisle by Sachiko Kashiwaba (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa)
Kazu can sense something weird happening when one night he sees a young girl walking out of his house. The next day, he sees the same girl at school. Kazu is sure he’s never seen her before, but all of his friends are convinced they’ve known her for ages. When Kazu’s summer project leads him to dig up more information about a mysterious old temple, he realizes that things in his hometown aren’t what they seem on the surface. It looks like this temple is connected to a legend about bringing the dead back to life. Does that make his new classmate a zombie?
The story of a seagull and the cat that taught it to fly by Luis Sepúlveda (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)
An exhausted seagull lands on a balcony to lay her last egg. There she meets Zorba, a cat who promises to take care of the egg. He also promises not to eat the egg and to teach the baby seagull to fly. The first two promises are difficult to keep, and even if he succeeds somehow, the last promise seems impossible! How will Zorba keep the promises he made to Mother Seagull?
The little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (translated by Richard Howard)
One morning, a pilot finds himself in the company of a strange young boy called “the Little Prince”. The pilot is stranded in the middle of nowhere and has an eight-day supply of water. He must repair his plane before his water runs out. The prince asks the pilot to draw him a sheep and thus begins an enchanting fable laced with philosophy that sheds light on what really matters most in life. This book is universally loved by children and adults.
Mikis and the donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak (translated by Laura Watkinson)
Mikis’ grandfather surprises him one day with a donkey. Mikis is totally impressed with the animal, but his grandparents think the donkey is meant to be a working animal and not a pet to be pampered. Mikis names the donkey and the two spend their Sundays together. Together they experience exciting adventures and as their bond grows stronger, Mikis and his grandfather learn what it’s like to care for a non-human.
If you’re looking for other translated works of fiction, I highly recommend this list of female writers from around the world. And for more splendid recommendations on children’s fiction, I suggest this piece on the most influential children’s books of all time.