Celebrated translator aims to make Chinese children's literature more accessible worldwide
By Bian Xiuhong  ·  2022-05-27  ·   Source: No.22 JUNE 2, 2022

Children's books from overseas publishers on display at the Beijing International Book Fair in September 2021 (XINHUA)

Starting with a pure interest in translation, Xu Derong, a translator-professor at the Ocean University of China, has gradually discovered the profound and mesmerizing world of translating children's literature and devoted 16 years of his life to it. "The more I read and translate children's literature, the more layers I find at which to marvel," Xu said.

Xu's translation career started with an urge to remedy the awkwardness and lost meanings present in the Chinese versions of foreign children's books. He was determined to do what he could to give Chinese children a better experience reading translated literary works. The effort snowballed after his first translation was published to great success, and he has since translated approximately 60 titles.


Into children's cosmos 

Many assume translating for children is relatively easy, but Xu would disagree. "Excellent children's books rate with the best poems ever written: The words may be simple, but the meanings are profound. The poetic style demands a translator to have a profound understanding of the essence of children's literature and be competent in stylistic translation."

Luckily, Xu has an able and willing assistant, his son, now aged 15. Upon the suggestion of his wife, the father read his translations to the little boy starting at age 2 to observe his natural responses. The experience helped Xu determine which words best captured a young reader's attention to inspire the intended responses. He believes such direct interaction with a target reader is valuable for any translator.

Children's novels usually have a target age range, but they're not restricted, and any adult can find deep meaning and warm comfort in them. According to Xu, such works can often delve deeper into humanity and provide even more profound insights than adult fiction books. Their positiveness and warmth can kindle mind-blowing profundity. Xu coined the phrase "profound innocence" to express his feelings about the cosmos of children's literature.

Combining roles of translator and father, Xu knows all too well that the earlier children are exposed to books, the greater the benefit for their cognitive development.

A story of one of Xu's foreign colleagues at the Ocean University of China impresses him deeply. The Ph.D. holder from the United States read the children's version of Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, when he was young and had dreamed of visiting China ever since. Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, is the most popular and memorable character in the book. "If children read books from other countries at a very young age, a seed is planted in their minds, and they build a connection and empathy with that country," Xu said.

Around the globe 

Xu has heard of several successful cases of Chinese children's books translated for other developing countries, but they are still not well received in Western countries.

"China has world-class children's authors, and they produce great works across a variety of genres," Xu said. "Unfortunately, their popularity and influence overseas are disproportionately low."

Passion and a sense of responsibility to promote translation and research of children's literature promote Xu to become heavily involved in organizations such as the International Research Society for Children's Literature and the Lewis Carroll Society. At an international seminar months ago, his colleagues from the United States, Britain, the Republic of Korea, Belgium and the Netherlands reached consensus that Chinese children's books available in their home countries were very few, and that the few they could find were usually set in the China of the 1960s and 1970s.

Cao Wenxuan's Bronze and Sunflower is one such book. Set in a rural area in north Jiangsu Province during the 1960s and 1970s, the moving story of a friendship between two lonely Chinese children, orphaned Sunflower and mute Bronze, won the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award. It is clearly a great work, but Chinese stories translated for overseas readers should be more diverse to paint a more complete picture of China, according to Xu.

"The West has a deep-rooted stereotype about the underdeveloped China of the past," Xu added. "Foreign publishers and readers consciously or unconsciously translate or read Chinese literary works on related topics. As a result, Chinese publishers and translators tend to publish such books that they believe foreigners will like."

Xu stressed this may be theoretically savvy, but damaging in the long term. "A translator's mission should be to introduce different kinds of Chinese books set in different times to overseas readers," he said.

Xu mentioned A New Year's Reunion written by Yu Liqiong, which was a big hit when published in the United States and some Asian countries. It blends traditional Chinese culture, modern life, and a child's inner feelings, culminating in a touching work of humanity, historical sensibility, and aesthetic beauty. "This kind of family bond is universal, and international readers will embrace it," he said.

Based on his translation and academic experiences, Xu launched a research program on how Chinese children's literature is translated and received overseas. His team extensively examined the quality of many works and the potential of their reception in foreign countries.

"Many Chinese children's books have been translated into foreign languages, but few have found phenomenal success abroad. This is not only a research topic, but also a very important issue that should receive great attention from domestic publishers," he said.

Xu has managed to engage internationally acclaimed scholars to support his program with advice and firsthand materials.

"The international children's literature community also wants to see more books from China, and that requires experts' views on selecting and translating excellent novels, especially new publications, so people can get a holistic picture of China," Xu explained.

Many Western universities have shown genuine interest in introducing Chinese children's literature, and Xu's team is discussing a joint translation program with Newcastle University in the UK and the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S.

As French educator Paul Hazard said, children's literature forms the soul of a nation and preserves its distinctive features. Xu believes that the soul of a nation is more acutely and clearly shown in children's literature than by any other literary genres.

"The reason Denmark is regarded as a country of fairy tales is because Hans Christian Andersen's stories have been translated and read by people all over the world. I hope the same thing happens to Chinese children's literature one day. Translations of Chinese children's books help people in other countries get to know us better," he concluded.

(Print Edition Title: Kiddie Translation)

This article was first published in China Pictorial 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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