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Translation to turbo-charge stories

Many years ago, the influential children’s literacy scholar Margaret Spencer Meek remarked, “Every child needs three books at the same time ‒ one that they can read whatever happens, one they are reading at the moment, and one they’re just about able to read. The first the child reads, the second you help them to read and the third, you read to him or her.”

For most children in South Africa, this is wishful thinking! There simply aren’t enough books to get them reading or keep them reading should they want to use languages they understand best. And this is the case even before we take into account things like personal preference in genre, style or topic. Becoming a reader if you are African-language speaking is like living in a low rainfall area: every now and then, you get some water, but in between you are mostly thirsty.

But there is a solution that has not only been tried and tested for several centuries but in fact was what gave birth to children’s literature in the first place ‒ translation. Over time, stories of substance, like Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, have crossed geographical and linguistic borders to become known and owned by people who often look and sound different from one another. Translators of these and other stories unlock the doors to the great diversity our world offers. These wordsmiths open the minds of children to the uniqueness of their own cultural ways and those of others while at the same time laying bare the similarities that are reminders of the human race we all belong to. Surely this is the finest educational goal to aim for in these uncertain times?

Without a rich supply of stoybooks, learning to read and write is merely a dull skills’ exercise and the much sought after culture of reading and writing, a figment of our imagination. Translation is part of the solution to meet the urgent need for a significant stock of stories that motivate children to read. Of course, original writing is essential too. Counter-intuitively perhaps, it will continue to grow strong as translation provides an impetus for fresh writing by existing and emerging authors.

Through translations facilitated over the years by The Little Hands Trust and PRAESA working with willing publishers like Jacana and New Africa Books, many children in South Africa now have read African language versions of some of the stories loved by children around the world, like Pinocchio (Pinokiyo in isiXhosa), The Happy Prince and Rapunzel (now known widely as Refilwe). And we need to have more of this! Rather than undermining each language’s rich tradition, a large-scale translation process will hasten the reshaping of African traditional stories as beautifully illustrated storybooks in African languages and English. These will at last be published locally, rather than in the countries of the North!

The growth of our South African story chest has been accelerated enormously through the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign. A collection of 156 stories of South African, African and other origins has been made available through translation in all 11 languages on SABC Radio. In collaboration with many local publishers, Nal’ibali has produced over 100 abridged local-language bilingual versions of already-published picture books and novel extracts. This makes possible the expectation that becoming an avid and regular reader of fiction in your mother tongue is a realistic option for any child ‒ not just English and Afrikaans speakers.

Here is a challenge to those in charge of education and libraries: order from the publishers generous print runs of the storybooks shared as precious ‘cut-out-and-keep’ stories in the fortnightly Nal’ibali newspaper supplement. These stories are alive in the imagination of children and adults across South Africa, who have accessed the over 20 million supplements that have already been distributed. Order the stories in 11 languages, so that publishers facilitate the remaining translations, print the books and all children have real opportunities to understand and be nourished by a shared collection of storybooks. This will grow South African publishing, children’s literature in all our languages and children who are readers.

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