3 Reasons to Choose Original Versions over Translated Texts for Children

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The minute I learned I was pregnant one of my first thoughts was, “I can’t wait to begin E.’s home library! There are so many books from my childhood that I will get to read to her!”

The follow-up question to that first thought was, “Wait, where can I find a Spanish translation of Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie, and Harry the Dirty Dog and…?” (In case you’re new to the blog, I exclusively use Spanish with my one-year old daughter.)

Fortunately, Spanish is a popular language here in the United States, which means it is easy to find translated versions of just about every book. And, thankfully, on-line booksellers, like amazon.com have made purchasing translated books even easier. Nuestra casa is already brimming with little baby board books of La Oruga Muy Hambrienta, Harry el Perrito Sucio, and Adivina Cuanto Te Quiero.

Yet, while I am grateful to be able to share with E. the magical world of the books of my childhood, I have come to realize that translated books aren’t always the ideal when raising a child bilingually, and bi-culturally.

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We know from research that reading aloud to young children (particularly pre-school age children) is crucial to their future language development and success in school. So, the kinds of books we choose for them is important.

While I sympathize with those parents who are unable to find quality children’s literature in the language of their family, and who thus rely on translated versions, here are the reasons why I – as much as possible – prefer an original version to a translated copy:

1. The Quality of the Language – 

Sadly, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve opened a book with E., only to find blaring typos and grammatical errors in the Spanish used (dialect differences aside). Errors like, “¿Quieres cazar este mosca tan necia?” and ¿Quién ha hecho este telaraña tan bonita?” 

To me, a linguist by training and a language nerd at heart, such errors come across as haphazard and unprofessional. Who translated this? I wonder. And, how distracted was the copy editor? 

Likewise, much of the syntax (syntax refers to sentence structure), particularly in books originally written in poetry or rhyme, like the Dr. Seuss books, sounds forced at best or awkward at worst.

This is not to say that there are no good translated texts for children; in fact, we have several English to Spanish books that we love, like El Camioncito Azul (Little Blue Truck), De la Cabeza a los Pies (From Head to Toe), and Clifford el Gran Perro Colorado. These are some of the many books that shaped my mind and heart as a child, and I am thankful for the talented translators who have made it possible for me to share them with my own child.

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2. A Reflection of the Culture – 

Language and culture go hand in hand. Without language we would lack the key to open the door to a new world. Without culture, we would lack the background and context that allow us to understand the subtleties and nuances of words. That is why D. and I make an effort to stock E.’s library with both American and Spanish books.

In the American books we read, E. explores stories filled with backyards and driveways, tree houses and log cabins, characters who bring their teachers apples and who eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On the other hand, as she reads along with papá (and sings the Spanish lullabies with mamá), she learns about garbanzos and puerro (chick peas and leeks) for lunch, the importance of the siesta, the sweetness of mazapán at Christmas, and that roosters sing ¡ki-kiri-kí! (not, cock a doodle doo!) and dogs shout ¡guau guau! (not woof woof!).

Just as the books of my childhood reflect the cultural values of a time and place (in my case, the United States), so do the books of D.’s youth growing up in Spain. I want to expose my daughter to both cultures, even though she is living and growing up in only one of those countries.

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3. Celebrates a Language’s Inherent Value – 

Not too long ago a friend of mine, with the kindest of intentions, asked me, “Do you sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to E. in Spanish?” (“The Wheels on the Bus” is an American children’s song.) Her question kept me thinking long after our conversation. Although it referred to children’s music, its implication can be applied to children’s books, as well: How am I using the Spanish language to impart American cultural knowledge to my daughter?

Unlike what some people might think, bilingual parenting is not about imparting one culture through two languages. Rather, it is an up and down adventure and a carefully-walked balancing act of helping our children navigate through two ways of speaking and seeing the world. And, to help them, we rely on family, community, music, and books.

While I recognize and understand the difficulty of finding children’s literature in less pervasively-spoken languages, like Quechua or Finnish or Vietnamese, particularly if you live outside of that country, I believe we owe it to our children to obtain authentic, native texts (unless, of course, no original children’s texts exist). By providing – to the best of our ability – our children with original version books we validate the inherent value of that language and culture.

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What are some of your favorite children’s books? Where do you find the best original versions and translated copies? I’d love to hear from you!

8 thoughts on “3 Reasons to Choose Original Versions over Translated Texts for Children

  1. I appreciated this post, Audrey (and I noticed we have the same English books you pictured.) There are so many great children’s books in English that I want to share with my children, and though I translate them to French aloud, they lose some of their linguistic richness and authenticity in translation. I feel better knowing that my husband also reads them aloud to our children in English. If I find a favorite children’s book at the library translated into French, I write the translation into our copy of the book (Here’s my post about it: http://intentionalmama.com/home/making-your-childrens-books-bilingual). Like you though, I’ve been surprised at the basic errors I find in translated children’s books–even on the back cover. Thankfully we’re exposed to lots of authentically French children’s books through Les Petits Livres, a French children’s book rental service by mail. If only our local library had half as many French books as they do Spanish books for children!

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    • Hi Michele! Thanks for stopping by. I be that you’ll be loading up on French books when you and your family make a trip to France (this year?). If/when we next go to Spain, I’ll be bringing an empty suitcase along just for books and music!

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  2. Pingback: Five Recommendations for Choosing Bilingual Baby Books – Year One | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  3. Pingback: Looking back: a six-month reflection | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

    • Hi! Sorry for the late response. But, thanks so much for stopping by the blog. Yes, bilingual education is my professional background, as well as a personal passion. Best to you!

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  4. How do I know if a book is in its original language or is a translation (assuming that I’m looking at it online and not in a bookstore)? And when we speak of culture–and not just language–Spanish covers an extremely wide variety of cultures; how important is it that we pick an author who not only has the same language but the same culture as our child? For example, we can get books in Spanish. Probably a simple look at the author’s last name will give us a good idea if he or she is Hispanic. But would reading a book by a Spanish author or a Peruvian author be as appropriate as reading a book by a Guatemalan author?

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    • Annalisa, again, so sorry for such a late response. You can generally tell if a book is in the original language by the author’s name and country of origin (of the book).

      As to your (really great!) question about language and culture: I will take just about any Spanish-language book for my daughter, meaning I’m not always concerned about, say, the Ud. versus vosotros forms. What I want, while living OUTSIDE of a Spanish-speaking country, is for her to learn the language. The cultural aspect comes more from our trips to Spain and from the cultural knowledge and awareness that my husband and I can give her. I TOTALLY embrace a diversity of authors, from all/any Spanish-speaking countries, but of course, I’ll be keeping a special eye open for anything from Spain, since that’s the country of origin of my husband. Make sense? 🙂

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