Our local library branch recently purchased a handful of English/French bilingual books to add to their collection. Knowing our excitement for new books to read in French, the library staff put them on hold for us. I was eager to bring them home and to see first hand what they were like. I tried hard not to judge an incredibly challenging concept too fast: quality translation and native-like storytelling in two languages.
Papa was the first to read one to Ayo in English: Bear’s Birthday. The experience was largely a positive one. The illustrations were beautiful, the colors vibrant, the story was a good length and each book in the series had a little activity to do at the end: remember where Mr. Bear went throughout the book, tell the time on Mr. Bear’s clocks, or count the balloons at Mr. Bear’s party. Clever, clever.
When it came to my turn the next day, we read that same book, this time in French. What a completely different experience! The story didn’t flow. The translation was poor and the vocabulary weak.
At bedtime, I do tend to translate English books the kids choose to read into French, on the fly (simply because reading to them in English feels quite unnatural to me now). Even without knowing what might happen on the next page, I can humbly say that my spontaneous translation is largely superior to what I saw in print in the French book before me. I was so disappointed. It’s almost like a translator sat in front of a screen, unable to see the finished product, a French story.
Below are some sample pages of L’Anniversaire de l’Ours, English/French bilingual edition.
Here are the four main reasons this bilingual book didn’t work for me:
1) Line by line translation. This story was translated line by line to the point where the English (source text) permeated right through to the translation (the target text). Think permanent marker seeping through a thin piece of paper. I knew exactly what the original text said as I read the French. A better solution might have been to simply retell the story. Easier said than done, you might say. True, the translator is only partially at fault in the case of illustrated books since pictures do add some level of complication. Still, I was surprised to see how foreign the storytelling style felt in French. Very often, I notice French authors adopt a much more anachronistic and creative approach to storytelling in French. Have you noticed this as well? This is very different to the anglophone storytelling art, often focused heavily on the beginning and the (happy) end. When short text is attached to illustrations, it is of course impossible to change that Anglophone sequence. However, it would have been fairly straight-forward to use the two English phrases as a starting point to recount the story in maybe one, maybe even three much more natural French phrases.
2) Choice of verb tense. I have come to realize that it isn’t rare to read children’s books in English in the simple present (or maybe in the present continuous) tense: “Bear unwraps the treasure and looks inside. He has a wonderful birthday surprise!”. But, translating everything into a present tense in French felt tragically unnatural, as if there was a need to dumb down the story. Most French speakers have heard of the most faithful verb-tense marriage in storytelling: Mr. and Mrs. imparfait-passé simple. Like in most couples, they each contribute their own strengths to the marriage. The imparfait is a past tense used for description or habitual actions like eating breakfast whereas the passé simple is for those sudden actions like the ‘UFO landed in our kitchen!’, ‘the rock just broke a window!’ and so on. How unfortunate then, to read a whole narrative in the present tense in French.
3) Choice of register. This is a basic problem all translators face at some point. Just like you wouldn’t go to a formal dinner with the president in your pyjamas, you just have to resist the temptation to translate “The table is covered with tasty treats” by “Sur la table, il y a plein de gâteries savoureuses” (which sounds like “a ton of delectable treats”). The book was littered with such a flip-flopping of registers, that it made it hard for me to read out loud.
4) Weak vocabulary in French. Sadly, this book taught us zero new vocabulary. This could point to a non-native translator. Vocabulary was bland like unseasoned, overcooked cauliflower. When comparing vocabulary in two similar books, I find that French children’s books generally seem to feature rather advanced vocabulary. It isn’t uncommon to see something like “herb garden” translated as “le parterre des plantes aromatiques” (a flowerbed containing aromatic plants), a real-life example taken from T’choupi dans le Jardin, a little book geared towards 3 year olds.
I didn’t want to throw the poor translator under the bus. As I have mentioned before, excellent translation is an incredibly difficult task. Still, I felt it was appropriate to contact the publishing house and gently tell them about the quality of the translation…especially when small libraries like ours choose to invest in books like these for the benefit of a wider community. I informed them that I was planning on reviewing the bilingual book series on this blog. (On a related note, it is never a waste to drop a line to a publishers who care. They kindly sent us a complimentary copy of a monolingual (translated) French book 1, 2, 3, partons en safari: une Journée en Tanzanie to review later on, on this blog.)
Putting translation mistakes aside, because some of the other books in this bilingual series certainly featured better translations, I still struggle to understand the market for bilingual books. I mean, who do they serve if they don’t tell a good story, use unnatural verb tenses or fail to build vocabulary. Fellow multilingual blogger The Piri-Piri Lexicon wrote in one of her posts that she felt like bilingual books most often cater to non-native audiences – to children learning a second language rather than to the child growing up with two languages. I think I would tend to agree. Confirming this theory, we have certainly checked bilingual books out in Spanish, German or Mandarin on occasion, frankly just so that the kids (ehem, the parents too!) can experiment with the sounds of another language. I have to say, we have never read a bilingual English/French book prior to this series.
Perhaps this is because the bi-/multilingual learning experience can’t simply be about living in a translated world or life at the mercy of your translator. Isn’t multilingual living so much richer than this? If cultures are different, lullabies are different and fairy tales are different, why then do we need to limit ourselves to translations? Indeed, why read an awkward rendition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears when we can read Le Petit Prince in its original version? I believe Annabelle over on The Piri-Piri Lexicon drew a similar conclusion on one of her other fantastic blog posts.
I am really curious to hear your own thoughts on bilingual books. Have you read any that have been helpful on your journey? Which ones? And do you feel any different about monolingual translated books, like the one I was sent by the publishing house?