The case against bilingual books

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.


photo 2-001

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?

11 thoughts on “The case against bilingual books

  1. This books looks and sounds like really poor quality! I cannot beliebe publishers get away with this. We really do need bilingual books. It cannot be that difficult!

    1. Do we really though, that is the question in my mind!
      Thanks for stopping by and for all your fabulous posts on the subject as well. 🙂

  2. Good points. Having stories in all languages seems like a good idea, but do you need more than one language in a book?

    I have to say we had a similar experience recently. The book was written by a Chinese speaker and the English translation didn’t gel. On the other hand, I kind of liked the insight into the Chinese language and story-telling it gave me – so to answer your question maybe these books are good for beginner-level speakers reading books translated *into* their native language. There was a sort of Chinese-ness to the English that was really interesting.

    Then again, I didn’t need the Chinese for that 🙂

    But I think if you were truly bilingual then just having many books in each language could indeed be better.

  3. My experience and feelings are similar to yours with Spanish/English. Bilingual books are pretty limited in usefulness. Ideally they could expand vocabulary for language learners, but only if they are pretty directly translated (which is the norm). As a parent I think the only advantage of bilingual books is it can help me improve the story if the translation is poor. If your kids are reading I agree that one language books are better – then they learn how to understand vocab from context rather then relying on, or being distracted by, translation.

    Translated books are basically the same deal, but that’s mainly what we have here in the U.S. I try to find books written originally in Spanish, but out of the one row of Spanish books at the library, those written originally in Spanish probably wouldn’t make up more than a shelf. We’ve had fairly good luck with e-books though!

    1. Thank you for stopping by! Oh yes, the day they start to read, I will need to step up my game in the selecting department! Haven’t thought about that yet!

      I am really surprised that there aren’t more Spanish books originating in Spanish at your local library. How sad!

      I really enjoy one language books, I think. Having said that, we just recently read a book called Round is Tortilla, featuring intrasentential code switching into Spanish with all these Spanish nouns thrown in to educate kids and their parents about Mexican traditions. I am initially against this for our main languages – French/English, because it becomes confusing when you know one understands you outside the house. But it seemed a bit different for a language we aren’t well versed in.

      While I am not sure it was written by a Hispanic author, there was an authentic feel to this book, no one wasted their time on a feeble translation attempt. And the content was engaging enough for my kiddos and myself. Maybe worth checking it out? It’s not 100% Spanish, but not 100% English..just what it claimed to be – a book to expose the reader to cultures other than their own.

  4. I was asking myself the same questions. In most cases, I don’t see the point of dual-language books, since we are not trying to get our kids to learn by comparing both languages, but rather from being immersed in two/more languages naturally, taking each as a whole. On the other hand I have used translated books (English to French), but more because of a lack of decent original single-language books in French, an issue I do intend to resolve this summer when we’re in France. Arabic is a slightly different issue because I’m not fluent. I’ve bought a couple of translated books because if I have read the original I understand better the text and I feel I know what I’m going to get when ordering online (nothing much available locally). But I hope to get some simpler Arabic books in Paris where I can browse before buying. I might consider bilingual French-Arabic books in some cases, as many Arab authors have a long history with France and are perfectly bilingual themselves, but I agree the ideal is a whole culture for a whole language, including stories originating from that culture.

    ps. Is Le Petit Prince a bit sad for a three-year old? Any other favourites?

    1. I would definitely trust a bilingual author translating over a rough translation by someone perhaps less invested, so I like where you are going with the French-Arabic books.
      As far as our 3 year old goes, he likes Babar, Tchoupi, P’tit loup, Mes P’tits Docs, les Lapinos and series like that. Could these be options for you?

  5. I have been reading a few bilingual books in English and Te Reo Maori and found them useful to help me expand my vocabulary in the Te Reo. Despite being a 3rd generation New Zealander I am not a fluent speaker of Te Reo. The books were mostly single-word translations – being aimed at young toddlers like mine (I have a 4 year old and a 2.5 year old). So each page featured a picture of the item, and the names in both languages. Very useful when trying to build one’s basic lexicon. But for proper stories like the ones you are looking at, I suppose bilingual books aren’t so useful because of differences in sentence structure, tenses, etc.

  6. I think that bilingual books are a minefield for the translator. Now, you refer only to books for children here. However, bilingual publications of literary texts are another matter. Here, we have some need in the US for Hispanics whose Spanish skills are at a low level and who can use a “crutch” to be able to understand better. That said, as a literary translator myself, I fear that having truly literary texts published bilingually gives the impression of a textbook and takes away from the literary quality of a translation. After all, we are not translating word for word: we are crafting a literary text in English in an attempt to match to voice, tone, and power of the original. This means using craft and departing from the sentence structure of the original text in order to produce art. I fear that bilingual books may reduce the impact of the translated text. But again, I am referring here to texts meant for adults, not children’s books.

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