Not Just English
By Christopher Cheng NCACL Ambassador
After more than 30 years, I feel very privileged to still be creating and publishing stories for children. Over those years I have had many firsts and many surprises. But nothing has surprised me more than the response to my 2021 picture book, Bear and Rat, perfectly illustrated by my friend Stephen Michael King (who also illustrated my second book sometime last century!)
Bear and Rat is the text that I first wrote just for me, and for my beeutiful wife, Bini, as a way to cope with what was thumping at our door.
Before the Australian release the wonderful team at Penguin Random House had sold the rights to Bear and Rat to multiple territories worldwide. Every weekday morning for two weeks a new email arrived from my agent with an offer; some were multiple offers, and nearly all of them required translation.
Floating on this cloud was delightful, and then emails started to appear from the rights manager with the layouts for the new editions requesting my approval for the translations and the text placement on the pages. As I don’t speak any of these foreign languages I trusted, and felt confident, that the text had been translated appropriately.
But a rather major conundrum did arise, just for a short while. A number of the publishers wanted to change the title, and character, to something more appropriate for their country. And why the need to change the name? These countries have problems with rats; they are not enamoured with these wonderful rodents. The publishers felt that the title Bear and Rat would be a deterrent to sales and wished to change Rat to Mouse.
Instantly my unspoken response was, The title can’t be changed! The title was very personal and close to my heart, as it included our favourite animals – Bear is me, Rat is my wife. She is why I wrote the story, and for those first moments my brain screamed NO.
If I had refused, most of the publishers would have understood why. But then I remembered (or perhaps it was Bini speaking to me) that whenever my wife, a teacher-librarian, was reading to her students and encountered a character or a part of the text that they would find conflicting, she instantly adapted the reading to suit her students. Recalling our chats about her storytime text alterations, I realised that Rat, her character, could change too, if that would help children of other countries better relate to the story. That is how Rat became Maus in some editions.
Even now, a little twinge still courses through me when I think of Rat becoming Maus, but only for a moment. The body of the text though remained, as the story – our story – in any language is universal.
To accommodate the changed title, a few countries required cover design changes too. Thankfully, Stephen’s small Rat character actually appeared quite mouse-ish, so no adjustment was required to his exceptional art. The subtle subtext in the art, like the changing seasons, also remains unchanged.
Other titles I have written have been translated, but nothing to the extent of Bear and Rat. As well as the Australian and American editions, it has so far been translated into Italian, German, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese and in 2023, into Auslan. As each translation was unboxed (and yes, each one is still like Christmas), I was really thrilled to see the translator’s name also appear on some of the titles.
Translations are one of NCACL’s strengths, now holding more than 5,700 titles in 79 languages – often the only copy in Australia – and eventually NCACL will hold all the translations of Bear and Rat, aka, Will We Always Hold Hands? Bär and Muse, Panda e Topo, etc …
Like the original text, I think of each new translation as a gift for children, young and older, who will read it; and now this gift, and a part of my beeutiful Bini, can be found over much of the world!
Posted by: NCACL | Published: 24 Dec 2023