Maria Holland

Grünes Huevos with 火腿

In Uncategorized on January 8, 2015 at 11:28 pm

In my conversations with friends, I have yet to meet an American who did not learn to read with Dr. Seuss.  And I have yet to meet a non-American who did.  How sad.

Dr. Seuss, for any non-Americans who may be reading this, is a children’s book author and illustrator so beloved that his birthday is observed as National Read Across America Day.  He’s written lots of books that may be familiar even to people who didn’t grow up reading him – The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas have all been made into movies during my lifetime.

His books are fun to read.  The main components that you will find in any Dr. Seuss classic are rhyming and nonsense, made-up words.  In addition, the language is simple.  The story of The Cat in the Hat (from Wikipedia) is very interesting:

In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin who later became its chairman, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Geisel [Dr. Seuss] to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words.  Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down.” Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers. The Cat in the Hat and subsequent books written for young children achieved significant international success and they remain very popular today. In 2009, Green Eggs and Ham sold 540,366 copies, The Cat in the Hat sold 452,258 copies, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) sold 409,068 copies—outselling the majority of newly published children’s books.

Finally, there’s often a good message in them.  For instance, Green Eggs and Ham has got to be the best way to get kids to try foods they don’t think they’ll like; The Lorax is about the environment and consumerism.

Anyway, I grew up on Dr. Seuss.  My mother, whose love of languages and books I inherited, found Spanish versions of a few of our favorites over the years, and this grew into a casual interest in collecting Dr. Seuss books in languages we were interested in.  For instance, when my parents visited in China, we bought a boxed set of six classics in Chinese.

Somehow, I was reminded of this while I was at home a few weeks ago.  The internet is an amazing thing, and a quick search revealed that “Wie der Grinch Weihnachten gestohlen hat” and “Der Kater mit Hut” existed!


Unfortunately, the former was $209.30 on Amazon, and the latter $52.08.  Because it was winter break, though, a few friends of mine were back at home – and conveniently, home for one of them was Germany!

Using a 21st century version of the Pony Express, Alex ordered the books on German Amazon and brought them back to Stanford.  I brought some English and Spanish books from back home, so check out my collection now!!

Carl  2015 01 08 17 54 25

Carl  2015 01 08 17 54 05

In addition to the novelty of having these books in other languages, I think children’s books in general, and Dr. Seuss’ in particular, are incredibly interesting examples of language for two, almost opposite reasons: they’re universal and accessible, and they present special challenges in translation.

I frequented the children’s section of the supermarket in Hunchun when I was first learning Chinese.  I love reading great writing and important literature, but in a language where I have the vocabulary of a four-year-old, I was also stuck to the literary choices afforded to four-year-olds.  The truth is, children’s literature is extremely accessible.  They use little words, avoid cultural references or confusing idioms, and Chinese kid’s books use pinyin to spell out the pronunciation of characters (a necessity because at that point I was completely illiterate).  I’m actually reading a Chinese science fiction novel right now (more on that soon!) so my reading tastes have matured, but just like in my real childhood, children’s books were an important and necessary part of my “Chinese childhood”.  My German is nicht gut, but even I can read a Dr. Seuss book in German.

The other thing that I find so fascinating about these books is the challenge of translating them.  There are so many things to consider when translating: original wording, meaning, style, tone, feel, rhythm, etc.  There’s a reason that there are so many translations of the Odyssey and the Bible; different translators choose to focus on different aspects, because it’s impossible to be exact in every area.

I’ve read two books in other languages that were translated from English – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese, and Life of Pi in Spanish.  Both of them suffered a little bit in translation (Yann Martel’s gorgeous prose was pretty dull in Spanish) but the stories, which I think most people focus on, were unchanged.  All the details were there.

In the average Dr. Seuss book, though, the details are extremely unimportant.  I mean, in some books, fully half of them is made-up nonsense . . .

So, how do you translate that?  I firmly believe that the most important elements of Dr. Seuss books are their ease of reading and the rhythm and rhyme of the words.  The best translations maintain these aspects; the worst translations (I’m looking at you, Chinese) ignore them.

A simple example here:  Green Eggs and Ham relates the interactions of two characters, one trying to get the other to try an unusual and not-at-all-appetizingly-named dish.  In a cumulative list (that has kids shouting along with the reader by the end), many places are suggested in which the dish could be enjoyed.  This is the essence.

Only one of the characters is named.  Originally, he was called “Sam-I-Am”.  This, you’ll note, rhymes with “ham”.  How convenient!!  In Spanish, his name is changed to “Juan Ramón” . . . which rhymes with “jamón”.  In German, a few more concessions are required, and we are introduced to “Jetzt-kommt-Jack” (Here-Comes-Jack), who pushes “speck” (bacon).  Excellent job, all!

But the Chinese book – oh, the Chinese book . . . . the character is named “山姆是我” and he offers “火腿”.  Both are slavishly accurate translations that don’t even attempt to rhyme-the former ends with “wo” (which sounds like “won” without the “n”), the latter with “tui” (like “tray” if you can’t say r’s).  Such a disappointment.  In Chinese, this delightful book is reduced to a laundry list that one must trudge through until it is finally over.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and criticize.  But, to make a suggestion on this point, just off the top of my head – perhaps the Chinese translator could take a page (ha!) from the less-literal German and name the character something like “陈过来” (Here-Comes-Chen) and the meat could be “牛排“ (steak)?

The Polish version is on the way and we’re working on Dutch and French . . . I will be returning to this topic again :)

  1. Loved this entry. Now, get back to those textbooks!

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