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TRACT Seminar 2016-2017

Translating the Senses in Children’s Literature

As part of our on-going programme devoted to translating the senses (2013-2018), TRACT’s seminar for 2016-17 will examine the relationship between the translation of the senses and the transfer of meaning in children’s literature.

  • 1 Nihil est in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu. 

In Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), Comenius, the Czech educationalist, established a parallel between the physical pleasure that results from a child’s relationship with the book (via the sense of sight) and his/her connection to the surrounding world. Comenius’s illustrated work, a forerunner to today’s picture book, was an encyclopaedia that allowed children to learn new words through the visual representation of objects. The book relied on the movement from one language to another (from the child’s mother tongue to Latin) and from one mode of representation to another (from the image to the word). This principle was in keeping with the maxim beloved of both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas: “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”1.

Children’s literature emerged as a distinct genre in the western world a century after the publication of Comenius’ work. At that time, the notion of the pleasure of the text was firmly established, countering the ever-present educational dimension of children’s books. From its earliest stages, the central role of the image in children’s literature was consolidated by printing’s technical progress, coupled with the advances made in wood engraving. The importance of the non-verbal dimension of the children’s book has thus made it the multimodal corpus par excellence, both in its present electronic incarnation and in the more traditional printed form, where the materiality of the book as object plays with size, form, texture, and graphics, thus allowing for forms of physical interaction which are close to those provided by toys (pop-up books, kamishibaï, fold-out books, tactile books, lift-the-flap books). These books often have a strong meta-linguistic dimension, and stimulate young readers in their quest for language mastery through the experimentation and language games fostered by such books.

In fact, translating a book for children implies far more than simply translating the written text. The translator is only one of the different mediators involved in the process of recreating the sensorial experience generated by the original in a distinct published object. In many instances, both the text and the relationship between text and image (picture books, graphic novels, mangas) need to be translated. Attention also needs to be paid to the non-verbal dimension of the book (graphics, layout, the texture of the paper) as even a wordless book can be translated.

Beyond the multimodal dimension, translation has also played a fundamental role in the emergence of young people’s literature from the 18th century onwards. This can be seen in the development and circulation of a European literary corpus for children, via a continuous process of translation, retranslation, rewriting and adaptation. Earlier textual materials, such as oral tales, fables, stories, legends and classical, Norse and Celtic mythologies, were recycled in other languages and cultures, filling, by means of appropriation, any gaps that national cultures might have had in the area of children’s literature. However, as children’s literature is the only genre defined by its readership, the translation required in the expansion of children’s literature further complicated the relationship this corpus had to the translated book. As a result of the founding paradox on which children’s literature is based (an adult writer attempts to find in his/her writing the child’s eye view/perspective that he/she has lost forever) the notion of reception and the specificity of the corpus is even more vital. The translation process thus has to reproduce the inextricable equilibrium between the adult and the child. The translation must also take account of the sensorial links that characterize this asymetrical relationship, in which the senses occupy an essential place. For the young reader especially, the connection to his/her mother tongue, the physical presence of the adult and the timbre of the adult’s voice when s/he reads aloud to the child are part of the peculiar challenges that this literature represents. However, translating orality for older readers – adolescents and young adults – is also a difficulty as it often implies transposing into the target language the musicality of a form of writing ever more resolutely multicultural and diverse/variegated (various forms of slang, verlan, etc.)

In the case of the translation of children’s literature the following aspects may be addressed:

  • the translation of the relationship between text and image in children’s picture books and graphic novels

  • the case of manga, especially the translation of onomatopoeia as expressions of the senses

  • the translation of non-verbal elements in children’s books

  • the book as object in translation (layout, colours, graphics, materials, textures, format, cut-outs)

  • the translation of orality and musicality in children’s books

  • the specificities of the translation of e-books for young people

  • the senses/meaning and translation of nonsense

Propositions should be sent to Clíona Ní Ríordáin ( and Virginie Douglas (


1 Nihil est in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu. 

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