TRANSLATION Censorship and self-censorship

In this month's translation post, Julie Sullivan looks at how and why you might find censorship in translated children's books.


Any translation is ideological. 

I refuse to lie to children.

Maurice Sendak

Translators tend to think they should protect the audience.

Fatiha Guessabi

Since the very beginning of children’s literature, adults have seen it as a method to indoctrinate their children with their own and society’s values. But these values can differ drastically from one country, culture or generation to the next. Translators are drawn into this question whenever they translate, but especially when the cultures are very different. 

Goody Two-Shoes (1765) was one of the first English books written expressly for children. It is a morality tale.

In Arabic, there are few translated children’s books about, say, homosexuality, disability, divorce or drug abuse. Of course these things exist everywhere in the world, but Arabic publishers generally prefer to keep them out of children’s books. On the other hand, Arabic children’s books are heavy on politics, clearcut stories of good and evil, and religion; historical fiction is a favourite.

In 1911... a Lebanese priest addressed translators in writing, advising them to 'refrain from translating what would promote moral corruption and hinder … moral correction.' The priest went on to urge translators to seek another vocation. 

Tunisian children's books
As for Chinese, the booming market for children’s books in China has led to a plethora of translations. Peppa Pig is incredibly popular. But under Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping, China is going through a nationalistic period, and the number of foreign children’s books is being cut to stem the “inflow of ideology” from the west. A publishing official told the South China Morning Post that the idea was to make future books conform more to Communist Party dogma. “Bible,” “God,” and “Christ” were among words removed from children’s books in translation. In Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl, a sentence was changed from “When a star falls, a soul goes to be with God” to “a person leaves this world.”

Bronze and Sunflower, an award-winning book by Cao Wenxuan about a rural village during the Cultural Revolution, although that is never mentioned in so many words (translated into English by Helen Wang, who was interviewed for Words and Pictures in 2018), and other children’s books were removed for “pornography and violence.” The government says these bans are to “protect children’s minds from pollution and harm and help them form an appropriate outlook on life, values, and the world.”

In the Soviet Union, censorship was official and severe. A writer could be sent to Siberia for making a mistake. As a result, many Russian writers turned to children’s book translation, and used the books to send political messages through “Aesopian language,” using parody and allusions to avoid censorship. "Censorship is highly conducive to progress in the mastery of style and the ability to restrain one’s words." Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, believed that the main purpose of children’s books was to instill "a revolutionary communist ideology".

James Greenwood's The True History of a Ragamuffin (1881) in a Soviet version
As a result, "doubts and uncertainties in the minds of the characters were discouraged and passages of introspection or psychological analysis were regarded as undesirable". The texts to be translated were chosen accordingly.

If you are a translator in a country where some concepts are considered dangerous or polluting, you must be careful when you choose your words. It is common for translators out of English to smooth things over by omissions. Censorship "cannot be restricted to the oppressive practices of autocratic governments," says Fatiha Guessabi of the University of Tahri Mohammed Béchar in Algeria, pointing out that translators in Algeria are also concerned with preserving their own culture. She quotes José Santaemilia: "Translators tend to censor themselves — either voluntarily or involuntarily — in order to produce [translations]… which are 'acceptable.'"

You might think this is a question affecting only people who translate into Chinese, Russian or Arabic, but you would be wrong. In the United States, especially, censorship of children’s books, including translated books, is a real concern for publishers. Christian evangelical schools (one-third of which were established when the Civil Rights Act forced public schools in the US to integrate black children) and other religious schools educate about 5% of US children — millions. There are parents in state schools, too, who strongly object to children's books that even mention witches, fantasy in general, homosexuality, bodily functions, teenage sex, evolution, vaccinations, alcohol, smoking, drugs, religion or atheism, or books in which children challenge authority. Books have been banned for a single swear word, and in general profanity is not welcome in children’s books in the USA. Many parents who request that a book be removed from their children’s school have never read the book in question. Translators must take these attitudes into account. 

Conservatives, on the other hand, see censorship in decisions like a publisher’s withdrawal of a book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington, in which an enslaved mother and daughter enjoy making a cake for the US President. They complain that religion and patriotism are being removed from children’s books and that political correctness has run wild. This attitude is not confined to the USA, but is found across the world. Recently the Daily Mail complained that the word "manfully" is now considered sexist, and gave a list of terms that had been criticized by "the New Censors".

This book was withdrawn after an outcry over its depiction of slavery
There are many taboos and tricky subjects in English, too, ranging from the “own voices” debate to cultural appropriation to how to refer to disabilities and to people who differ from mainstream traditional culture. What does a translator do when the original work includes parts that might be offensive to many readers? 

Translators, therefore, sometimes face the censoring — or self-censoring — of the books they are translating. What would you think of translating a children’s book in which there were casual racial slurs, historical references you regard as biased, or misogynistic views toward women? This is, unfortunately, a common problem for translators. On translator groups on Facebook and elsewhere, I’ve seen translators struggling with what to do about classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and racism in books they are working on. Often they make the "executive decision" to change something that would just not be acceptable in English. But does this then give the new audience a false idea of the original book?


Julie Sullivan is a translator and SCBWI volunteer.

Picture credits

Translation feature, Jess Stockham

Goody Two-Shoes, the British Library

Tunisian children's books, Dennis Jarvis, Wikimedia Commons

A Birthday Cake for George Washington, cover by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

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