While following conversations this month about equality and representation in US children’s literature, I wondered about international women.
Women of other nations. Do US children connect with them?
Do they read them?
Can children access books by women who write in languages other than English, whose cultures contrast highly with the US?
To find out, I looked at past winners of the Batchelder Award, conferred annually alongside the Newbery and Caldecott to recognize translated children’s books published in the US. I also examined translated book logs from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. I found data worthy of celebration, and worthy of contemplation.
Prominent Translations for US Children Feature Women Authors, from Western Cultures
To see if US children can access women’s writing in translation, particularly from contrasting cultures, I assumed that winners of the Batchelder Award—conferred by the Association of Library Services to Children—would be among the most available books in translation for US kids. I looked at whether Batchelder Award winners have been written by women, and if so in what languages. I found:
Over fifty years, 1968-2018, 54% of Batchelder Award titles were authored by women. Of these, 81% were written in European languages.
Looking at Batchelder Honor books:
Over twenty-eight years (1991-2018), 62% of Batchelder Honor titles were authored by women. Of these, 90% were written in European languages.
The translators of the combined Batchelder Award and Honor winners have been 60% women, 31% men, 6% male-female duos, and 1% (one) female duo.
I was surprised by the high percentage of Batchelder titles written and translated by women. This is remarkable, and worth examining for the dynamics that have made it possible.
Unfortunately, women writing in languages of contrasting cultures are under-represented. Only about 14% of combined Batchelder books by women were written in languages of Asia or the Middle East, and none were written in African or South American languages. Most of the world’s languages were absent entirely from the Batchelder lists, including Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (China), Croatian, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean, Malay, Nepali, Persian, Polish, Punjabi, Swahili, Thai, Ukrainian, and Urdu. These are all languages of countries with national sections of IBBY, suggesting that children’s literary scenes exist.
Translations likely to be accessed by US children feature women authors, who are predominantly writing in European languages.
Translations for Children Are Vanishingly Few
To put these findings in context, I also checked the overall percentage of children’s books published in the US that are translations. Batchelder Award and Honor books may be the most available books in translation, but how plentiful are translations generally?
I counted the titles listed in the CCBC Translated Book Logs from 1994 (the year logs were first kept) through 2017, and compared this count with either (a) the total number of books received by the CCBC that year, or (b) the total number of children’s books published in the US that year, according to which figure the CCBC published. I found:
For nearly a quarter-century (1994-2017), books in translation have represented less than 2% of total US children’s books published (1994-2001), or an average of 2.74% of children’s books received by the CCBC (2002-2017).
Rising percentages in recent years are noteworthy. Also, the CCBC data may be incomplete: I noted while counting that several translated books published in the US were not logged, due to not being submitted to the CCBC. These were books from small presses, which the CCBC notes generate a “significant body of authentic multicultural literature for children in the United States and Canada.”
The percentages I calculated are, however, supported by percentages for adult books in translation, which are estimated at 3% of books published in the US. In fact, a prominent world literature blog is named Three Percent.
The context the CCBC data provides for the Batchelder data, is that even award-winning translations for children represent a tiny part of a tiny field.
Returning to my question: can US children access books written by women in languages other than English, particularly from highly contrasting cultures?
No, because women writing in non-Western languages on the Batchelder list represent a sliver (of Batchelder books), of a sliver (of all translated books), of a sliver (of US children’s literature).
Women writing in languages other than English, from highly contrasting cultures, are invisible on US children’s bookshelves.
Speaking personally, I translate children’s books from Japan, a relatively familiar East Asian culture with a developed economy and publishing industry. (Incidentally, 15% of Japanese children’s titles published in 2017 were translations.) Yet I find that few fellow Americans can name a female Japanese children’s author.
And while I live in Thailand, I know of just one children’s novel by a Thai woman available in English (now out of print in the US), and none from neighboring southeast Asian countries.
I treasure books written in American English and European languages, and hope their numbers and diversity will grow. And I hope they can be joined by books from many more languages.
If we think of it, don’t we believe that women around the world have something to say to our children? Let’s help them connect.
Here are 3 posts to read about translation of children’s literature:
School Library Journal
The Horn Book
Here are 3 hashtags to shout out kidlit and women in translation:
Here are 3 lists of published kidlit in translation to buy or borrow:
To promote world literature, SCBWI welcomes not only international writers and illustrators, but also translators, who in 2014 became the third professional category of members. Translators are now part of 60 SCBWI regions, including 38 US regions. Reach out to translators to learn more about the world of world literature. Info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Avery Fischer Udagawa is the translator of Temple Alley Summer (Kimyoji yokocho no natsu) by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a middle grade novel forthcoming from Chin Music Press in Spring 2019. She serves as SCBWI International Translator Coordinator.