Reviews 2008

Englischsprachige Kinderlyrik

Englischsprachige Kinderlyrik: Deutsche Übersetzungen im 20. Jahrhundert. [English-language children’s poetry: German translations in the twentieth century] Susan Kreller. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007. 363 pages. €56.50 (paperback).

Poetry is dangerous stuff […]. If you go too near the edge, you might fall in.

With this quotation from Sylvia Waugh’s The Mennyms, Susan Kreller opens her study of English children’s poetry in German translation. Not only poetry itself is dangerous stuff, translating poetry seems even more risky. The “untranslatability” of poetry results from the unity of form en meaning, and her research reveals that very few translators succeed in transferring the formal as well as the content level of children’s poems with only small modifications.

Kreller starts from a thorough knowledge of poetical techniques. This is by far not the only merit. Her aim is ambitious: she wants to draft a framework for contextualising and analysing translations of poetry for children. Following the trend in recent translation studies, she opts for a historical-descriptive approach, paying equal attention to source and target texts. In her theoretical chapter, Kreller examines what she considers to be the main characteristics of poetry for children (popular themes, humour, figurative language, dual audience, etc.). This chapter offers some interesting instruments for the study of specific translation problems, but at the same time remains restricted. The stronger paragraphs deal with the translation of onomatopoeia, metre and rhythm, where she also considers the psychological development of children and some relevant differences between German and English. Kreller rightly points out that metre and rhythm often pose a greater challenge to the translator of poetry for children than for adults. This certainly applies to nursery rhymes. The section on the typical themes of poetry for children gets somewhat stuck in generalities. For example, Kreller does not go further into the different forms of wordplay as they have been studied by, amongst others D. Delabastita and F. Heibert. Neither does she make use of J. Van Daele’s concepts of incongruity and superiority, which have proved to be elucidating within the domain of children’s literature.

After the characteristics of children’s poetry follows a clear survey of the study of children’s literature in translation, where Kreller draws on the views of Theo Hermans and Emer O’Sullivan. Her central research questions are when, why and how poetry for children in translation was published. In her survey chapter on the translation of poetry she distinguishes between theorists concentrating on form (Bassnett, Lefevere, Holmes, Levy) and those concentrating on form and content (Wittbrodt, Appel). Kreller offers a relevant, though again restricted outline. Some of the important scholars in the field are missing, among them De Beaugrande, Koster and Osers.

In the second part of the book, Kreller gives a survey of poetry for children in Great Britain and the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland, Africa, India and the Caribbean. A thorough quantitative analysis of an impressive amount of data reveals that little poetry for children from countries other than Great Britain and the US has been translated. This is all the more deplorable because Caribbean children’s poetry, for instance, demonstrates remarkably innovative forms and motives.

In the third part of her study, Kreller places the translations in a context. For this section, she did not carry out an extensive quantitative analysis, which makes her findings less precise. First she deals with transfer phenomena, making an interesting distinction between translations that failed to appear, ‘prompt’ translations (with interesting thoughts on Shel Silverstein), translations with small delay (a.o. Roald Dahl) and translations with considerable delay (nursery rhymes). In order to discover the causes of the delays, she conducted a survey of publishers and looked for explanations amongst authors, mediators, illustrators, translators and society in general. Not enough attention is paid to factors such as awards, the attractiveness of humour and mentalities changing in time. Predictable, but nevertheless interesting is the finding that idealised images of childhood and classic forms predominated in the translations. Realistic, contemporary images of childhood and free verse were rare, although already in the seventies, a new paradigm made its appearance in the original German poetry for children.

The most interesting part of Kreller’s study is the analysis of translations, where she tries to attribute changes in the source text to either the dynamics in the subsystem of children’s literature or that of poetry. Her comparison of different translations of the same source text often results in stimulating insights into possible translation strategies. By concentrating on specific changes in the poetic form, Kreller sharpens her analyses, although her method sometimes limits the possible explanations. At times she remarks changes concerning content, but fails to explain them by pointing at the efforts of the translator to adhere as closely as possible to the original form. In many cases however she does give these explanations, and elaborates them in a very convincing way, without letting herself be trapped by subjective, normative statements. Since Kreller limits herself to a few examples, she cannot formulate general statements about how translators of poetry for children deal with phenomena such as repetition. One of the overall conclusions she does draw is that all translators pay a great deal of attention to sound and repetition. Particularly interesting is the comparison of two translations of a poem by A.A. Milne, where a child imitates the language of the adults. The two translators deal with this special use of language very differently, revealing a different image of childhood. The analysis of comical elements shows that translators often transfer the humour on the content level, but lose a lot on the formal level. The reverse is true for poems with a fixed form, like the limerick.

Kreller winds up her study by expressing the hope that more translations appear of contemporary, innovative English poetry for children. According to her, this would boost German poetry for children considerably. By all means, her thorough study means an enrichment for the study of the translation of children’s literature and for the study of poetry in translation in general.

Jan Van Coillie
Vlekho, Belgium