During this residency, I have been translating a children’s book, Hortusukalude Chomi (tentatively titled, Chomi: Princess of Gardens) by Gafoor Arakkal. The book, set partly in the seventeenth century and partly in the present, has several passages that depict the violence perpetrated by colonialism and caste hierarchies against humans as well as nature. All the while, I have been thinking about two questions: How do we take children’s books across cultures? Who is a child, and what determines this definition?
While human beings up to the age of eighteen are defined children, legal, moral, and socio-cultural implications of what constitutes childhood vary widely across countries and cultures. In India, for instance, child marriage is illegal, and yet India accounts for one-third of world’s child brides. In the USA, only eight states have a complete ban on underage marriage. Other states allow them with parental consent, effectively making what is a sex crime in one state acceptable in another. Child labour is banned in many countries, and yet in the UK, 800,000 children are engaged in the physically and emotionally gruelling labour of being the primary carer for their families, the youngest of them at five years old, according to the Children’s Society’s data. The UN Convention for the Rights of the Child regards corporal punishment as a ‘serious violation of a child’s dignity,’ while in the UK, the law deems it a ‘matter for individual parents to decide,’ thus rendering the notion of children’s dignity a matter for adults’ subjective preference.
In 2009, I published a children’s book, The Sackclothman, which dealt with themes of madness and grief, alongside translations in Malayalam and Telugu. A Hindi translation came out in 2019, and a new edition in English in 2021, both from the Indian children’s books publisher, Eklavya. The book was part of a project titled ‘Different Tales’ that aimed to create a series of books with child characters and lived worlds of children that were not usually found in children’s literature.
The Sackclothman was based on events from my own childhood, centred around a man who used to live in our village. He had obvious mental health issues, but was a mild, friendly man, except on rare days when he would be agitated. All the households gave him food but also kept a wary distance from him, while some of us children developed a kind of friendship with him. The story takes on from this friendship to imagine how we think about madness, both inside and outside our families.
The book was fairly well received, but over the course of many reviews, also raised interesting questions about how we as adults view what is appropriate reading material for children. For example, Samina Mishra, a writer and film-maker, included the book among ‘Ten children’s books that all Indian children must read.’ Meanwhile, writing in The Book Review, Madhurima Kahali deemed the book “deeply touching,” but concluded that “Although I liked the book, I don’t have the heart to recommend it for young children.”
As writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, parents, teachers, and librarians, we adults decide what children should or should not read, what stories can and cannot be told. This becomes even more complicated in translating children’s literature. How do we take stories across cultural boundaries given the vast differences in the way we define children and childhoods? Going back to Chomi, while the violence of colonialism or caste could arguably be part of the cultural and historical memory and knowledge of some children, would it make sense in other contexts, for instance in the UK where British schools teach very little about colonialism, especially the cruelty and violence it perpetrated on global populations?
As adult storytellers for children, some of us may want to tell diverse and varied stories that trouble notions of ‘universal children’ and ‘ideal childhoods,’ stories in which children of all backgrounds can find their worlds reflected. Some of us might only want to tell a good story without taking on this advocacy role. Or we might want to do both. Striving for variety, difference and diversity also generates tension. It affects what stories we choose to translate, and how we negotiate with commissioning editors and publishers. It affects decisions about how much cultural adaptation we are willing to do; how staunchly we defend the preservation of cultural and historical contexts; 0r how much we are willing to paraphrase or censor, in order to ‘purify’ it for children elsewhere for whom a story may not be deemed suitable.
The ‘national/universal child’ in literature usually embodies privileges of race, class, caste and gender, and is usually articulated in ableist language. As translators, we have the opportunity to disrupt this canon, to present different childhoods across languages and cultures so that our picture of children and childhoods are more complex. We have the opportunity to be adult negotiators of children’s representational spaces by telling stories without obfuscating or apologising but with sensitivity and respect.
Dr Jayasree Kalathil is the author of a children’s book, The Sackclothman, which has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. Her translations have won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020 (Moustache by S. Hareesh) and the Crossword Books Jury Award for Indian Language Translation in 2019 (Diary of a Malayali Madman by N. Prabhakaran). Her latest translation, Valli by Sheela Tomi, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature and the Atta Galatta-BLF Book Prize in 2022. Before becoming a fulltime translator, Jayasree worked in anti-racism and human rights in relation to mental health and psycho-social disability for over twenty years. Her works in this area include Recovery and Resilience: African, African- Caribbean and South Asian Women’s Stories of Recovering from Mental Distress, and the co-authored textbook Values and Ethics in Mental Health: An Exploration for Practice. Jayasree hails from Kerala, India, and currently lives in a small village in the New Forest in England.
During her residency at BCLT, Jayasree will be translating a children’s novel, Chomi: Princess of Gardens by Kerala writer Gafoor Arackal. Told through the friendship between a young girl from the Kurumbar tribe in the 17th century and the son of a doctor in the present, the book deals with indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and present-day concerns about the environment. Alongside translating this book, Jayasree hopes to explore questions around translating history, especially colonial history, for children and around being a translator from a minority community living in the UK, and how these questions can be embedded in wider discussions on translation as a cross-cultural practice.