Reaching Julia Donaldson to Indian Children
By Nita Berry
It seemed a strange idea to begin with… Julia Donaldson’s picture books to be translated into Indian regional languages! This British author and performer has written some of the world’s best loved children’s books that include classics like The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, which have sold simply millions of copies worldwide. The picture books are known for their amazing rhyme and rhythm, and irrepressible sense of humour. Was it possible to effectively translate them into the Indian context, keeping all the fun elements of the original intact?
However, Pan Macmillan, her book publisher in English was optimistic. ‘She has been translated into 72 languages worldwide, including Chinese,’ they insisted. ‘So why not Indian languages?’ When they came to the AWIC* office bringing with them 4 of her beautiful bestsellers–The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle and A Squash and a Squeeze–along with a definite proposal to translate them into four Indian languages, i.e. Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Marathi, the Julia Donaldson Translation Project had obviously been well thought out!t seemed a strange idea to begin with… Julia Donaldson’s picture books to be translated into Indian regional languages! This British author and performer has written some of the world’s best loved children’s books that include classics like The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, which have sold simply millions of copies worldwide. The picture books are known for their amazing rhyme and rhythm, and irrepressible sense of humour. Was it possible to effectively translate them into the Indian context, keeping all the fun elements of the original intact?
It was with some misgiving that I accepted the role of Project Coordinator. This was going to be a tough challenge, I knew! We would have to locate the right translators and find competent language editors from the four corners of the country. The project was to be an AWIC-Pan Macmillan one, and the Pan Macmillan team would look after evaluation, production and printing of the 16 picture books.
AWIC’s greatest asset is its diverse membership of 570 authors, illustrators, storytellers and editors all over the country. This invaluable resource is what I would have to delve into, in the days to come.
Pan Macmillan was in a hurry and their deadline was a tight one. They would like to see two sample pages of the books translated in a week’s time. If approved, the complete translations of the books were to be sent by the end of the month. There was no time to lose! We would have to quickly locate potential translators in Hindi, Bengali,Tamil and Marathi from all over the country, by phone and email. The ones we could identify were all writers known mostly for their writing skills in English. Whether they would be able to translate the books into regional languages was another matter altogether! The challenge became bigger as the translations would necessarily be in rhyme with rhythm along with the fun element of the original.
Details of the translation project along with PDFs of the books were sent out almost immediately to potential translators in these four languages. Our writer-translators were confident and enthusiastic about the entire project, and keen to begin work at once! Most were familiar with Julia Donaldson’s picture books, and a few had even met her at the IBBY Conference in London some years ago. They began choosing their books for translation.
This is when the pandemic broke out and the first lockdown began, right out of the blue! Nobody realized at the outset that it would last so long, with so many attendant problems. Couriers for books were not available for those who could not access the PDFs. Typists in regional script became an extinct service. However, the publishers were flexible. Translations in the regional languages could be sent in Roman script or even scanned original writing, if typing in the regional script was a difficulty.
As the initial sample translations trickled in, they were forwarded to Pan Macmillan who sent them to their evaluators all over the country. Some were approved instantly and enthusiastically, while others were rejected outright. These were either just disappointing, not fun enough to read, or didn’t rhyme well, was the comment. Sometimes the words used were too difficult or uncommon. A literal translation was not required. In fact, the book wasn’t to read like a translation at all. It had to stand on its own flow in the regional language, without losing the essence of the original. New translators were now tried out. The Pan Macmillan team was obviously sure of what was required.
These were difficult times indeed! As the pandemic spread, both the AWIC and Pan Macmillan offices closed. Now, spreadsheets were drawn up to keep track of our progress backed by weekly discussions. Meanwhile, translators faced other unexpected problems because of the prolonged lockdown. Some were in quarantine, even in hospital, with no access to laptops! There was unaccustomed domestic work, PDFs didn’t download, or there were no computers or laptops at home–a few worked on the project entirely from a smartphone! Others learnt typing in the regional script themselves when there wasn’t a choice. Everything happened online, and emails flew back and forth. We would obviously need more time under the present circumstances.
By May, the manuscripts in all the languages were approved and finally typed. There was a huge sigh of relief all around! Now began the next effort to finalize editors, preferably locally based, who could work directly with the translators and coordinator. They would need to work their magic on some of the approved scripts.
Our editors were an exacting lot. Some of the translations required minimal editing. But often, amendments were required in other translations for better rhyme and rhythm. Words were changed, like ‘roasted fox’ for a pakora or Indian tandoori dish. And so, the manuscripts went back and forth amidst writing and rewriting, dictionaries and arguments over spellings and fonts! The lockdown was evidently taking a toll on everyone’s cool!
Once the translators had incorporated the editor’s changes which they approved of, in their translations, these were finally sent to Pan Macmillan for typesetting. The final proofs were once again scanned by the editors. This way there were several checks on the work.
Our side of the work had now been completed in record time! The team at Pan Macmillan commented that they had often felt it difficult to keep up with our pace. But now the printing would be as fast, they promised. And indeed, it was! By July end the books were printed and ready in their colourful regional avatars, keeping the original design and illustrations by Axel Scheffler intact. The pace of the work from start to finish had been unbelievable!
Unfortunately, disaster struck again in the form of Corona, which hit the Pan Macmillan office that had been open twice a week of late. So, their office was closed once again and the books wrapped away in plastic in their godown–till their release on 21st October 2020. The difficult market situation for publishers has also added to this long delay.
The release has indeed been a long awaited one, and the picture books will be subsequently available on Amazon, at a discount. Already, there is considerable interest in the market.
All our translators are AWIC members from all over the country, and are eminent authors of children’s books. They have used all their experience and expertise in writing and storytelling for young children to transcreate these stories for Indian children wonderfully. It goes without saying that they enjoyed their work of translation immensely. This is well reflected in the books, with effective use of rhythm and rhyme, humour and the endearing storylines of the original. Any cultural transition has been handled smoothly and efficiently so that children can identify well with the characters of the stories.
Hats off to them all as also our editors for the meticulous effort they put into the making of these picture books, under the most difficult of circumstances. And of course, Tina Baruah of Pan Macmillan for her unstinting support and personal interest in the project at all times, which really saw it through!
It would be a dream come true if we can reach bestselling international picture books and favourites to our little children who still understand and read in the vernacular, while keeping the literary quality and fun element of the original intact.
Hindi – Virbala Rastogi, Savitri Singh, Indira Bagchi
Bengali – Swapna Dutta, Benita Sen
Tamil – Indira Ananthakrishnan, Vijaylakshmi Nagaraj, Prema Srinivasan
Marathi – Dr Usha Dutta, Madhuri Tilloo
Hindi – Divya Jain, Nilima Sinha
Bengali – Indira Bagchi
Tamil – Rajarajeshwari
Marathi – Dr Usha Dutta, Shilpa Patwari
*The Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC), is a voluntary organization which is the Indian Section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). AWIC was founded by the Late Shri Shankar Pillai in 1981 with the aim of promoting the reading habit in children and in developing quality literature for them.AWIC has over 570 Life Members all over India, which include authors, illustrators, teachers and librarians, and all those interested in good books for children. They have been organizing National and International Conferences on various aspects of Children’s Literature, publishing books for children, a regular journal on Children’s Literature, and organizing children’s libraries and workshops, to name some activities. For further information see