y Eléonore Buchet-Deàk
Since a language inevitably embodies the norms and ideologies of a culture, to impose the ideas of one culture on another through the medium of a translated book is an act of violence. Even more intense dynamics can arise from the history that these cultures share. The Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative, a project I am working on as this year’s McGill Dalai Lama Fellow, aims to distribute to the Tibetan refugee community of India children’s books that are originally written in English and translated into Tibetan. The goal of the project is to participate in the effort to preserve Tibetan language by providing Tibetan refugee children a creative means to learn their native language in their home in exile, India. With a dearth of children’s literature cemented by the current political climate within Tibet, providing translated works is one of the ways by which the community living outside of occupied Tibet can conserve their language. However, distributing English-language books throughout India has a history of its own, and the risk of stumbling down the slippery slope to neocolonialism should not be ignored. The issue of the inherent violence of translation becomes even more delicate when dealing with the translation of children’s books, whose imaginative power have an unparalleled capacity to imprint the malleable mind of their young audience.
The choice of culturally sensitive books is therefore vital for the project’s success. My first criterion for the choice of the books was works that had already been translated into multiple languages. Beyond the obvious advantage of playing it safe with books that have proven their universal appeal worldwide, my decision was animated by a more fundamental motivation: on a psychological level, for refugee children to witness that Tibetan is as good a language as any other to tell a story is crucial for cultivating a sense of pride and connection with the language. Finally, international titles allow children to practice learning the other languages that surround them as refugees in multicultural India by comparing the different language editions of the books that are available in the community.
However, all books are not appropriate for translation into every culture, and while a child does not necessarily notice these differences, parents and educators do. Stringent differences can be unproductively violent. They have the potential to stunt any kind of growth by altering a child’s perceptions and alienating her from her community. A few issues come to mind: the race and gender of the characters in the story, the role that these characters play and the social dynamics they share, the topic, double-meanings, and historical baggage (etc). Even choosing stories in which an animal character is the protagonist risks cultural insensitivity or misunderstanding. Indeed, the symbolic or mythical significance of certain animals are buried deep in a culture. A child can suffer from identifying with a character that holds a deep-seated negative connotation.
y Eléonore Buchet-Deàk