Sunday, December 12, 2010

¡Feliz Navidad!

Yep, I'm white. But I also happen to speak Spanish. I've lived in Argentina, and as a teacher in Los Angeles, I work with a lot of kids whose families are from places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico. So it is with particular interest and pleasure that I introduce you to three bilingual books that came out a few months back, plus a bonus book about flamenco.

I will also try to give you a sense of how well I think the translations work. The tricky thing about translating, of course, is that a literal translation is likely to fail: it will sound gawky and robotic, especially in a field like children's literature, where the prose is expected to be beautiful as well as serviceable. The best translations therefore preserve much of the original language, but also consider the spirit of the ideas and how well the phrasing flows.

Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez by Monica Brown, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

When I was a kid, I remember hearing about a grape boycott and a man named Cesar Chavez. Years later, I drove along a street in Los Angeles that had been renamed for Cesar Chavez at some point, and I knew that he had helped organize the migrant laborers in the fields of central California. But I am sorry to say that I didn't know about Dolores Huerta until I read this picture book!

Delightfully using the theme of "side by side" in more than one way, this book first tells a little about Dolores on the left-hand page, then a little about Cesar on the right-hand page—until finally they meet up and begin working together. So as the book begins, we get:
In New Mexico, there lived a little girl named Dolores who talked so fast that her grandfather once said, "Dolores, you must have seven tongues!"
Many miles away in Arizona, there lived a little boy named Cesar who was a very good listener. Cesar listened to his mother cry when his family lost its home and they had to become migrant farmworkers.
We learn that Dolores was involved in community service with her mother from a young age, and that even though Cesar had to drop out of school to work in the fields, he always carried a book and continued to learn as best he could.

After four such spreads, Dolores and Cesar become friends and combine their efforts to help the migrant laborers, eventually creating the group, United Farm Workers of America. The story of the grape boycott is told, as well as a march on Sacramento and Cesar's hunger strike. We also discover that when workers were discouraged, believing change was impossible, Dolores coined the simple but effective phrase, "Yes, we can!" (It actually has a slightly richer meaning in Spanish, I think. "Sí, se puede!" can be translated rather literally as "Yes, it's possible!")

Joe Cepeda's illustrations are done in nice, strong colors, showing ordinary people working together. The art has a slightly cartoonish quality which makes the seriousness of the text more accessible, I think. Cepeda used "oil over acrylic, collage, and pencil on illustration board" for a vibrant, unique look that evokes Mexican or Central American folk art.

The English text is clear and straightforward, and this quality is maintained by translator Carolina Valencia. However, she does insert the occasional flourish. Here's a subtle, yet lovely example:

English sentence: "Cesar's family moved to California to follow the crops and work in the fields."

Spanish translation: "La familia de Cesar se mudo a California para trabajar en los campos, de cosecha en cosecha."

Translation of translation: "The family of Cesar moved to California to work in the fields, from harvest to harvest." Meaning, "from one harvest to the next." Not only is that a pretty phrase, but it manages to imply the seasonal nature of the work, which makes a family's income even less certain.

I'm sure some people might find a biographical book about the work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta overly political, but let's face it: the labor movement is a very real part of our country's history and reflects our constitutional rights to speak out and assemble. (In contrast, I've been trying to teach my high school students that they wouldn't be able to state their opinions about the government with impunity if they lived in a country such as North Korea or China.) I found this book to be very clear, appropriate for second and third graders studying California history or simply the history of Americans who have worked to bring about change. An author's note at the end gives further information, including a website address for Dolores Huerta, who's still at it at the age of 80!

¡Muu, Moo! Rimas de animales/Animal Nursery Rhymes, selected by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, with English versions by Rosalma Zubizarreta and illustrations by Viví Escrivá

Award-winning poet, author, and anthologist Alma Flor Ada has worked tirelessly to promote bilingual literacy and bicultural understanding, so be sure and look for her other books, some written with F. Isabel Campoy. For example, I also liked their first collection of nursery rhymes, ¡Pío Peep! In this volume, they have focused on nursery rhymes and songs about animals.

Here's a nice example, "Los sapitos" (Note that titles are not capitalized beyond the first word in Spanish. Neither are months of the year.). I especially like the sounds the translator chose for the toad songs.
The Meadow Toads

The meadow pond is filled with toads
seeking shelter from the storm.
The baby toads sing high,
the grown-up toad sing low.
Quirk, quirk, quirk, quirk, croaking high,
quark, quark, quark, quark, rumbling low!

Here's the original:
Los sapitos

Los sapos de la laguna
huyen de la tempestad;
los chiquitos dicen: tunga,
y los grandes: tungairá.
Sapito que tunga y tunga,
sapito que tungairá!

And a literal translation:
The Little Toads

The toads in the pond
flee from the storm;
the little ones say: tunga,
and the big ones: tungairá.
Little toad that tungas and tungas,
little toad that tungairas!

As you can see, translation is not an exact science! Instead, it is an art. Most of the translations in this collection are quite nice, especially when you factor in the rhymes. In fact, I suspect I chose "Los sapitos" specifically because it doesn't have the constraints of rhyme. Imagine having to translate meaning, maintain a rhythm, and include rhyme all at the same time! Of course, English words with the correct meanings aren't necessarily going to rhyme, so the translator is left to juggle the language in order to create comparable rhymes, which is really a formidable task. My only quibble is that Zubizarreta occasionally pads a line with a word like "quite" or "so," but you can see why that would be tempting, considering the challenge.

Zubizarreta makes some wise decisions. For instance, in the nursery rhyme "Debajo de un botón," a series of two-syllable words all ending in -ton or -tin in Spanish play the following game of repetition using the final syllable. I'll just show you the first of the two verses:
Debajo de un botón

Debajo de un botón, ton, ton,
que encontro Martín, tin, tin
habia un ratón, ton ton,
ay, que chiquitín, tin, tin!

Which would basically translate as:
Underneath a button, ton, ton,
that was found by Martin, tin, tin
there was a rat, rat, rat,
oh, how little, tle, tle!

Only you can see how "rat" doesn't work because it has only one syllable. And we lose the whole "tin," "ton" set of exact rhymes when we get to "little."

The translator does this:
Martin Found a Mouse

Martin found a mouse, mouse, mouse,
'neath a button on the floor, floor, floor,
in a tiny house, house, house,
with a tiny door, door, door.

Which not only does the job, but introduces the fun new element of the tiny house, while maintaining the whimsical spirit of the original. Zubizarreta deals with a similar challenge in the long poem, "The Rooster Cock-a-Doodle-Dows," where she puts together a new set of names for animal and human characters using a single rhyme.

Again, the only place the translation feels a little awkward to me is when some of the verve of the original is lost to the need to create a line's rhythm. Here's just one example:
El burro

A mi burro, a mi burro
le duele la cabeza,
el médico le ha puesto
una corbata negra.

The translation reads as follows:
My Donkey

My donkey told me today
his head is hurting, oh my!
The doctor said that he should
put on a long black tie.

(There are more verses in which the doctor treats the sick donkey in various silly ways.)

Here is a more literal translation:
The Donkey

To my donkey, to my donkey
his head hurts him.
The doctor has put on him
a black tie.

So you can see why the wording needs to be stretched out a bit. But from a meaning standpoint, it is stronger to say that the doctor simply put a black tie on the donkey than that he said the donkey should do so. I think this is a sacrifice one must make at times when creating a rhymed translation. I bring it up partly to show you how hard the task is, and partly to let you know that if you as a reader can only access the English, you will have lost a bit of freshness and flow from the original in spots. As I mentioned above, a good translator really does need to do her own thing to some extent. It's definitely a balancing act, and the inclusion of rhyme makes it that much harder.

This is the last verse from the same poem:
A mi burro, a mi burro
ya no le duele nada,
el médico le ha dado
jarabe de manzana.

The translation reads as follows:
My donkey told me today
he no longer hurts at all!
The doctor decided to give him
some apple syrup this fall.

And a literal (or close to literal) translation:
To my donkey, to my donkey
nothing hurts him anymore.
The doctor has given him
syrup of apple.

Really, what's a translator to do? It's not like you can rhyme either "syrup" or "apple"!

Now, moving on to the artwork... Viví Escrivá's illustrations, which appear to be done in watercolor and colored pencil, are very sweet, especially her depictions of children. Many of these poems and rhymes are set in the countryside, and the overall effect is peaceful and pastoral.

As you can see from the excerpts I've shared, this is a happy collection—plus it gives parents options who are worn out on Mother Goose. Of course, ¡Muu, Moo! will be of particular interest to bilingual families, parents who have children learning Spanish as a second language at school, and those of you who just want your kids to know that the world is pretty wide.

Once Upon a Time: Traditional Latin American Tales/Había una vez: Cuentos tradicionales latinoamericanos, by Rueben Martínez, illustrated by Raúl Colón

Ahhhh. I love folktales, so I was especially pleased to get my hands on this one! The reteller, who does his own translations, thank you very much, shares seven traditional tales from Latin America in both English and Spanish. Martínez has selected a nice mix of stories:

"The Wedding Rooster" is a cumulative folktale about a vain rooster who asks the grass to clean his dirty beak so he can look handsome for his uncle's wedding, but the grass says no. So the rooster asks a goat to eat the grass to punish it, but the goat says no. And so on, until the rooster asks the sun, and the sun says yes. Everyone cooperates at that point—and the rooster has been praising the sun in the morning ever since.

"The Tlacuache and the Coyote" is a trickster tale with a rather grim ending. (Apparently a tlacuache is a lot like an opossum.) "The Mother of the Jungle" is a cautionary tale, practically an allegory, about a man who ruthlessly chops down the rain forest, until the great magical guardian of the jungle intervenes.

"Martina the Cockroach and Pérez the Mouse" is a very well-known story about a pretty little cockroach with a new hat who attracts the attention of a variety of animal suitors. She turns them down one by one, mostly because their singing voices don't please her. Finally the sweet-singing mouse Pérez wins a date and even her hand.

"The Flower of Lirolay" is a fairy tale reminiscent of the European stories "The Water of Life" and "The Singing Bone" (plus variants). The author indicates that this story can be found all over the world, but I was pleased to see a version with Argentine place names I've actually been to. I especially love saying the name of one province included in the story, Jujuy ("hoo-HOO-ee").

"The King and the Riddle" is another story that appears in the oral tradition of other countries; the author says this version comes from Spain. It's about a girl who matches wits with a clever king and eventually marries him.

"Pedro Urdemales and the Giant" features a key trickster character from Latin American folklore, comparable to Jack in the British tales or Nasreddin in Islamic mythology, among many more. This story, in which Pedro fools a giant, is also found in the European tradition, e.g., in the story of "The Brave Little Tailor." (See also a picture book, Clever Beatrice, by Margaret Willey and Heather M. Solomon.)

Each of the seven stories is accompanied by a one-paragraph author's note explaining where it comes from and how it relates to Latin American culture. Once Upon a Time will make a nice addition to any collection of folktales from around the world.

(Note that if you're learning Spanish, a book like this is a fun way to improve. When I had to take a Spanish test for a teaching job 13 years ago, I brushed up by reading the first Harry Potter book in Spanish!)

The illustrations are by the marvelous Raul Colón, with his recognizable earth tones and scratchboard style. Each story has one piece of art plus some borders. Frankly, I would have loved to see even more illustrations.

As for the translation, the English and Spanish versions flow beautifully together. Unlike the translator of ¡Muu, Moo! this author was not constrained by rhyme and rhythm requirements. While there are many places where the language is a very close match, the Spanish sometimes has some extra phrasing. (I suspect the author wrote the tales first in Spanish, then translated to English.) For instance, when the fire in "The Wedding Rooster" refuses to help the titular cock, we read in English: "'I don't want to,' the fire answered." But the Spanish says, "—No quiero—respondió tranquilamente el fuego y siguió crujiendo." Which means in English, "'I don't want to,' the fire responded tranquilly, and continued crackling."

In either language, Martínez's retellings are clear, humorous, and well paced. Here's a final excerpt, this one from "The Flower of Lirolay":
They crossed rivers and climbed mountains. They passed huge plains. Finally they were able to see in the distance the mountains the old man had described. The road before them forked in three directions, so each brother decided to take a different path.
I do wish the author had given us a better translation of just one thing, and that's the expression used to end folktales in Spanish: "Colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado," here used in "The King and the Riddle." In essence, beginning with what are pretty much nonsense words chosen for how great they sound together plus the rhyme they provide, the expression says: "Colored-y, colored, this story has finished." But then, every English speaker seems to recognize the English phrase "and they lived happily ever after," which is what Martínez uses instead. Admittedly, today's readers are less familiar with the older variant in English folktales that would be quite comparable to the Spanish expression: "Snip snap snout, this tale's told out."

Bonus Book: ¡Olé¡ Flamenco by George Ancona

This one isn't bilingual, but hey—it fits our theme! Of course, I'm more familiar with tango, having lived in Argentina, so I was curious to find out more about flamenco, which vaguely invokes pictures of the opera Carmen in my head. I knew this dance came from Spain, but I had no idea it originated with the gypsies! (While I was in Argentina, I met some gypsies and drank herb tea with them in their tent.) What I did know is that George Ancona has done other terrific photo-essay books for children. In fact, he's written more than 100 books for kids. Aaaand to top it all off, he's studied flamenco guitar.

¡Olé¡ Flamenco is a leisurely journey through the world of a dance you may never have seen except on TV. The book centers around a girl named Janira Cordova and her efforts to prepare for a dance festival in her town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she studies with a group called Flamenco's Next Generation. But in his introduction, George Ancona actually starts with his memories of a visit to a small village in the south of France many years ago, where he witnessed the dancing at an annual reunion of gypsies.

Next we meet Janira, and then Ancona gives us a history of the dance, showing how flamenco began with the gypsies and eventually settled with them in a part of Spain called Andalucía (Andalusia). The author gives readers a map to show how the gypsies are thought to have migrated from northern India eastward over into North Africa and Europe. He also provides some historical photos and art of gypsies dancing—fascinating! Plus more photos from Spain and photos of flamenco singers. Did you know there's even a word in Spanish just for the strong emotions that inspire flamenco singers?

We learn about the music, the clapping methods, the difference between a regular guitar and a flamenco guitar, and the meaning of "olé!" Of course, we also learn details of how flamenco is performed, including hand movements, facial expressions, and the use of the castanets. The book culminates with a performance by Janira and her fellow dancers. In addition, we find out a little more about Latino-American culture and the local Spanish Market, where Janira performs again.

When you think about it, conveying music and dance in pictures is a real challenge. (Who hit the mute button?) Yet George Ancona carefully leads us through the history and present-day practice of this dance with photos so spot-on and lively you can almost hear the flamenco guitar.

Update: Alma Flor Ada, co-author of ¡Muu, Moo! posted in the comments (for the "Lemonade Question" post below). She pointed out that the translator, her daughter Rosa Zubizarreta, considered another tricky factor I hadn't even thought of: "As you well recognize it is a daunting task, not only when trying to maintain the rhyme but also the rhythm, since many of these selections are songs and she has made sure that they could be sung in either language to the same tune." Very cool, not to mention that much more difficult. Go Rosa!

Update #2 (1-10-11): ¡Olé¡ Flamenco won a Pura Belpre Honor Award for writing in the 2011 ALA awards.

1 comment:

Doret said...

I read and loved the first two.

I live in a Spanish speaking Neigborhood, and I have not taken advantage of it as much as I should have to improve my Spanish. But I am trying.

I've realized picture books in Spanish are better for me to learn by then bilingual one