The stories I read as a child have never lost their aura, the feeling of their being essential clues for life. Even the stories I heard were like this. At night, my father had a couple of stories he sometimes told me. One was about a child who was so tiny he could hide in a bottle. This proved useful when a wolf came to the house while his mother was away. The wolf ate up all his brothers and sisters—there was a magical seven of them—and only the boy survived to tell the tale to his mother when she returned. She cut open the wolf’s stomach and retrieved the other children. A strange variant on “Little Red Riding Hood”?
How do you search for an old oral tale like that, which was probably written down in Hebrew, or maybe it was originally Russian? Polish? Ladino? The other story I remember was about sailors who set out to sea in a boat that got wrecked. I think the boat story was also a song. What happened to that little boat? How can I not remember whether the sailors made it home?
I had very few books in my house as a kid, growing up in Norman, Okla., a child of Israeli immigrants whose home in my memory always looked ready to pack up and move at a day’s notice. The scarcity of books made the few books that were around seem all the more powerful and mysterious. And the books that seemed the most dense with news from distant lands were the ones that came from other countries—the ones that, like my father’s bedtime stories, were arriving to me in translation.
One might think of books in translation that the translation is characterized by loss, especially in books for kids. How could the rhymes in Each Peach Pear Plum be as perfect in another language? Wouldn’t Peter Pan lose its understated humor in another language?
But there’s so much gained in translation. (James Thurber was once told that his work was funnier in French, to which he famously replied, “Yes, it does lose something in the original.”) With children’s books in particular, those in translation have an added aura of adventure, even a sense of the hidden being revealed. At least they did for me. I thought of books written in English as like coming across a fortune typed in that special red ink; I thought of books written in another language as that same fortune, but with a cookie around it, a message you got to crack open for yourself.
I’ll take a simple example. We had a book called No Room for the Baker by Kathe Recheis. The illustrations were by Tibor Gergely. Already those unusual names had my imagination. I assume we got the book at a garage sale because we never bought new books. This one was translated from the German. The baker lived happily in a home with his son and daughter. His son had two canaries; his daughter had one dog and one cat. Already it was a different world than most of the contemporary English language books for people my age: it was a father raising kids on his own. And he wore lederhosen. And the daughter brewed coffee in the morning!
These were tiny details, but they came from other times and places, and going to other times and places—real or imaginary—was so central to my love of reading. Then there was another, quieter but grander foreign element to the story. The dog has puppies; the cat has kittens; the canary bird eggs hatch; soon there are 36 cats and 20 dogs and 12 canaries and, of course, there’s no room for the baker. In a fit of temper, the normally good-natured baker drives all the animals out to the woods and abandons them there—so that he can finally rest. That intensity, though it lasts only for a couple pages, was so startling to me. I now see how it’s more kindred to an ancient Greek play than to the other books of my childhood—that move was magical to me, and also deeply foreign. The book really was from another place and time, when a different sort of story was deemed suitable for young ears.
The baker then realizes what he’s done, is devastated, and goes back to retrieve the animals but finds only a stray, thin cat—whom he adopts as his own. Don’t worry, by the time he makes it back home, all the other animals have already returned on their own. In the end, the story captures both that intense need to leave the home, and the grateful return to it. I still am most drawn to stories in translation—they feel like coming home.
Rivka Galchen is the author of four books, most recently Rat Rule 79, an adventure for kids of all ages, out this month from Restless Books’ Yonder imprint. She is also a contributor to the New Yorker, where she frequently writes about children’s literature.