Experts have warned me about the perils of publishing foreign language or bilingual editions of Early Readers. A word that is “easy” in English may be “hard” in another language, for one thing.
This is true. “Lipstick” which plays an important part in Princess Pig, is “lápiz labial” in Spanish—a mouthful, for sure. “Jam,” a key ingredient in Rat Attack, is best translated “mermelatta” in Italian. That’s a four syllable word—an Early Reader no-no, but hey, it does sound a lot like a familiar fruity preserve that English speakers will recognize, which brings me to my point: should no “hard” words be a hard-and-fast rule for Early Readers?
Like Captain Jack Sparrow, I prefer to think of it as more of a guideline. For one thing, if a hard word makes the difference between a boring story and a surprising one that holds a child’s attention, I would argue it is well worth it.
Rat Attack, the “short a” adventure in the Short Vowel Adventure series, features at least two relatively hard words: “magician” and “monster.” Kids like magicians and monsters, and without them, this story would have no villians, no suspense. In short, it would be a big snooze, and no self-respecting five year old would want to read it more than once.
Even with “magician” and “monster,” Rat Attack qualifies for a 280L Lexile score (Lexile is the newish scale aimed at helping educators find books at the appropriate level for their students), which places it squarely in the emergent reader zone. I was on pins and needles waiting for the official Lexile score for Wet Hen, which includes the non-word “Eggs-cellent.” The MetaMetrics pros weighed in with 210L. My take on this is that the Lexile Assessors do not boot you off the Early Reader Island for a hard word infraction, or even a non-word infraction. Phew.
Another challenge facing translators of Early Readers, or translators of anything claiming to be Bilingual, is when to opt for a colloquial expression over a literal translation. Let’s take the title of the book Rat Attack as an example. My French translators, two bright young Parisiennes who work in the theater (I found them on Elance, btw. More on that miracle for small publishers in a later post), pointed out that a literal translation, L’Attaque des Rats, is a clunker. “No one in France will buy a book with that title,” they said, with customary frankness. Les Rats Passent a L’Attaque, on the other hand, is funny. It has that idiomatic “Je ne sais quoi” that brings a smile to the lips of potential readers. What’s an editor to do? Go with the fun title, and vive la difference!