Dr Dong Haiya 董海雅 of Shanghai International Studies University 上海外国语大学 has recently been in the UK on a Chinese-government funded scholarship to research children’s literature. She generously spared some of her time to meet, and kindly answered some questions about her life and work.
Please tell us about yourself!
I graduated with a PhD degree in translation studies from Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) in 2007, and have been teaching translation at SISU for 17 years. My research interests have always been audiovisual translation and translation of children’s literature, which derive from my passion for movies and children’s books when I was young. I feel lucky to be involved in these two burgeoning areas of research. Currently I’m doing a research project on the dissemination and translation of Chinese children’s literature in the English-speaking countries. I applied for the scholarship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) and came to the University of Reading in early 2018 as a visiting fellow.
During the past decade, I’ve worked with several publishers in China and translated more than 30 children’s books into Chinese in my spare time, including Eloise (by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight), Green Ship (by Quentin Blake), Say it!/Sleepy Book(by Charlotte Zolotow), Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Imagine/The Land of Neverbelieve (by Norman Messenger), Challenger Deep (by Neal Shusterman). I also translated several illustrators’ interviews from the book Show Me a Story!Why Picture Books Matter by Leonard S. Marcus. It is very fulfilling to see the books I translate being published and read by young readers and their parents despite the various challenges I’ve encountered during the translating process. To me, every book offers a good learning opportunity to reflect upon childhood and how to translate for children.
I’m also a mother of a 10-year-old boy. While he brings a lot of joy into my life, I often struggle to be a patient mom and find a balance between work and family. As a translator-mom, I should also give my son some credit in helping with my translation. When I translate a picture book, I usually read my first draft to him to check whether he understands certain words or how he likes the tone of a sentence. I value his response as a child and make some revisions accordingly.
How did you become interested in children’s books?
In my childhood, I was always fascinated by fairy tales and folklore. So, in 2002 when an editor offered me an opportunity to select a few famous fairy tales from around the world for a book intended for advanced English learners and translate them into Chinese, I accepted it without hesitation. Then, in 2005, I was commissioned by Shanghai Translation Publishing House to translate a book titled Kids’ Letters to Harry Potter. Before I set about translating, I read the Chinese translations of all the Harry Potter books then available in the market within a short period of time to familiarize myself with the storyline and the magic spells. Reading and translating the passionate letters from kids all over the world to Harry Potter, a fictional character, I came to realize how much influence children’s books can have on the minds of children. After my son was born in 2008 my interest in children’s books was further fueled. When he was still a baby, I started to look for good picture books from online stores and fora of young mothers. At that time, there were not many – I remember there were only a few translated picture books from Japan, Germany, America and the UK. But the children’s book market has grown very rapidly since then with numerous titles abroad translated into Chinese. Thanks to the market boom, young parents like me now have wider choices. While reading to my son the fabulous works by world famous writers and illustrators – like John Burningham, Anthony Browne, Julia Donaldson, Kevin Henkes, William Steig – I felt a whole new world was unfolding before me, with amazing creativity and refreshing child-oriented perspectives. With strong curiosity, I keep track of my favorite writers and illustrators and try to collect all their works. The more I read with my son, the more eagerly I want to be involved in the translation of children’s books. Thanks to the recommendation of A Jia 阿甲, a friend and pioneer in promoting early reading for children in China, I’ve gradually had opportunities to translate children’s books for very good publishers. My research in translation of children’s literature has grown out of my own experience of translation. It’s amazing that my childhood interest in children’s literature and the birth of my son could lead me further than I expected on the career path.
What has your experience at Reading been like?
My host institution at the University of Reading is the Graduate Center for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media (CIRCL). Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, the director of CIRCL, is a world-leading scholar in critical theory and childhood studies. She’s been very generous in sharing her expertise with me. As a visiting fellow, I’m allowed to sit in the MA seminars, which involve the study of a wide range of Children’s Literature, such as Nineteenth Century Children’s Literature, Myth and Folktale in Children’s Literature, Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Children’s Literature (focusing on English-language literature, but also addressing international works).
Therefore, I’m able to observe how children’s literature is taught at graduate level here. The teaching is nothing like what I’ve experienced in China before. The teachers here put a great emphasis on developing critical thinking and analytical abilities. They expect the students to have engaged closely with the texts before class, and during contact time ask hard questions and encourage the students to view the given text from a new perspective, reconsidering their own initial readings, rather than taking the widely-held concepts in children’s literature for granted. I found this approach quite challenging, but on the whole I’ve benefited a lot from my one-year visit. Through the seminars, I have come to know more about 19th and early 20th century British children’s authors and their works that I was previously not very familiar with: for instance, Mrs Sherwood, Catherine Sinclair, George Macdonald etc. One thing I particularly love about the University of Reading is its rich collection of children’s books both in the main library and Children’s Collection Section in Special Collections.
You mentioned that since your son was born you’ve bought about 1000 picture books for him! Could you tell us more about this? (I have so many questions about this… How did you go about this? How did you choose them? Where did you source them? How did you pay for them? How did you read them with him? Have you kept them all? Did your friends do the same? I’ve read about other young parents creating a home library – how rare/normal is this?)
Probably I was exaggerating a little bit when I said that. But I’m sure it’s over 800 if I count all the children’s books I’ve bought so far, including more than 50 English titles I bought recently in the UK. I don’t earn a lot as a college teacher, but I’ve never hesitated when buying books for me or for my son. There is a community library near my home in Hongkou District, Shanghai, which has a floor of children’s books, and I sometimes borrow books from there. But as the new titles are hard to get, I decided to create a home library for my son. I usually buy a whole bunch of books online when they are on discount during holidays. I come to know about newly published children’s books from various sources, like browsing the webpage of online booksellers regularly, subscription to several famous publishers via Wechat, talking with my colleagues and friends. Sometimes I also ask my friends abroad to buy children’s books of a particular author or illustrator and bring them to me when they come to Shanghai on business trips. I seldom look at the list of best sellers on the online book stores, and prefer to make my own judgment based on the cover, the author, the illustrator and the overall style. Of course, I need to consider my son’s interests as well. When he was little, he was very much into the books about geography, stories with a tint of humor, and books of the illustrators whose style he’s already familiar with, for example, John Burningham, Quentin Blake, Anthony Browne, Keiko Kasza. So I would feed him a lot of books like that. I remember one evening when he was six, I put all my collection of Anthony Browne’s picture books on the red couch and read them to him again. After listening to the last picture book Willy the Dreamer, he suddenly remarked, “I love Uncle Anthony Browne so much. If I get a chance to see him, I’ll give him the most delicious snack because his illustration is so good.” I was thrilled to find that my son was as big a fan of Anthony Browne as his mom!
I will always remember the sweet moments of holding my son in my arms and reading to him for an hour every evening and at weekends. Most of the time, I read the words exactly as they are in the book – if they are in Chinese, I’ll read in Chinese, and if they’re in English, I’ll read in English – I don’t break the story to check if he is understanding, I just let him enjoy the pictures as much as he could while I read the words.
Not that he’s growing up, his interest in books is changing, and the problem of how to dispose of the old books and buy new ones is a big one for me because we live in a rather small flat in Shanghai and there isn’t so much space to store so many books. I’ve decided to keep my favorite ones and the classic ones indispensible to my research, and give away those that no longer suit his age. From time to time, I give some to friends and colleagues who have little children, and donate some to local public libraries or book charity organizations.
Like me, my sister and most of my close friends buy books very often for their children, although they are not as crazy as me. Their book shelves at home are also stacked with hundreds of children’s books. Probably it’s quite normal in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen where more and more well-educated parents understand the important roles that excellent picture books play in the early reading of childhood. While being proud of having a large collection of children’s books at home, I sometimes feel it is also a waste to purchase so many books only for one child. One of the solutions, I suppose, would be more financial support from the government for public libraries on different levels.
Has your son become a reader? What are his favourite books now, and what is it that he likes about them?
My son has always loved books, but he didn’t become an independent reader until he was 8 years old – probably because he was so used to my reading aloud to him that he was reluctant to read on his own. His favorite books include Roald Dahl’s story books, Dominic (by William Steig), Journey to the West《西游记》, and the Mi Xiaoquan Goes to School series《米小圈上学记》written by Bei Mao 北猫 . Like his classmates, he was mesmerized by Mi Xiaoquan books when he was in Year-2 (age 8-9 years) and couldn’t wait for the next book to come out. It was the first time that I saw him so engrossed in a set of books that he would read the books again and again, and always chuckling while turning the pages. This aroused my curiosity. I finally understand why these books are popular with Chinese pupils – the stories reflect their own experiences of school life and there are amusing comic pictures going with the words. They can relate to Mi Xiaoquan, a naughty Chinese boy in a public primary school who has similar troubles and happiness to their own. The Mi Xiaoquan books are like The Diary of Wimpy Kid series in many ways – the stories are told in diary from, there is a good combination of words and pictures, they are easy to read and humorous, but the main difference is that the Mi Xiaoquan books truthfully portray the daily life of a Chinese pupil, to which most Chinese children immediately feel a connection. They feel Mi Xiaoquan is one of their classmates.
Currently my son is in Year-4. He has become a huge fan of Harry Potter since reading the Chinese translations of all the Harry Potter books in late 2018.
What’s your translation plan for 2019?
At the end of 2018, l learned that I’ll have the opportunity to co-translate Anthony Browne’s autobiography with A Jia, to be published in 2019. It’s like a dream coming true. After I return to Shanghai this month, I’ll put my heart into the translation of this book as a tribute to a master who is very good at playing the shape game and who has opened up a different world for me and my family.