Rhyme And Meter · Translations

The Challenges With Translating Rhyming Children’s Books

From a business point of view, it can be disadvantageous to publish children’s books that rhyme. That’s mainly because translating rhymes is difficult.
I have recently translated my books “Pilot Ray – The Tale Of A Snail” and “A Million Years From Home” from perfect rhymes in English to perfect rhymes in German (disclosure: I’m a German native who’s been living in English-speaking countries for almost a decade. I’m also an editor specialised in rhyme & meter, see my services for authors).

Opening spread from “Pilot Ray – The Tale of a Snail”. Longer words in German result in a slight lack of information.

Here is what I’ve noticed:
1) The length of words in English can differ drastically from the length of words in the target language. For instance, German words are much longer than English words: “snail” (1 syllable) is “Schne-cke” (2 syllables) in German OR “skills” (1 syllable) is “Ta-len-te” (3 syllables) in German. Thus, for a one-to-one translation, the syllable count per line in the target language gets much higher than that in the English line, which quickly messes with the rhythm/meter.

2) To keep the length of lines the same (and thereby preserve the meter of the original text), the information per line has to be trimmed in cases. The challenge is to decide what to cut or how to rephrase text, ensuring that the overall meaning and storyline stays intact. Importantly, this goes beyond the job description of a common translator whose task is to preserve the meaning and beauty of each sentence and not to decide how to squeeze the same meaning into a tighter jacket.

3) In the majority of cases, words that rhyme in English do not rhyme in the target language. Thus, new perfect rhyme pairs have to be found for all rhyming lines of the manuscript.

4) As with every good translation, cultural aspects have to be taken into consideration. For instance, a saying that works in English may not work in the target language. If this is the case, an alternative phrase has to be found that delivers the same meaning AND satisfies rhyme and meter requirements. For instance, one line of the refrain from my book “A Million Years From Home” is “I love you from head to toes!”. We don’t say this in German, though. As an alternative, I translated it to German as “I love you every single day!”, which works beautifully in German and preserves the overall message of unconditional love.

Spread from “A Million Years From Home”, a book about a lone dinosaur egg that’s determined to find a place where it belongs. Note how the refrain was adapted to what’s more common to say in German.

To summarise this, translating rhymes from one language to another is much closer to ghost-writing a manuscript than it is to “just” translating it (though loads of work and expertise goes also into standard translations).

Accordingly, the requirements for a translator of rhymes are immense:
1) The translator needs to be fluent in English AND the target language AND needs to be able to pick up the fine nuances of both languages.

2) The translator needs to be proficient in writing in rhymes AND meter. Proficiency in either of the two is not sufficient. For instance, translators specialised in translating rhyming songs are often not experienced in writing in meter, because often songs still work well even if the meter is not spot on. That’s not the case for children’s books.

3) The translator needs to be a flexible thinker who is able to rephrase a direct translation into something that accommodates perfect rhyme & meter while keeping the storyline intact.

4) The translator needs to be proficient in the use of lyrical language and poetic devices (such as alliterations, assonance, connotation etc.) in order to recognise them in the original text and to preserve them in the target language.

Another spread from “A Million Years From Home”. The internal rhyme “guessed/best” was substituted with another internal rhyme “drei/Ei”.

Therefore, translators who can translate perfect rhymes from English to perfect rhymes in another language are extremely rare. In addition, as is the case with any creative process, such an advanced translation takes several days and is therefore comparably pricey. I hope this helps you to understand why, from a business point of view, it might be disadvantageous to publish rhyming children’s books. Don’t get discouraged, though. Just be aware of what to expect down the road. There’s always the option to rewrite your rhyming story as lyrical prose first and then get it translated. Importantly, a lot of time and effort should be put into rewriting the story from rhyme to prose, as a translation can only be as good as the original next.

If you’d like to chat with me about this topic or would like to contact me regarding the translation of rhymes from English to German or from German to English, you can do so here.

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