Making children’s stories accessible through translation

Jala Translate
5 min readMar 22, 2021

Talking trees, laughing dragons, smiling butterflies, or frolics to the moon.

Children’s books invite us through passages of adventure and imagination — not just for young readers but eager translators as well.

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

This is a quest that Jala eagerly pursues with StoryWeaver since 2019.

Jala’s mission to make translation more collaborative aligns with that of StoryWeaver, an open source digital library that makes multilingual children’s stories accessible in over 190 countries.

Together, we merge the vigour of technology, open licensing and collaboration to open doors to storybooks in underrepresented mother tongue languages.

An enthusiastic Jala user and freelance translator, Zuraidah Ehsan walks us through her compelling journey of translating eight children’s books from English into Malay for Storyweaver.

Liani: Hi Zuraidah! I’m excited to interview you today for our feature. Can you share a little bit about yourself and what drew you into translation work?

Zuraidah: Hello! I’m Zuraidah. I’ve been doing on-and-off translation work for quite some time now. It’s not always a full-time job for me, but I’ve always had an interest in translation.

When I got married in 2013 and then went overseas where my husband is, one of the best jobs I could do was online translation. It was only in 2016 when I had the time to take an intensive two-week translation program at Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia (ITBM).

Before that, I never had formal translation training, so I thought this would be the best option. In Singapore, more translation study or degree programs emerge — although they are sometimes part of a Malay language and literature course. I also took part in translation workshops by The Select Centre, where one of them was conducted with Malay translator and scholar, Harry Aveling.

After that, I applied to a few agencies. Of course it’s not easy, but eventually, I found a way to work with one where I’m currently a freelance translator.

Liani: Could you share what languages you translate in?

Zuraidah: I mainly work with Malay-English translations. I’m also learning Arabic because my Algerian husband speaks Arabic (laughs). But what is spoken in Algeria is not the standard Arabic. Instead they use dialect at home, and it’s different from what’s used in the media. Also, in Algeria, it’s important to learn both French and Arabic in tandem, as sometimes they switch between the two. In a sentence of 10 words, four to six of these words are Arabic. So it’s really like learning three languages at once!(laughs)

Liani: What kind of projects do you often take on?

Zuraidah: I enjoy translating fiction or stories, because I like reading! But I find that I always learn something new with any projects I take. For example, translation agencies sometimes ask to translate government brochures, and such projects help me keep up with political affairs. Working on technical translations also pushes me to dig up and learn new technical terms!

As a translator, you need to do research as well, and this is one of the things I enjoy. It’s not just a matter of changing one word to another. Knowing the context is really important. Every translator must have the responsibility to do some research — like a busybody! (laughs)

Liani: You’ve recently translated about eight stories for Storyweaver last year! Can you tell us why you decided to translate these stories?

Zuraidah: I like their stories. They always have meaningful messages behind them. I am also attracted to the story’s themes and illustrations. They are inspiring for children and after translating the stories, I’d introduce them to my young cousins too!

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Liani: Of all the translations you completed, which is your favourite story you’ve translated and why?

Zuraidah: I like “Up World, Down World”, but also “Welcome to the Forest”. I like that it is based on a true event with a strong message that it’s not impossible for any children, despite their impairment, to enjoy a safari experience. The characters such as the zoo ranger, also drove the message home that anything is possible. It’s really important for children to learn this when they’re young.

Liani: What was the translation process like for you?

Zuraidah: It starts with the machine translated text on Jala’s console. For me, machine translation is useful to help you get a basic translated text first. Then as the translator, you can work sentence-by-sentence. After that, the third step is to tweak it again, because the translation needs to be in the Malay lingo, and not a direct translation. Even when you’re satisfied with your first or second cut, you might want to express it in another way, especially if your readers are meant to be young children. As a translator, it’s important to consider the audience.

Liani: How did you first hear about Jala? How was your experience using Jala’s platform?

Zuraidah: I first heard about Jala through a competition where I completed an Indonesian-English translation! I’m glad for Jala, as it gives opportunities to beginning translators looking to prop up their portfolio and work on meaningful projects. If not for Jala, I wouldn’t translate as much!

At the same time, Jala gives a chance for translators to contribute to the Storyweaver platform. In this way, it’s a win-win situation for the translator who does the job and for organisations seeking translations!

Liani: Thank you for the encouraging words and sharing so much with us! One final question, what advice would you like to share to new translators on Jala’s platform?

Zuraidah: I think the main advice would be to get whatever training you can. Also, expand your network and speak to other translators to learn about their experience. Never stop learning!

Jala’s collaboration with StoryWeaver continues to be a fulfilling and heartening experience for our teams and evidently the translators on Jala! You may read and share stories translated by members of the Jala community here.

At Jala we’re always looking to create impact by bridging the language gap with translation. If your organisation has a similar project that needs translation, sign up on Jala or get in touch with us to discuss partnership opportunities. We’d love to help!

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