Translating a Children’s Book into Amharic

Have you ever been involved in a translation project? If so, you already know the challenges inherent in creating the perfect tone and context rather than just literally swapping words for words. Each language has its own set of cultural values, so translations should be able to harmonize with the target language in order to make sense. For instance, a literal translation of activities at an Ethiopian cultural event such as “finding a true cross” might not make sense to someone living in the Far East.

As an experienced translator, I believe that professional translation is not just a mere replacement of a group of words by another group of words. Instead, translation is a careful interpretation of the source language context into the target language context. It is important to be mindful of all the nuances in the material to be translated.

One of my recent translation projects, and my favorite to date, was translating a children’s book from English into Amharic. First, I had to read the book in order to understand and feel each section of the story so that I could translate it into my native language in a way that any Ethiopian child could readily and easily understand it.

Reflecting on my experience, here are four tips to keep in mind regarding translation quality in literary translation:

  1. Be familiar with the genre prior to translating. Having familiarity with the type of document to be translated is vital. Only by understanding the genre can the translator pay close attention to context and detail, making choices that are appropriate not just for the text but for the broader genre of literature that the work falls into.
  2. Don’t just translate. Transform concepts from one culture to another. In my translation of the children’s book, I transformed some sporting activities that would have been completely unknown to children in my country to sports that would be more familiar.
  3. Select the perfect word while channeling the original author. When finding words for translation, there may be several synonyms in the target language that all work to convey the source word. However, it is important to select the best word to reflect the tone and intention of the original author.
  4. Read and absorb before you translate. The first step is to go through the entire document to be translated in order to grasp the author’s intentions while understanding the context. Only then can you create the translation with the most appropriate words and the correct context in the target language. Translation is the art of narrowing the gap between two different languages. It involves sharing and transforming knowledge, culture and stories from one language to another. It is the translator’s duty to render the context of the source language into an environment that the reader can understand. Only then can translation accomplish its true purpose.


About Ermias Bunaro

I’m a native Amharic translator living in Ethiopia. I have translated children’s literature, and I am particularly interested in socially responsible and sustainable architecture. I also have a strong background in SEO.