On translating children's books: A Google Serve volunteer's story

Posted by Remya Padmadas on January 06, 2020

Karthigeyan Sivaraj is a Google Serve campaign volunteer who has worked with StoryWeaver to help translate several storybooks into Tamil, including I Can Climb! and My Best Friend.

In this Q&A, Karthigeyan shares his experience about translating on StoryWeaver, his insight into the translation process, and his love for children's literature.

Q: Do tell us a little bit about yourself, your interests, your work

I'm a Googler by profession and by practice, and I'm proud of that! At work, being a Googler means respecting my colleagues and welcoming their opinions and ideas, howsoever different they may be to my own, and keeping things necessarily simple to my stakeholders, and I attempt to do the same outside the walls of my office as well. Having learned how to analyze data on the job, I brand myself as a data story-teller - i.e., processing data and presenting meaningful information in a way that pushes the audience to take the desired action. The interesting aspect of my job is that it allows me to improve the existing processes through imaginative ways and take ownership of some of the workflows in my organisation, thereby ensuring candidates joining Google have a lasting positive impression about their onboarding experience. 

Q: Do you remember the first time you heard about StoryWeaver? What are your thoughts about the platform?

Of course, it's quite vivid in my memory the first time I heard about StoryWeaver. The concept of weaving children's stories is quite dear to my heart, and it's really gladdening to see the team working behind crafting stories as well as making them available in multiple different languages for the young audience to read and relish. I personally nurtured a similar idea a few years ago when I was an avid blogger but didn't have the imaginative power nor the enterprising capabilities to venture into this domain - I was really happy to find the StoryWeaver team doing some marvellous work in this field. Kudos to all!

Q: What was your experience of the GServe campaign, and translating books with fellow Google volunteers?

It's always a very humbling experience to take part in any GServe campaign, no matter what the cause that's being championed. The StoryWeaver campaign was very well thought through in many ways - for one, it didn't require us to sacrifice the luxury of our desks and we could contribute while at work or on the move. It was also so much fluid socializing with fellow Googlers who were taking up similar translation work. Overall, it was a rewarding experience to be able to contribute our might in little ways possible to make a huge change!

Q: We are so glad that you came on board as a commissioned translator even after the GServe campaign! What prompted you to stay in touch?

As I had mentioned previously, contributing to children's literature was always dear to me, and when I got to know about StoryWeaver's mission and their robust infrastructure, I felt relieved knowing that I didn't have to worry too much about the modus operandi, but rather focus on the work itself. With a major piece of work shouldered by the StoryWeaver team, I wanted to work with the team even after the GServe campaign, so that I could do what I like to do - writing, crafting and translating.

Q: What was your experience of being a commissioned translator? Did you pick up any new tips and techniques?

A lot I must say! One very important technique I adopted pretty early on was that I realized that translating the original work into the language of my preference required knowing the cultural nuances deeply. For instance, while translating a story from English targeting the Hindi speaking audience and translating it into Tamil would mean we will have to take into account the various cultural aspects such as the equivalent idioms used in the region. Internalizing all these cultural & regional nuances in the local language while translating is imperative if the audience has to relate to the stories. Else, they wouldn't 'stick'!

Q: How tricky is it to translate stories to Tamil? Are there any phrases that you particularly spent time on because they were difficult to translate?  

Tamil, for all its richness, is a very unique language in that there are several different dialects in use across the Tamil diaspora. It becomes even trickier when you realize that the written form of the language is very different to the conversational style, and even the conversational style assumes a different shade when it comes to young audiences. Stories will have to be narrated to children in a style that's neither too formal nor too conversational and we should be ready to use a few English words that are in daily use, so they can relate to them. Also, unfortunately, tools such as Google Translate provide very literal translations of phrases which is sometimes very challenging even to the mature audience, hence you have to take a judgement call based on your own intuition and observation. I bet this is true for many Indic languages!

Q: What has been your favourite book to translate on StoryWeaver? 

That's a tough one! Each of the books takes you down memory lane and makes you relive your childhood :) Be it Rani's First Day at School or the restless lad who couldn't wait to open this birthday gifts the next day or the fearless little girl - each provides a glimpse of your own childhood. For the sake of picking one, I would go for I Can Climb! which is packed with a lot of positive self-talk for young kids who are taking baby steps as they encounter different activities for the very first time in their lives.

Q: What are some of your favourite books from childhood? Is there any memorable reading moment that you would like to share?

I relished reading across different genres in both English and Tamil. In Tamil literature, especially that was taught to us in school, all messages were delivered in a cryptic fashion replete with metaphors and similes. That allowed for deep learning, situational paraphrasing and lateral thinking. For that very same reason, I preferred the works of John Milton, Rudyard Kipling & John Keats in English and innumerable poets in Tamil. 

As a kid, I was an avid read of Tinkle Kids' magazines, and I used to eagerly await the next monthly edition. I am really glad to see that same level of curiosity now possessed by my niece. It seems the magazine hasn't lost its attractiveness to date!

Q: The translations you have contributed to our platform have been read over 1800 times - thank you! How has your StoryWeaver journey been? What is one big takeaway from this experience?

The biggest takeaway for me has been that we shouldn't shy away from walking in the little shoes of our young audience to truly understand what holds their curiosity and interest. Many a time, we - adult learners - tend to wear our own caps, and view children's literature in a rather lop-sided manner. However, we should be ready to speak the language of the kids (sometimes even practise prattling), simplify the language (without over-simplifying at the cost of losing the essence) to suit them and be more imaginative (what helped me to feel the pulse of the audience was to subject my work to, what I like to call, the 'niece'-test - i.e., talking to my nieces and having them vet some of my initial works)

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In The Night the Moon Went Missing, written by Shreya Yadav and illustrated by Sunaina Coelho, a young girl sets out on a grand adventure to find her missing friend. Shreya is a marine biologist who studies coral reefs. One of her favourite things to do is cling onto a rock underwater and spy on all the fish and plants and crabs and coral that live there.

In this short interview, Zeba Imtiaz, assistant editor at Pratham Books, talks to Shreya about life under water, her favourite children's books and the process of writing The Night the Moon Went Missing, a truly enchanting picture book.

Excerpts from the interview:

How did your interest in the ocean and creatures in the ocean begin?

Growing up in Madras, the Bay was always quite central to our lives. My brother and I would trot off to the beach every other day after school and spend hours in the water. We lived very close by - there was always a sliver of the ocean visible from our balcony - so I think we took the salt and sand for granted. I started diving when I was 19 on a family holiday to the Andaman islands. My father, who SCUBA dives, asked if I wanted to do my beginner course at Havelock island. I remember seeing an octopus and an eel and all kinds of other impossibly bizarre life on my first dive and being totally blown away. Even though I was studying zoology at the time, that was the first time I really wondered about the ecology of a coral reef without it being some kind of abstract concept.



If you had to pick, which would be your favourite ocean creature, and why?

I definitely have a thing for the small and cryptic critters that live on a reef. Often, I will be swimming over something, and will catch a tiny eye peering at me from behind something. I always wonder what their lives are like. Blennies and gobies are probably my favourites. 



What sort of books did you read as a child? What was your favourite book growing up?

I was lucky to grow up with great books and a family that enjoyed dramatic readings of them! I remember being obsessed with Ekki-Dokki (Sandhya Rao; Tulika) when I was very little and then by a book called Trash! (Anushka Ravishankar and Gita Wolf; Tara Books) when I was a bit older. I also read a lot of Roald Dahl. I think I found Quentin Blake's illustrations very weird as a kid, but there was something so different about them that it was hard to put down.

What was your writing process for your book The Night the Moon Went Missing

I think we had discussed that bioluminescence would be an interesting topic to explore for this book, but the story actually took a while to come. I knew I wanted it to be taking place on an island and I had a list of creatures I thought were interesting in terms of their biology, but I didn't know how to make it all come together. I think it finally came to me after a few conversations on the phone with friends - saying things out loud always helps. 

Later, when I read the first draft out to my parents, my mother told me it reminded her of a story my great-grandmother had written for children which also involved the moon and three young girls on a nighttime adventure. As soon as she said it I remembered that book. Now I feel like I subconsciously plagiarized my great-grandmother! 

What was you favourite part of writing this story? What was the most challenging bit?

I had so much fun writing this. I think the most challenging bit was trying to stick to the word limit - I was worried that it would be hard to visualize in so few words, since it was all taking place underwater at night with a bunch of strange glowing animals. But Sunaina's beautiful illustrations more than took care of that. I think my favourite thing about the book now are her illustrations.



If you were to write another children's book, what would it be about?

I think it would be fun to profile a bunch of marine critters in limerick form, Ogden Nash style.

Do you think your childhood was different from how children live today? 

I'm not sure - I have a feeling everyone who is asked this question will probably say yes. I remember having a lot of time in the day to play and climb trees and run around the beach and I hope that that is still the case today.

Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading today?

Big fan of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Loren Eisley, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Robert Macfarlane, WS Merwin. 

Any favourite illustrators?

Closer to home, I really like the work of Sonali Zohra, Renuka Rajiv, Vinayak Varma, Orijit Sen, Sarnath Banerjee and the geniuses behind Crocodile in Water, Tiger on land - whoever they are. 

Have you read The Night the Moon Went Missing? It is available on StoryWeaver for free, in English, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil and Hindi, and will soon be available in print.

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Look Out for These STEM Titles in 2018!

Posted by Yamini Vijayan on February 26, 2018

Last week, while I was at a government office on some personal work, I got a call from my colleague Zeba, also an editor at Pratham Books.
“Listen, I wanted to ask about the Oviraptor’s eggs,” she began.
And while I waited, got my photo taken and submitted heaps of documents to government officials, Zeba and I spoke softly and grimly about the finer details of the oviraptor, the T-rex and the mammoth. It was a strange experience, talking about extinct creatures in the middle of a dusty office where people were hanging around, trying to get all sorts of practical things done.
“Have you brought your Aadhaar card? Do you have 3 passport-size photos? Where are your bank statements?”
“Is the mammooth looking too tall?”

Around February every year, we’re in a great state of excitement and nervousness because the books we’ve spent months and months creating are finally being released to the world (that should explain our conversations about dinosaurs and mammoths). At Pratham Books, this is our third year of creating STEM picture books in a focussed manner. In three years, we have created over 50 STEM titles (more than 250 books!) for early readers in English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil. And we’re delighted that these are part of 300 STEM libraries that we have helped set up around the country.

So what do we have for you this year?

Our aim for this year was to continue creating simple and engaging picture books that explore STEM topics creatively. The idea, in essence, remains the same: to nurture curiosity in children.

We strongly feel that it's important to highlight the more playful aspects of math and science. So we’re very pleased with this amazing book on different kinds of animal tongues. We are also excited about these upcoming books: a book of patterns by Aditi Dilip in which the reader has to spot the odd one out, and a book on the concept of heavy and light by physicist Sukanya Sinha and Hari Kumar Nair.



We do refer to the school curriculum as well though, and pick topics that have picture-book potential. This year, after sifting through a bunch of textbooks, we decided to make books on friction, magnets, bones, blood, time, division and electricity

Have you noticed that children have a natural affinity for books about animals, birds and insects? Goby’s Noisy Best Friend explores the idea of symbiosis through the friendship between a goby fish and a pistol shrimp. This year, we have also made books on crabs, spiders and blue whales – all written by accomplished subject-matter experts and illustrated by artists who are incredible with getting all the intricate details right. And not to miss --- an enchanting island adventure by marine biologist Shreya Yadav and illustrator Sunaina Coelho which features flying fish, angler fish, firefly squid, plankton, and the moon – who makes a last-minute appearance!

We’ve been told by our wise outreach team that children enjoy stories inspired by real life. So we are mighty pleased to have two short biographies based on the lives of two inspiring people: Anna Mani, a meteorologist who invented nearly a hundred weather gadgets (by Nandita Jayaraj and Priya Kuriyan), and Zakhuma, a forest guard and wildlife photographer (by Sejal Mehta and Barkha Lohia).



This year, we also wanted a couple of stories that demonstrate the importance of building and creating. Upcoming titles to look out for are: ‘The Grand Patch Up’ in which a girl uses her building-skills to make up with her friend, and ‘A Whistling Good Idea’ which is centred around the concept of a Rube-Goldberg machine.

Then there are the books that introduce children to interesting STEM careers. Shalini Srinivasan and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya’s book on water conservation features a spunky girl who aspires to be a sanitary engineer. Aashima Dogra and Fahad Faizal’s story on 'animals in space' features a woman who is always dreaming about exploring space. And, we finally have a book on paleontology (this has been on our wishlist) and all the marvellous things you get to do as a paleontologist.

Stories around technology are always tricky because of how rapidly technology evolves. Don't forget to read Lazy Mama -- a story by Vidya Pradhan and Rohit Kelkar on Virtual Reality.



All these stories will be available on StoryWeaver in at least 5 languages. You can read, download and print them for free! You can also translate it to any language that you are fluent in.

Below are the titles we have already published this year. We’ll continue to update this last as we publish more books so that you can see all the titles in a single place.

1. Goby's Noisy Best Friend

2. Stick Your Tongue Out!

3. When Will Amma be Back?

4. The Magic Block

5. Unni's Wish

6. Keya's Day at the Beach

7. Lazy Mama

(Yamini is an editor at Pratham Books. The development of these books has been supported by Oracle.)

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