My Pet Peeve with Children's Foreign Language Books


Recently, my two-year-old reached one of my favorite toddler milestones: the idea of reading finally “clicked” for him.

Until a few weeks ago, he would do one of two things during our family read-alouds: either he would putter around the room and ignore our read-aloud entirely or else—and more frequently—he would turn the experience into a gladiator wrestling match, attempting to steal all reading materials away from me while yelling, “It mine!”

It was a bit of a rough go there for a while.

Luckily, sometime around the beginning of February, Felix made the connection between the pictures on the page and Mommy’s voice, and now, he can’t get enough. We’re reading about 10-15 picture books a day together and he’s so obsessed with his favorites that he’s been toting them along wherever he goes.

All of this reading time, however, reminded me of a pet peeve that I have with children’s foreign language books. Can you guess what it is?

Lazy translations.

Unfortunately, examples of this abound, so how do you know if you’re reading a good translation—especially if you don’t speak the language your child is studying?

While it’s hard to say exactly what makes a good translation—honestly, professional translators have been arguing over that question for decades—I’ve developed a few tricks to help me spot a bad one. When I’m considering purchasing a translation, these are two things that I consider:

Does the book respect the basic grammar rules of the language?

I’m talking really basic here—like, does it use correct punctuation and accents in the target language? Does it use gendered pronouns, if the language requires that? These are details that are fairly easy to spot, even if you’re not a native speaker of the language that your child is studying.

Here’s an example of a book that doesn’t do that. This board book—marketed to Spanish/English bilingual families—drives me crazy, because the translation leaves out all of the articles that correspond to these nouns. While that’s fine in English, it’s tough when you’re trying to teach your children Spanish, because they need to learn both the noun and its gendered article together.

As a former Spanish teacher, let me insist: it is so, so, important for students to learn grammatical gender. If they don’t learn it at the start, it’s nearly impossible to pick up later—as many a struggling college student will tell you. So if you notice something like this in a translated book, put your money elsewhere.

If you’re looking for first words books for your little ones, I recommend instead these alternatives:

Older kids will enjoy the visual dictionaries published by DK—they’re quite extensive! We have one in Portuguese and my five-year-old loves to page through it and learn new words. For parents who don’t speak the language their kids are studying, they also link up to an audio app to help with pronunciation. And yes, they include articles. They’re available in many languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Portuguese, and German (see below).

Is the book translated by a human or a computer?

Translation is such a delicate art that despite our advanced technology, it still really cannot be trusted to computers. I mean, check out this example from Google Translate:

Screenshot 2019-03-14 15.36.54.png

I hate to say it, but….that is not the correct translation.

For that reason, I generally shy away from purchasing anything sold by companies that advertise children’s books translated into many different languages (for some, that’s 6 languages, others, 50+). Oftentimes—though not always—those books are translated by software, not human beings, so you end up with phrases like the one above.

Instead, I prefer to go to trusted publishers and distributors, who pay actual humans to do the delicate work of translation. If you’re comfortable with the language your child is studying, you’re safest going with authentic literature—meaning books written in the original language. If you can’t find this readily on Amazon or through the list of publishers I’ve linked to above, you might want to check out a book rental service. Here are a few that I know of:

I’m hoping that someone will start book rental services soon for Spanish- and Chinese-language books—despite plenty of research, I couldn’t find any!

Regardless of which language you’re studying, I hope that this post helps you find high-quality literature for your kids and avoid these pesky translation problems!