As a dabbler in literary translation, I was delighted by the recent discovery that September is World Kid Lit month. The designation provides—so I gather—librarians and other book enthusiasts with an excuse to promote children’s books translated into English.
I was further intrigued to learn that the day selected for the UN’s international Translation Day is September 30—the feast day of St. Jerome. Coincidence? Indeed, no. Having produced the fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), Jerome is the patron saint of translators, librarians, and encyclopedists. (Incidentally, among ancient Christian writers, his output was second only to that of Augustine of Hippo, who authored more than one hundred titles.)
Language and cultural diversity are intrinsic both to the Bible and to Christian history. The book of Genesis records the division and multiplication of human language at the Tower of Babel. At the other end of the canon—as well as time—the book of Revelation depicts people from every language and nation worshipping God in the new Jerusalem.
The writers of the Old Testament set down its text principally in Hebrew (with the exception of 268 verses that appeared originally in Aramaic). The whole of it was translated into Greek before the time of Christ. The early centuries of the Christian church saw the translation of the Scriptures into Latin, Syriac, and other ancient languages.
Central Asia and the Silk Road
In childhood I preferred books depicting times and places other than my own. I later discovered that travel kindled similar sensibilities. Wandering the streets of centuries-old cities, I reveled in imagined scenes peopled by previous inhabitants.
Personal interest and experience in Central Asia has led me to search out related books, some of which appear below. Contemporary religious practice in the region intermingles Islam with older traditions. Such roots show through in some of these collected tales. Parents may find stories about gods and demons unsettling, if not downright bizarre, but such subjects also evidence an awareness of the spiritual realm often absent from a materialist Western worldview.
These works cast light a region rich in cultural heritage and historical significance. May they spark imagination as well as the desire to explore—both in books and in person—new corners of the world, with its multitude of colorful languages and cultures.
Tales Told in Tents: Stories from Central Asia
by Sally Pomme Clayton, ill. Sophie Herxheimer (Frances Lincoln, 2004, 60 pp)
An accomplished oral storyteller, Clayton has also written a number of children’s books based on traditional stories. Here she has assembled her own versions of riddles, origin myths, legends, songs, and epics drawn from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. Clayton includes notes on her sources as well as tidbits regarding the material culture, geography, and history of the region. Herxheimer’s illustrations incorporate design motifs from Central Asian textiles and folk art.
Stories from the Silk Road
retold by Cherry Gilchrist, ill. Nilesh Mistry (Barefoot Books, 2005, 80 pp)
These stories, populated by demons, fishermen, gods, and goddesses, read like excerpts from Arabian Nights. Utilizing a two-page introduction to each tale, the author leads readers on a fictional journey beginning in Xi’an, China, across the Taklamakan Desert, into Central Asia. At each stop she depicts travelers bearing tales from their homelands in China, Persia, and Turkestan. The assembled myths and legends include selections from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami, and various oral traditions. Mistry’s signature style is well suited to the content.
The Story of Babur
by Parvati Sharma, ill. Urmimala Nag (Good Earth, 2015, 96 pp)
This elegant volume is an adaptation of the Baburnama, the sixteenth-century autobiography of the founder of the Moghul Empire. Although Babur’s life culminated in India, it began in the Ferghana Valley of modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. After his father’s death, Babur reigned briefly in Ferghana and Samarkand before being ousted from both. He reigned at greater length in Afghanistan before setting his sights on the subcontinent.
Sharma’s liberal application of creative license results in engaging scenes and lively conversations. Nag’s enchanting full-page illustrations incorporate elements of Persian miniature style, an apt accompaniment to Babur’s story.
The Story of Babur: Prince, Emperor, Sage
retold by Anuradha, ill. Jane Ray (Scala Arts & Heritage, 2022, 176 pp)
The detailed, first-person nature of this adaptation of the Baburnama suggests it may adhere more closely to the original than the Good Earth rendition. Anuradha’s text is prepared from English translations of the original Chagatai Turkish. It relates not only Babur’s conquests but his poetic pursuits, love of family life, and personal reflections. The trials and pitfalls of statecraft, palace politics, and warfare are portrayed with forthright honesty. Though not as lavish as Nag’s two-page spreads, Ray’s illustrations are charming and well suited to the content.
A Bride’s Story**
by Kaoru Mori, (Yen Press, 2011, 192 pp)
This young adult graphic novel is award winning and multinational. Translated from Japanese (thus reading right to left), it depicts the lives of nomadic peoples near the Caspian during the 19th-century Russian colonial expansion. Mori’s detailed renderings of Central Asian wood carvings, textiles, and daily life display her artistic prowess.
Released serially in Japan, the collected set comprises thirteen volumes. They begin with the arranged marriage of a skilled and capable young woman to a twelve-year-old boy. The stories branch out to include other brides, as well as a young Russian researcher who marries into the tribe he is studying. **Parents might want to preview the books for brief depictions of female nudity (in the early volumes—I cannot vouch for the content of all thirteen).
Where Does the Water Come From?
by Aminjon Shookuhi, trans. Karim Khodjibaev and Moukhabbat Khojibaeva, ill. Jan Seabough (Viveca Smith, 2008, 88 pp)
Upper elementary or middle grade readers are likely the best candidates for this chapter book about two boys searching for the source of their canal water. The translation is rough at points, but the story supplies insight into Tajik life and culture. Aminjon Khodjibaev (pen name Shookuhi) was a prominent twentieth-century Tajik writer. The translators are his son, a linguist, and daughter-in-law, a Eurasian studies professional. Although currently out of print, new and used copies are available from various online booksellers.
Orange and Blue, the World of Barzu
by Marina Abrams, ill. Farrukh Negmatzade (Barzu World, 2018, 96 pp)
This meticulously researched work is available in both English and Russian editions. Negmatzade, an accomplished Tajik artist, renders Abrams’s prose with vibrant charm. The first sixty pages relate a Tajik boy’s trip to the village of his grandmother. An expert maker of traditional bread (naan), she spins a magical tale about a caravan merchant, his travels to India, and his remarkable bread.
The book’s latter sections include recipes as well as detailed information for parents, educators, and older readers. Notes on history, language, culture, and architecture elucidate the multifaceted significance of this region. Like Babur, Barzu highlights connections between Central Asia and India.
The best way to purchase the book is to message the author through Facebook or LinkedIn. Abrams, born and raised in Kazakhstan, plans a series of similar volumes on the region. The next installment, The Riddle of the Talking Tapestry, is the subject of a Kickstarter campaign.
Kubla Khan, The Emperor of Everything, by Kathleen Krull, ill. Robert Byrd (Viking, 2010, 48 pp), is a well-crafted picture book about Babur’s ancestor that pairs nicely with the adaptations of the Baburnama. Shorter than the abovementioned, its degree of detail nevertheless makes it more suitable for older elementary readers.
We’re Riding on a Caravan, by Laurie Krebs, ill. Helen Cann (Barefoot Books, 200, 32 pp)is a fun, rhyming picture book that served us for many years as both bedtime and classroom reading. Historical and geographic notes in the back supplement the simple text. Krebs’s other titles are worth exploring as well.
The Silk Route: 7,000 Miles of History, by John S. Major (HarperCollins, 1995, 32 pp) This non-fiction work stops off at many of the same points as Stories from the Silk Road but follows the route all the way to Byzantium. A two-page illustration and a few sentences of text serve each location. End matter includes informative mini-articles on silk, caravan life, religions, nomad warfare, and similar topics.