VCU students provide Spanish translation of children’s book for citywide school reading program

When the organizers behind One Richmond One Book, a citywide elementary school reading program, were deciding to give Richmond Public Schools students “The Toothpaste Millionaire” by author Jean Merrill as its common book this spring, program coordinator TaLees Owens realized there was a problem: There wasn’t a Spanish translation for the material.
Richmond Public Schools students drop off their written answers to trivia questions about

Right: Richmond Public Schools students drop off their written answers to trivia questions about "Toothpaste Millionaire" earlier this winter. The book is being read by elementary school students citywide.

“There are approximately 4,000 Spanish-speaking students in Richmond elementary schools,” Owens said. “We wanted to supplement our material and make sure all [English as a second language] students could read it.”

Searching for a solution, Owens contacted Indira Sultanic, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Spanish translation and interpreting studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Sultanic and a group of students went to work translating the book.

“I had four students that began working on the translation toward the end of the [fall] semester. They completed the translation draft in mid-January, after which an additional four students were brought on to translate the remaining sections,” said Sultanic, who teaches in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Their completed work was turned into an online version of “The Toothpaste Millionaire” and made available to students on the One Richmond One Book website. In addition to the web version produced by VCU students, Richmond elementary schools received 13,000 copies of the printed book before the COVID-19 outbreak.

‘It goes beyond word for word. It’s an art.’

Maria Clavel was one of the student volunteers on the translation project. A biology student who speaks Spanish, she said she enjoyed the process.

“I really enjoyed the book. Doing the audio was fun, especially the parts where I had to act the voice when a character was surprised or confused,” Clavel said. “I tried my best so it could sound believable, as if I was Rufus [a sixth-grader who develops a plan to save money on toothpaste] or his friend Kate in the book.”

One Richmond One Book is program of Read to Them, a Richmond organization focused on literacy, and works with all 26 city elementary schools. Even though the book was straightforward, the project wasn’t easy to complete, Sultanic said.

“It’s extremely difficult to translate a book,” Sultanic said. “Translation is a skill that takes a long time to acquire and hone, and there is often this misconception that just because someone is bilingual that they can translate. Though there were varying levels of ability among the student volunteers, many of the students had completed a translation course, and had a basic understanding of the process.”

"You have to keep the meaning and stay true to the story. It goes beyond word for word. It’s an art. And like art, it is also very subjective."

She was grateful to have native Spanish speakers in her Spanish-English Translation and Interpretation classes who had translated in the past.

“They were able to look over the chapters and offer guidance to some of the other students,” Sultanic said. “It is always helpful to have native speakers of the language into which you are translating who understand the process. You have to take a number of factors into account such as themes that are discussed in the book. You have to keep the meaning and stay true to the story. It goes beyond word for word. It’s an art. And like art, it is also very subjective.”

Even when Sultanic translates into Spanish, she said she has a professional translator or editor check her work. She took the same approach with this project.

“I wanted it to be representative of the students’ work, but still be a good translation, which is why I solicited help with the editing from a fellow Spanish translator and colleague, Marc Tamarit, an instructor at California State University, Fresno,” she said, adding that the math problems in the book were extra challenging. The story focuses on Rufus’ efforts to save money on toothpaste by making his own and contains real-life math problems that the characters must solve.

‘Phenomenal’ work

Clavel helped translate a chapter of the book along with voicing the audio. “Even though I speak Spanish, it was hard to find the perfect fit for some words,” she said.

Translators do a lot of negotiating when it comes to meaning, Sultanic said.

“You have a lot of power in how something reads in the other language. You have to express what the character is trying to communicate,” she said. “When it comes to translation, it takes a lot of years to reach a level of expertise. Literary translation requires a certain level of creativity and it takes a lot of years of training. Even with so little translation experience, I must commend, and thank, all of the students for their effort.”

Owens said she was pleased with the translation.

“The work VCU did was phenomenal. We appreciate having a professional-level translation done for no charge. They did this out of the goodness of their hearts,” she said.

Being able to help others was rewarding for Clavel.

“It reminded me how a small action can affect others,” she said. “By just giving some of my time and reading the chapters, I might be helping a family.”

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