From My Bookshelf to Yours: The Great Translating Project { Raising Bilingual kids }

This From My Bookshelf to Yours post has been a loooong time in coming. Over two and a half years, actually!

Ever since finding out I was pregnant with Povi, I’ve been steadily working to translate my favorite books into Lithuanian. Why? Because raising bilingual kids is a HUGE priority to me. Any time I bring this translating project up in conversation, I get so many questions of how and why I’m doing this. I figure it’s only fair to dedicate at least one blog post to this project. To keep things simple, I’m going to do things a bit differently and write this post in a question and answer format.

A quick note: I know raising bilingual kids is hard. I know it’s often impossible if both parents don’t speak the language. I’m only two years into parenthood, so I don’t have much experience to speak of yet. I’m definitely not judging anyone for not choosing to make a second language a priority and raising good humans should always come first and foremost. That said, while English is my primary language, Lithuanian is my family’s language and the very essence of my childhood. This love of family and culture makes for an extremely strong pull on my heart to try my best to incorporate it into my kids lives as much as possible. So that’s how this all started.

Raising Bilingual Kids

Why translate books? WhywhywhywhyWHY?

This is a more complex question than I first realized when I began this project. I was raised bilingual and I’ve always known that I want my kids to speak Lithuanian, too. When I ended up marrying another third-generation Lithuanian like myself who also spoke fluent Lithuanian, I knew I had no excuse. But it’s TOUGH raising bilingual kids. Even more so when the language you speak is, to put it bluntly, a bit useless in most of the world.

Don’t get me wrong – I know aaaaall about how raising a child to be bilingual makes their brains more developed and gives them great future skills and blah blah blah, but let’s face it: Lithuania is pretty-darn-tootin far away from America and this unique Baltic culture is made up of only three million people in the entire world. Unless you’re in a Lithuanian-hub, you don’t get to use this language very often. In addition, Lithuanian is very unlike most other languages. It’s so old that linguists study it. No really – it’s grammatically the closest living language to Sanskrit and the oldest surviving Indo-European language. All this to say: the grammar is much more complex than English and there isn’t much crossing-over with other languages.

Growing up, I never really learned how to write or read in Lithuanian. My mom spent a lot of time teaching us to speak it, which is a huge task in of itself (especially since from the age of about 5-18 I didn’t have any Lithuanian-speaking friends my age!). She also did a lot of poetry memorization with us and read to us a good bit when we were young. But, quite frankly, it’s just hard when you don’t live around other Lithuanians. In comparison, my husband grew up in Chicago, which has one of the biggest Lithuanian-American communities in this country. He spent his entire childhood going to Lithuanian summer camps, Lithuanian church, and other Lithuanian-based activities. Together, we now live in North Carolina, where there are very few Lithuanians. Basically, the Lithuanian community here is made up of my family, his sister’s family, and maybe half a dozen other families who we don’t know well or have randomly bumped into – most of whom have kids older than ours. I’m hopeful that my kids will grow up with some Lithuanian-speaking friends, but I know it won’t be many.

Raising bilingual kids

If we want our kids to speak Lithuanian, we’re going to have to consciously make this a priority. How? Obviously, primarily speaking Lithuanian to our kids at home is a huge step. This was a tough transition when we first had Povi, since neither of us were used to primarily speaking it in our home, but it’s becoming easier the longer we do it. You have to remember – this isn’t our native language. Sure, it was the first language both Vincas and I spoke with our parents, but we are far more comfortable speaking English because we had way more exposure to English than Lithuanian. I like to joke that I can tell a great children’s story in Lithuanian (including using words for fairies and hedgehogs and witches!), but I can’t speak about politics or medicine, and struggle to have any sort of real conversation on nitty-gritty topics. I often struggle to find the words to describe things in more than just a surface sort of way.

When living in Lithuania for the summer back in my early twenties, I began a massive set of index cards to memories more adjectives so that I could sound at least slightly intelligent in Lithuanian. It helped some. 😉 Vincas and I will often have long-winded debates on who is using the proper grammatical ending to a word. Sometimes, the debate ends with us realizing both our families are using the wrong word. But we’re learning more and more as the years go by and I feel like I’m getting better at holding up my end.

Up until about six months ago, Povi actually didn’t understand any English, which I considered a huge triumph. The older he gets, however, the more English words are popping up into his vocabulary – whether it’s from conversations with his non-Lithuanian family members, television, or just being out in public. He was even repeating words from a podcast I was listening to. This means I have to start upping my Lithuanian game, because – as any bilingual parent knows – a child will ALWAYS want to speaker the easier language – aka: the majority language of the area he lives in.

Read, read, and then read some more

Reading is SO important to learning a language. Especially if you’re trying to prefect your grammar, reading is a great way to learn proper sentence structures and new words. I’ve also read that it’s extremely important for kids to be able to look at the words you’re reading, so they can familiarize themselves with what the words look like even before you begin teaching them to read. And speaking of reading, if you want a child to read well in a language, they say you should first teach them how to read in that language, THEN the primary language of the land. So having lots of Lithuanian books around is so so important.

Sleep Like a Tiger

So why not just buy a whole bunch of Lithuanian children’s books?

There are several answers to this question. First and most obviously, they ain’t easy to get. If you haven’t looked it up yet, Lithuania is far away and a fairly tiny country. One that only won its independence from the Soviet Union twenty-eight years ago, too, so it only got modernized fairly recently. Shipping books from there to here gets expensive QUICKLY. My mom did pass down a huge number of books to me – most of them from Lithuania, but some are books she translated back when we were kids. I really cherish each and every one of them. Okay: I don’t love ALL of them. There were some incredibly weird and dumb books I got rid of – some had totally bland story lines, others featured butt-ugly illustrations. Think: fat cherubs and weird poetry from a Soviet-era Lithuania. Don’t worry, though, I did keep a solid 150 or so books and we read many of them daily. Povi’s very favorite book is an officially-translated copy of Richard Scarry’s “Best Word Book Ever.” Vincas finds it annoying, though, that all the words for different trucks and construction vehicles are sadly outdated – many of them using odd combinations of the word “automobile.”

So we have all those books. BUT, these books are from way back. Most of them are musty and delicate, with pages falling out. Not exactly great for rough toddler hands. The language they are written in is also very old. It’s how our grandparents spoke and how we speak still, but there’s only so much of bears frolicking in the woods and children drinking milk in cottages that you can read. I have incredibly sweet friends in Lithuania who send me books occasionally, but then there’s the opposite problem: those books use very modern Lithuanian, which sounds funny to us. It’s not how we speak. I still enjoy reading these books, but some of them can be pretty tough for us Americans, with many unfamiliar words and some oddly English-ified words. I’ve also found very few toddler-friendly Lithuanian books – even most of the board books with pop-up pictures have paragraphs upon paragraphs of words. My two-year-old definitely doesn’t have the patience for that.

Lithuanian Translated Kids Books

Last but not least, I love books and I just really want to be able to read the books I grew up with to my kids. You know the ones I’m talking about. “If you give a Mouse a Cookie” and “Corduroy” and “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” These simple stories and cute illustrations bring me back to my own childhood and I can’t imagine not sharing these stories with my kids. Plus, there’s so many beautiful NEW books out there. Books like “The Great Paper Caper” and “The Night Gardener.” I want to read them all! Some of them – such as this copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (Labai alkanas vikšrelis) actually DO have Lithuanian translations.

As I’ve mentioned before, though, those translations are sometimes a bit tough to read for us American-Lithuanians. I find them very poetic, but having lost some of that sense of simplicity that the English words convey. Plus, then you’re back to having to ship over very expensive books. And there aren’t even many Lithuanian, online stores anyway for you to be able to order them from America. Just as a comparison, I buy almost all of Povi’s books at thrift stores. Never for more than a few dollars and usually less than that.

Most of my Lithuanian-American peers make do with simply translating on the fly each time they read a book to their child. I can do that, but I find it frustrating because of how often I won’t know the exact word for something or how this makes keeping the same wording with each reading impossible. I want to be able to mimic the cadence of the original story and I want my kids to know that certain words are coming so they can start memorizing the book and “reading” it back to me, the way kids do. I also want for them to be able to look down and familiarize themselves with the Lithuanian letters and words as I read.

This Moose Belongs to Me

So there I was. Wanting to translate books, but struggling with the fact that my Lithuanian grammar SUCKS.

The funny thing about projects you’re passionate about is that you end up learning as you go. When I started about two and a half years ago, the first few books I translated were really poorly done. Not only did I not have anyone proofread my translations, but I also just wrote them directly into the book. That didn’t last long, since GOSH your hand gets tired quickly from writing out entire books – even just board books. And pens smudge easily. So I went out and bought a pack of printing labels and began writing the translations into a google document, adding in an extra column for editing notes.

Once I finished, I’d beg a friend with better grammar to edit it for me. Gradually, I began building up a network of friends (both American-Lithuanians and native Lithuanians) willing to read and edit the translations. Whenever I have the spare time (not as often as I’d like) I’ll send a book out. When I have time again (weeks later), I’ll check back in and see if they’ve had a chance to edit it. Then I’ll pull the edited copy into the format needed for the printing labels, print them out, carefully cut out each paragraph, and stick them into the book. Then Povi and I will read that book about fifty zillion times every morning for the following few months. He LOVES when I read to him.

I have no doubt my translations have many mistakes. But you know what? They’re getting better and better. Plus, it’s amazing how much grammar I’m learning by translating these books. Google translate has been my friend, but it makes for some really odd mistakes and I’m constantly having to hunt down proper words or reconfigure sentences. Then I have some awesome friends who help me out. Reading their edited version (next to my original) helps me learn even more. I’m so grateful to all my friends and family members who have jumped into this project with me, willing to give me some time and their talent.

I’ve started trying to keep tabs of who has helped me edit which books on the finished document, which I then share in a big google drive folder. Obviously I don’t make a single penny of this project – that would be breaking many copyright laws. Instead, I share these translations with every Lithuanian-American friend – not only do I want others to have access to these books in our language, but I also love that many of those friends then turn around and help me edit more books. Such a great way to keep the love going! At this point in time, I have 25 books finished, with about five more waiting to be edited. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but I can tell you that Povi and I get SO much joy from those twenty-five books. And my production rate has been slowly getting faster, so I’m hopeful that that folder of finished books will just keep growing!

Lithuanian Translation

A fun twist

Translating is really an art, not a science. There are times when you have to choose to follow the tone of the book, more so than the exact words. If you read my translations, I’m sure you’d notice some of this creative license pop up now and again. Sometimes it’s simply the structure of a sentence. As I’m sure you understand, no two languages are exactly alike and it’s often the case that for a sentence to sound right in another language, you have to change it around a bit. I am also very aware that the Lithuanian language I (and all of my Lithuanian-American family and friends) speak is quite a bit different than the language spoken in modern-day Lithuania. At times, I’ll choose to use words we use here, rather than words they use over there. It just doesn’t make sense to completely disregard words I’ve used my entire life for a word nobody I know uses.

Another example of artistic license being used is when a decision needs to be made on which grammatical form a word should take. An example of this can be seen in the first page of “Dear Zoo,” where I chose to grammatically refer to the Zoo as a person, rather than an institution, because I feel like it sounds more story-like. (“Aš parašiau zoologijios sodui” rather than “Aš parašiau ? zoologijos sod?”). Finally, there’s also the decision on whether to keep or translate a name. Some American names just sound dumb when they’re translated, so I keep the English version. Other times, if it’s an easy change, I’ll go for it.

There’s one more change I sometimes make and I usually only make it to my copy of the book. Are you ready for it? Sometimes I actually change the name entirely. Back when my mom used to translate books, there were certain ones that she’d put our names into. She probably thought we’d enjoy thinking the character was us. I know I always found it really fun. So, in keeping with that, I sometimes sneak some of our family members into the books. In “Dance Tanya,” I switched a random aunt’s name to my son’s dance-loving aunt’s name instead. In “The Night Gardener,” (a book purchased by my mom) I changed the street name to my mom’s street name. Back when I bought “This Moose Belongs to Me,” my nephew was living in Alaska and his mom was sending daily snaps of moose in their front yard, so naturally, the little boy’s name ended up being changed to my nephew’s name. I try to go back and change these to the original when I share the document in the public file, but sometimes I forgot and get some questions about that. What can I say? I get way too much fun out of it.

Baby chewing on a book

So how can I access these translated books!?

Shoot me an email! I’d love to share them with you. 🙂 Eventually I hope to have them available somewhere more public, but right now they’re all in a google drive folder. Having read all about the process above, just know there might be a mistake or two and I’m always happy to get feedback on what I should tweak or change. I’d also love any help translating or editing, so if you read and write in Lithuanian and would like to help out with the project, do reach out!

What’s your favorite book you’d like to see translated!?


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