The act of translating is a self-reflective and powerful exercise. It can be really fun and also very challenging. Translating is part of everyday life for bilingual or multilingual individuals as they are often navigating multiple languages at the same time. My family has recently had a fun experience discussing translations that I thought I’d share today. The topic arose as we read and watched one of my favorite books/movies: Wonder. We read and watched in Spanish, of course! But I’m excited to re-read and watch it in English eventually, too.
I don’t remember how I first heard about the book Wonder. It probably was through Julia Roberts. We’re not close friends or anything, but she is my favorite actress and the movie came out in 2017, right around when I remember reading the book for the first time. My guess is that I saw a trailer and then decided to read the book before watching the movie.
I cried like a baby during that first read! I had two really young children at the time and felt so many different emotions about all the challenges and cruelty my kids would face as they grew up. The book and movie moved me deeply. The story is told from the perspective of children about the experiences of growing up as or around Auggie Pullman, a boy entering 5th grade who has a facial deformity. Author R.J. Palacio has said that everyone can relate to the book in some way or another and I agree. Each of the kids in the story also have moments when they shine through heroic kindness and that’s exactly what the book is about: choosing kindness. Choosing kindness is something we all can do. R.J. Palacio said it best:
“Auggie's just living his life. He can't change the way he looks, so he could either choose to hide from people his whole life, or face them directly, head on, and hope for the best. That's all any of us can do with what we've got, right? Whatever we look like, whatever we have, we just need to accept it and move on. And hope the world is kind…I hope that kids will come away with the idea that they are noticed: their actions are noted. Maybe not immediately or directly or even in a way that seems obvious, but if they’re mean, someone suffers. If they’re kind, someone benefits. And the choice is theirs: whether to be noticed for being kind or for being mean. They get to choose who they want to be in this world. And it’s not their friends and not their parents who make those choices: it’s them.I also hope parents are gently reminded of the enormous influence they have over their children at that age, and that it’s okay to interfere in their kids’ lives. Their kids may act like they’re not listening, act like they’re big and know all the answers, but they’re still listening. You’ve still got them. Use the time and remind them about the things that are essential. Remind them to be kind to their old friends. Remind them to be polite, to write those thank you notes, to go out of their way to help their friends, to connect to the kids who are struggling socially or academically. I’ve heard parents say it’s hard to ask their kids to reach out or stand up against bullies because of social repercussions, but that’s all nonsense. It’s never okay to not do the right thing.”
Ever since reading it for the first time in 2017 and then watching the movie, I’ve looked forward to sharing the book and the movie with my kids. I’ve written before about how our family has a weekly movie night and my turn to choose the movie was coming up. But, of course, we had to read the book before we watched the movie! I was thrilled to find the book available as an Audiobook in Spanish on Audible. My kids and I started listening to it several weeks ago and we enjoyed it so much! I told my kids that once we finished the book we’d watch the movie during my movie night.
I honestly didn’t expect for our experiences with the book and movie to center around discussions of choices of translations! There were three that stood out to us:
[Fair Warning: If you haven’t read the book, there could be spoilers in the discussions of these translations!]
Sr. Traseronian (Audiobook) vs. Sr. Tushman (Movie)
The entire storyline of the book is about Auggie going to school for the first time after being homeschooled for most of his life because of all of his medical appointments. His parents have selected a private school for him, and arrange for a visit to the school so Auggie can become familiar with the school and meet the headmaster.
When the headmaster introduces himself in the book, “Mr. Tushman” is translated to “Sr. Traseronian” and that immediately led to chuckles from my kids. They couldn’t get enough of that part of the book.
When we watched the movie, we were a bit disappointed that they left his name Sr. Tushman. First of all, my kids had never heard the terms “Tushie” or “Tush,” so “Tushman” wasn’t funny to them. They did appreciate it once I explained to them what “tush” was and I appreciated the opportunity for them to learn this new word in English.
On a similar note, my kids were bummed that the movie didn’t include la enfermera pedora from the book in the birth scene, which also got lots of laughs from them (we were glad when it was included in dialogue in a later part of the movie). Movies that are based on books have to make many tough decisions, which is why the best way to enjoy these movies is to read the book and watch the movie.
La Peste (Audiobook) vs. La Plaga (Movie)
Plague can be translated as peste or plaga, so it’s understood that the translation could go either way here. The reason it stood out to our family was because of how important this part of the movie is.
The schoolkids decide that anyone who touches Auggie would get the plague. Auggie knows that everyone is trying to avoid touching him. This is discussed throughout the book and movie and is a big part of why Auggie says his favorite holiday is Halloween. During Halloween, he can be a normal kid. During Halloween he can high-fiving other kids down the hall because they don’t realize it’s him. Halloween means freedom for Auggie.
That’s why it’s particularly heartbreaking what happens to Auggie on his first Halloween in school… There are so many moving parts of the storyline that are interwoven expertly. This is what I believe makes the book such a hit.
Wonder (Audiobook) vs. Wonder (Movie)
Near the end of the movie when they are at the school assembly, Auggie turns to his mom and thanks her for making him go to school. She responds, “You really are a wonder, Auggie” which is translated as “eres extraordinario.” This reminded me that translators of the Audiobook could have chosen to translate the title of the book as “Extraordinario. La lección de August” (as they chose to do with the Portuguese translation) but they chose to go with “Wonder. La lección de August.” I appreciate how this connects the translation to the original and also don’t think we give up much with this choice. I like how in the text “wonder” is translated as "extraordinario" so the understanding is conveyed.
Other Random Observations
The movie created other fun opportunities for translations– like when Jack Will and Auggie are playing thumb wars:
Uno, dos, tres, cuatro
Nada detendrá el pulgar
Es sus marcas
And lots of other parts of the movie where dialogue was added. In this way the movie felt fresh and distinct from the book. We appreciated the uniqueness of the Spanish in both mediums because of this.
Lobot was completely left out of the movie and there was no mention of Auggie’s struggle to hear well. We know only so much can fit in a movie, but his struggle with hearing added depth to the challenges he faces. It’s not just the visual and external challenge- Auggie is dealing with so much that is invisible and the Lobot chapter highlights this well, so I was disappointed in this choice.
One of my favorite parts of the movie is when Via is performing on stage and her mom is looking on and then the screen cuts to a memory of Via asking for a baby brother on her fourth birthday. This is just such a magical way to visualize this fact from the book. In this way, the movie really adds to the book experience.
Go read/watch it!
I recommend both the book and movie without reservation. The conversations that will follow from reading the book and from watching the movie will extend far beyond translations, trust me! The author R.J. Palacio is an amazing Latina of Colombian heritage, too! This book (and the movie) just has my whole heart and I’m looking forward to re-reading (and re-watching) it for years to come. It’s a great story for any generation and I’m already looking forward to sharing it with my grandkids.