Cats in Translation
by Panagiotis Xouplides
Quasi liber et picture/
Nobis est et speculum.
The cat appears in History since the early days of mankind. According to studies, the cat as a domestic animal is first recorded in 6.000 B.C., in Egypt and is first documented in historical passages in 1.600 B.C. The enigmatic nature of cats has always fascinated writers, poets and fairytale authors, therefore through these texts the cat approached the realm of symbolism, shaping in this way a unique cultural baggage on a multitude of cultures from Antiquity to the present day.
The fact that plenty of authors choose the cat as their main literary character, is an exceptional intercultural phenomenon. The cat always claims the special relationship with the mysterious, the unexpected and, in most cases, appears to be intimately connected with the soul and fate of people, as well as with the afterworld. The cat figure is depicted in the texts as a representation of the continual oscillation of the human subject between its animal instincts and culture, embodying with this literary trick the stereotypes of modern society. It's no wonder that a multitude of writers have decided to take advantage of the feline's unique ability to combine: charm, freedom, subversion and survival alongside with esotericism, sexuality, and unpredictable playful situations. No other living creature can do such a difficult task, as the cat remains in a unique way the only greatest transformer of human culture, capable of deceiving and devouring any conventional character.
For adults, reading a literary text is an act of enjoyment, entertainment and enrichment of views, while for children, it firstlyshapes their reading ability and secondly their perceptions of the world around them. The unequal relationship between the adult writer or translator and the children reading audience is characterized by a system in which adults indicate what children should read, either as writers, publishers, or mediators of the reading material. Even if adult writers are largely aware of childhood concerns, they can never adopt the child's perspective.
As far as the translation of works of literature for children is concerned, translation choices must take into consideration the expressions of adult presence in the text, while remaining focused in the successful perception of the text by the children reading audience. Typically, children's literature translators range from professionals who occasionally translate a children's book to experienced children's book writers focused on translation. If they are not already writers, they should attempt a return to children's thinking through the aesthetics of the original text, as successful writing for children has both simplicity and density, which is extremely difficult to achieve. In the case of translating Children's Literature texts, in which a cat appears as a literary character, they must "be cats".
In Children's Literature texts, the cat is a literary construct that is linguistically, literally, and socially defined, it can have an intercultural dimension and is potentially shaped by intertextual influences. The literary cat transmits through linguistic function and literary expression concepts, prejudices and stereotypes that outline the animal-society relationship. It is also a narrative motif for achieving literary goals, serving the transmission of social values and the textual familiarization of non-adult readers with the cultural reality of society. Undoubtedly, there is an interaction between the biological reality and the literary character of the cat that shapes the perception of the animal, and, moreover, the literary cat may possess characteristics that transcend the animal's biological existence and properties, that is, the representation constitutes a distorted image of the represented. Particularly in the case of cats, but also of pets in general, the role reserved for them by human society in relation to dominant perceptions and common social practices determines both the perception and biology of these animal species through processes such as breeding, selective reproduction and trade.
Cats in children's books, even in realistic narratives, usually appear with human-like features; they can talk and behave as humans, fall in love, give birth, paint, play and are members of human families: children, parents or elder people. The cat has been a member of the human family and part of our society since the time of Goddess Bast in Ancient Egypt. For centuries it has fascinated us with the witches' ceremonies of the Middle Ages every full moon, the winter nights where their erotic songs trumpet on the tiles and in the courtyards the need for love and birth of a new life. Cats teach humanity's children how to love, play, caress, care, grow, and obey their instincts to remain free and happy. Inside our homes and on our streets, cat communities continue their course, as people try to enclose some of their inexplicable magic on word and picture books.
Thousands of cats written in books of any language, millions of cats in living rooms all over the world have their own human pets, promising nothing but a mysterious look and a caress from a home-grown deity. Each writer will add a text to this pagan myth, trying to detect their souls in the cat's eyes. The eyes of the cat mirror the human soul, fierce and ruthless, but also tender, playful and passionate, life itself, the mother cat and the stray father cat. Despite the human species’ attempt to tame the petit feline we can only succumb to its legend which is alive, walking silently in the streets, every night, through the years. Even if the modern consumer society has made the domestic cat the subject of psychological transmission that meets our emotional needs in inhumane modern big cities, children will be able to learn the value of soul, Nature and culture from a single being, they will be taught survival and freedom from the devil himself in the form of a feline. How, I wonder, can a familiar daemon be translated?
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Panagiotis Xouplides is a Doctor of Comparative Literature at the Department of Italian Language and Literature of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He has published articles and studies in conference proceedings and scientific journals in Greek, English and Spanish. His research interests include comparative children's literature, Spanish and Spanish-American literature, translatology, semiotics, literary studies regarding animals, and ecocritisism.