Notes on Translating a Children’s Book

Lydia Davis
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter


The 1898 children’s classic known in America as ​Bob, Son of Battle ​and in England as ​Owd Bob: The Grey Dog of Kenmuir​, by Alfred Ollivant, was long declared—and still is considered, by some—one of the great dog stories of all time, if not the greatest. One reviewer, E.V. Lucas, writing in ​The Northern Counties Magazine ​soon after the book was published, felt that this was the first time “full justice” had been done to a dog as a character in fiction. He declared, “Owd Bob​ is more than a dog story; it is a dog epic.” 

Bob, Son of Battle​ is set in the county of Cumbria, in northern England, in the wild Daleland country close to the Scottish border, within a sheepherding community. The plot centers upon the rivalry between two sheepdogs—the noble Owd Bob, last of a long line of champions, gentle and patient; and the pugnacious, ill-tempered, ugly mongrel Red Wull—along with their masters and a boy who is caught in the middle, the son of one man but devoted to the other. Depicted in the most extreme terms throughout is the contrast between the character of the good master, James Moore, with his good dog, Owd Bob, and that of the violent father, M’Adam, with his mongrel, Red Wull, though both dogs and both masters are extraordinarily adept at the exacting skill of herding sheep. 

The most moving and complex aspect of the story, for me as a child and no doubt for many, is the difficult relationship between the boy David and his bereaved, hard-drinking father, M’Adam, and alongside this, perhaps even more compelling, is the close bond between that father, a lonely, embittered little man, and his mongrel, generally regarded by the villagers as a brute and a renegade. For part of the power of the book lies in the complicating strain of good, and even heroism, that runs through the malevolent or monstrous, both within the man and within the dog. 

Other important elements in the story are the unfolding mystery as to which dog is killing sheep during the night; the death of not just one but two loving mothers; the yearly sheepherding trials and the competition for the coveted Shepherds’ Trophy; the strong ties that form between a man and his dog, of which there are many examples in the book; sheepherding culture in general; the vividly evoked, sparsely populated landscape of moors, lakes, and streams; the life of the village, including the tenant-landlord relations of the time; and, more generally, a slice of English society in the late nineteenth century with its rigid class hierarchy. 


I f​irst read ​Bob, Son of Battle when I was ten or twelve years old. I never forgot the story or the experience of reading it. It was deeply moving to me, like certain other books I read in my childhood at about that age, such as ​The Garden behind the Moon, The Yearling, The Hobbit,​ ​Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates​,​ ​the novels of C. S. Lewis, ​The Secret Garden and others by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Five Children and It ​and others by E. Nesbit, two by George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde’s ​The Happy Prince, ​Kate Seredy’s ​The Good Master,​ Johanna Spyri’s ​Heidi, and many more​.

Ollivant’s book was for me, as a child, one of those powerful works of the imagination. It is not perfect; it is not irreproachable. But it does certain things very well—well enough to have had a lasting effect on its readers. 


Even though I never forgot ​Bob, Son of Battle,​ I began to think that not many people knew of it anymore. The story had a strong hold on generations of readers after it first appeared, was published in the hundreds of thousands of copies, was made into a movie no less than four times, and is still in print in several editions, and yet it appeared now to be sinking into oblivion. It was not commonly mentioned in lists of classic children’s books; in fact, I saw its name nowhere. I had been asking my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, including enthusiasts of sheepherding trials, if they had read the book, but they had not even heard of it. I was sure few modern children had ever opened it. I wondered if that was because its language was simply too hard to read nowadays. As a child, I was moved to tears by the book despite this, impelled by the power of the story. I thought perhaps only the rare child would make the effort now, and so I felt my choice was clear: do nothing, and a good book would gradually be forgotten; or “translate” the text into easier English, however much of a betrayal that might be, and give it a new life. 


The language in which the book is narrated is of an earlier time, with more complex constructions and more sophisticated vocabulary; and the speech of the characters is mostly in Scots and northern English dialect. And though this was evidently not an insurmountable obstacle to earlier readers, those of today, particularly children, are less patient, I thought, less tolerant of “difficult” words, and more easily distracted; they might not expect to persist in reading their way through and beyond baffling sentences in pursuit of an exciting story. 

On one website, the book is advertised as appropriate for the third-grade reading level and up. But the book can be hard going even for some adults. Ollivant’s style, though generally clear and vivid, even graceful, includes a few features that make for confusing reading. His vocabulary is very much of his time (reckoned for believed), or is sometimes impenetrably British for an American reader (chaff for tease) or a little sophisticated for today’s child (élan, epithet, antipathy, wraith). It includes the vocabulary of professions or functions that have disappeared from, or were never a part of, our culture. The story may rely on references that few readers nowadays would understand (“For the gray dog had picked up the puppy, like a lancer a tent-peg”). But the most serious obstacle to an easy immersion in this dramatic, emotionally charged story is the prevalence of Cumbrian dialect in most of the dialogue, along with Scots dialect in the speech of David’s father. There is possibly only one character, the local pastor, who speaks in more or less standard English. 

Here is a sampling of comments from some reviewers, both baffled and enthusiastic, on a book-buying site, most assuming the dialect to be exclusively Scottish: 

“It is a hard book to read because of the scottish dialect. (There were some portions of dialog that I could neither say nor understand at all.)” 

“It was the book that changed my whole world as a child when it came to reading. After reading it, I started to read more, and more, it was to me what Harry Potter was for my children’s generation.” 

“I read this when I was a kid. I remember struggling with the Scottish dialect, but still liked the book.” 

“12-year-old me…, who hunted down and read every dog book in existence, rated this one as the best of them all.” 


I did not want the book to disappear, so I conceived an idea that seemed straightforward enough before I attempted it: I would do a kind of translation of it. I would go through it, converting the dialect to standard English and simplifying whatever other difficulties the prose style presented, just enough so that almost everything could be understood more easily. 

I did not realize just how many subtle difficulties the project would pose, once I started it. The questions that arose included: How old a reader should I aim for? How easy should I make the prose? Which vocabulary would be too daunting, and were there true equivalents that were any easier? Would the disturbing material in the book, such as alcoholism or the graphic depictions of dead sheep and dog fights, be acceptable to cautious parents? 


The story of how Alfred Ollivant came to write the book is in itself unusual. He was born in Sussex, England, in 1874, into an upper-middle-class British family, part of whose lineage extended back to a village in Cumberland, as it was known then, the county in which the novel is set. Many of the men in the family were career military officers, and he planned to follow their example. After attending Rugby School, he was groomed at the officers’ training school at Woolwich, where he did well. He graduated as Senior Gunner with a prize in horseback riding, and—like his father, his older brother, two first cousins, and an uncle who had fought in the Indian uprising of 1857—was headed for a career in the British Army. After he received his commission in the Royal Artillery, at the age of nineteen, he spent several weeks at home on leave, gathering what he would need to take with him when he joined his artillery unit. One day, when “out hacking,” as his granddaughter reports, he had a bad fall from his horse; in the words of a friend of his, he “took a toss on a hard road” and severely injured his spine. His injury was complicated by tuberculosis, and his recovery was long and slow; for the first fourteen years, he was an invalid under the care of doctors and live-in nurses. 


Because of his injury, Ollivant had to spend his days lying flat on his back, in what one commentator called a “mattress grave.” There was very little he could do but read. He was one day making his way through Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1887 ​Memories and Portraits, a collection of short pieces recalling events of Stevenson’s youth, when he came upon a true story, “Pastoral,” narrated by an old shepherd. 

When he was a young man, Stevenson used to take long walks over a hill called Allermuir, in the rolling Pentlands, to the southwest of the city of Edinburgh, and there he often encountered this shepherd, whose name was John Todd. Although the old man was generally impatient with city people out walking in the countryside, and looked sourly upon the world in general, he and young Stevenson grew to be friends. Stevenson would walk with Todd and watch him at his work. On one of their walks, the old shepherd told him the story of a fine sheepdog he had known: young, talented, quick to learn. It was not his, but one belonging to another shepherd. 

But this dog, as may happen to even the best of them, had turned into something shepherds dread, and that was a sheep-killer. As Todd told Stevenson, it would go roaming far from its master’s land and flocks, find a sheep from another flock, and kill it. The way Todd discovered the dog was this: As he was resting one day under a bush, near a small pool used for bathing sheep, he saw a young collie come skulking down the hillside, as though secretly. He knew the dog. What was it doing so far from home, and why did it look so guilty? John Todd watched as it came to the water’s edge and then plunged in, washing from its mouth and head the evidence of its crime, the “maculation of sheep’s blood,” as Stevenson describes it. Now Todd had to tell the owner of the dog what he had seen. And that was the end of that young sheepdog—“for alas!” Stevenson says, “he was that foulest of criminals under trust, a sheep-eater.” The guilty dog “was had out to a dykeside and promptly shot,” because once a dog turns into a sheep-killer, it will never change. 

The germ of ​Bob, Son of Battle was evidently planted at that moment. Young Ollivant, no more than twenty or twenty-one at the time, a dog-lover since childhood and well acquainted with the north country of England, was moved and impressed, and he conceived the idea of writing a similar tale himself. Slowly healing, often in pain, lying flat on his back with a writing board fixed across his chest, usually out in the garden—for the doctors had prescribed large doses of fresh air—and now and then losing pages to the wind, he began work on what he had planned as a short story but which grew into a novel. It took him three years to write it—seven drafts in all. As one of Ollivant’s early critics commented, “Literature owes a great deal to enforced idleness, whether the writer be sick or in prison.” 


When he was finished writing the novel, Ollivant sent it to publishers in both the US and England. It appeared in 1898, when he was only twenty-four, and was called ​Bob, Son of Battle​ in the US, while in England its full title was ​Owd BobBeing the Story of Bob, Son of Battle, the Last of the Grey Dogs of Kenmuir.​ The English publisher asked him to rewrite the book and change several parts of it. In the English version, the book starts with M’Adam lying drunk on the kitchen floor with his old dog, Cutty Sark. In the American version, it starts with the farmhands of Kenmuir at work in the barnyard. Red Wull as a puppy comes into M’Adam’s life differently in each version. In the English version, M’Adam finds him out in the hills, crouching in the grass by the side of his dead mother. In the American version, a man passing through town offers him for sale in the local tavern. The most important scenes, though, and the end of the story, are the same in the two versions. 

In England, the book attracted little attention at first, while in America, it was a success almost right away, described by one newspaper, within a few months of publication, as “probably the greatest literary sensation of the year.” A decade or more later, it was acknowledged as a classic in England too. 


The book is solid in its construction and offers variety: chapter openings vary from long, historical views to close-up, dramatic scenes. Suspense is maintained throughout, complex characters are developed in relation to twists of the plot, and they in turn influence, by their natures and actions, the progress of the story. The setting is evoked through detailed descriptions and references to features of the landscape; Ollivant is good at close observation of detail, whether of a person, animal, or landscape, so all are vividly present. 

Stylistically, the writing is graceful and economical much of the time. There is a refreshing mix of long, complex sentences and brisk shorter ones. The dialogue is expressive and dramatic. Ollivant is finely attentive to the sounds of the language, as in this well-balanced sentence, with its parallel structure and alliteration, which appears during a description of one of the sheepherding trials: “Sheep should be humored rather than hurried; coaxed rather than coerced.” 

Occasionally, though not often, there is a touch of sentimentality in this book,​ a​s in later books of Ollivant’s. I did not change this formulation of his: “spring already shyly kissing the land.” But I did take the liberty, farther along, of modifying his description of cottages “cuddled in the bosom of the Dale” to “huddled in the shelter of the Dale”—still a personification, but one degree less sweet.


As for Ollivant’s characters, the book purports to be about the good dog, Owd Bob, of a “sad-eyed, silver-coated” breed, as one commentator describes it, along with his master, James Moore, but the focus, the emotional center of interest of the book, is very much the other master, Adam M’Adam, and his dog, Red Wull, also called the Tailless Tyke. The book is titled after the first, and begins and ends with him, and yet the other takes over much of the space of the pages. It is the good people who are relatively bland and featureless, not quite real, but it is the troubled one who, with his internal struggles, captures our imagination. 

Part of the mastery of Ollivant’s character depiction is the complexity of M’Adam, an embattled Scot, as he sees himself, surrounded by his enemies, the English, and the stark contradictions within his character: his distrust of other men and his tenderness for the wife he has lost; his bond with his dog and his jealousy of his son’s attachment to Moore; his love of the poetry of Robert Burns and his loss of faith in God. He is strong, courageous, a hard worker, expert at handling his sheep; he has some sense of honor and chivalry. There are several moments in the story when it seems possible that with just a little love and patience and help from others, the troubled man might change; a possible turning point comes, and then the opportunity vanishes in a misunderstanding. Fate is against M’Adam—things did not go his way. And the same is true of Red Wull, who is, as the preface to the Reader’s Digest edition of the book puts it, “a splendid worker for all his evil temper,” ​loyal to his master, loving and defending him and craving his affection and attention. It is Red Wull, too, who saves a child from drowning and rescues a woman who’s gone astray in a blizzard. It is not really the fault of that fierce and courageous tiny puppy—“a little tawny beetle of a thing,” as Ollivant describes him early on, with a “natural attitude of grisly defiance”—that he grows up to be what he is. 

On the other hand, Ollivant chose to depict James Moore, his family, and his dog as impossibly good. In fact, we come to know M’Adam and his mind and emotions much better than we do those of James Moore. 


Is the book a little over-heavy on certain types of scenes? M’Adam alone drinking, M’Adam and his son confronting each other, the men as they gather in the tavern? 

But then, I was reading very slowly, as I translated, about six pages an hour, because I was working on the text, struggling to find equivalents for certain vocabulary, stopping to look words up in the dictionary, compiling one glossary of dialect words and another of difficult words, as well as making a list of topics that might require a note, and also stopping to research those topics. I would get pleasurably lost in that research, staring at old pictures of cattle drovers on their way to London or reading old newspaper articles about high-society weddings. So a scene that might have flown by if I had been reading at my usual pace was likely to seem slower and more repetitious because I was paying so much attention to it. 


The aim of a translation, most generally, is to make a work available to another group of readers, and this was also my aim in the case of this unusual translation. I am used to the practice of writing in English something that exists in another language. But it is actually harder, I have found, to convert one kind of English into another kind. 

I did not know exactly what to call what I was doing. I was not translating Ollivant’s Victorian English into contemporary English, since I was touching it as little as possible; I was not Americanizing it, since I wanted to leave it British. There were passages I did not change at all, so would it be right to call this “a new version”? The term adaptation, for the product of what I was doing, bothered me, because what was I adapting it to? No single term seemed quite right. In the end, version seemed close enough, since a version does not necessarily have to be extremely different from the original. 


I did not, in fact, feel I was a traitor, as I labored over the million little decisions any translation involves; I was doing my best to serve the original. I was not betraying the original, but my version was probably paler, or tamer​. ​But translation does involve compromise, a willingness to accept trade-offs and imperfection. As I have worked on translations from other languages, the challenge has almost always been to reproduce every feature of the original as closely as I could, while still writing expressive English. In the project of translating Ollivant’s English, the challenge was to replace the more difficult language with a clear, readable, more contemporary text, without losing the style of Ollivant’s book, the feel of the time in which it was written or the place the story was set. I would be making as few changes as I could, preserving the grace and rhythm of the original. Many sentences or parts of sentences in the narration, though few in the dialogue, would remain intact. I would attempt to preserve the force and character of the speech, and even the word order where possible, and merely convert the dialect into standard English, leaving a word or two of the colloquial speech—easy enough for the reader, for instance, would be ye for “you,” or ay for “yes”—to give a flavor of the original. I might also retain some ungrammatical constructions: “I didn’t know yo’ was theer” became “I didn’t know you was there.” It is not that the reader couldn’t figure out the original sentence, but the original text would be more daunting. 

After some hesitation, I also decided to change the names of some of the characters very slightly to make the reading less cumbersome and to rid the page of some of its many apostrophes: M’Adam would become McAdam and the farmhand Sam’l would become Sammel. If these changes were trivial or entirely unnecessary, as perhaps they were, this is an example of the problem I faced of where to draw the line between necessary and unnecessary changes. ​​Last, I gave the book a new title, one that combined the American and the English. 


Burnett’s ​The Secret Garden​ introduces the broad Yorkshire speech of Dickon and his family and explicitly points to the problem it poses to outsiders, because it is new to the main character, Mary, who has come to England from colonial India. She likes it and teaches herself to speak it. In ​Bob,​ the dialect is simply there, as a natural part of the locality; it is up to the reader to decide what to make of it. 

We might know some words, like summat (something), nowt (nothing), or ken (know), either from ​The Secret Garden o​r, for example, from a folk song, such as the one that begins “Do ye ken John Peel, with his coat so gay?” We can guess at some words; they read, often, like phonetic spellings of familiar words with different pronunciations, or nearly: feyther (father), welly (really), thowt (thought), doon (down), owd (old), ghaist (ghost), oot (out), tak (take), larn (learn), guid (good), git (get), masel (myself). 

But others are quite unlike the standard equivalents: wame for “belly,” maun or mun for “must,” ony gate for “at any rate, anyway,” cobby for “headstrong, obstinate,” wambly for “wobbly,” wag for “to lurch or sway,” gradely for “fine, excellent.” 

There are Scottish and northern English dialect words that I’d seen elsewhere but had forgotten the meaning of, like a willie-waught (a draft of ale). 

(In fact, of course, I had actually encountered all these words before, since I had read the book before, but it was part of an experience I can no longer completely reach in memory.) 


Adam M’Adam is a transplant from across the border in Scotland and uses words not always understood even in the north of England, such as fash for “worry, trouble, bother”; gin, meaning “if”; haud, meaning “hold”; ilka for “every”; forbye for “besides”; aiblins for “maybe”; gey for “very”; and fecht for “fight.” To him, naethin’ ava means “nothing at all.” Speaking to his dog, Red Wull, as he often does in the book, he says about his son David: “I’ve tholed mair fra him, Wullie, than Adam M’Adam ever thocht to thole from ony man.” Meaning: “I’ve endured more from him, Wullie, than Adam M’Adam ever thought he would have to endure from any man.” Another example of M’Adam’s speech: “Aiblins his puir auld doited fool of a dad kens mair than the dear lad thinks.” This I translated into more standard English as “Maybe his poor old fool of a dad knows more than the dear lad thinks.”


Adding to the difficulties is a good deal of specialized and regional vocabulary: from sheep husbandry (drench, husk, hoose, wether, gimmer, tup, hogg); from farm or rural life (lurcher, brace); from features of the landscape of Cumbria (fell, ghyll, tarn, spinney, mere, dell, eminence, covert, beck, knowe, march, and scaur); and from the weather (sea fret—a wet mist or haze coming inland from the sea). There is vocabulary from professions or functions that have disappeared from our culture, for the most part, such as that of the drover—one who drives livestock over long distances to market. Or from industries of the past: at one point James Moore’s face is described as “hard as the nether millstone” in response to a remark of M’Adam’s. Or from heraldry: in one highly dramatic moonlit scene, after a sheep-killing, we see Red Wull emerging from the shadows, “a huge dim outline as of a lion ​couchant​.” 

There are unfamiliar terms related to customs that may for the most part have disappeared, such as the minute-bell, which was a bell tolled to give notice of a death or funeral. As M’Adam watches David go off in the rain, after the death of James Moore’s wife, “there began the slow tolling of the minute-bell in the little Dale church.” I changed this very slightly, substituting an explanation for the unfamiliar term: “There began the slow tolling of the funeral bell, once every minute, in the little Dale church.” 

If I chose not to retain a word, I would often supply the definition instead: in place of scaur I might write “steep, rocky place.” Instead of fell, I might write “stretch of open country”; for ghyll, I might substitute “ravine.” 

The first sentence of the book, in the original, reads: “The sun stared brazenly down on a gray farmhouse lying, long and low in the shadow of the Muir Pike; on the ruins of peel-tower and barmkyn, relics of the time of raids, it looked; on ranges of whitewashed outbuildings; on a goodly array of dark-thatched ricks.” 

I thought the two architectural terms peel-tower and barmkyn might stop a reader from diving into the book. More words and terms I thought too difficult were brazenly, ranges, a goodly array, and ricks, so, after undoing an inversion and making other changes, the first sentence in my version reads: “The sun stared boldly down on a gray farmhouse lying long and low in the shadow of the sharp summit of Muir Pike; it shone on the ruins of a fortified tower and a rampart, left from the time of the Scottish raids; on rows of white-washed outbuildings; on a crowd of dark-thatched haystacks.” 


The book also included a number of familiar words that Ollivant uses in ways now mostly strange to us. Faculty, for instance, once meant “trade” or “occupation”; traffic could also mean “trade” or “business.” Pertness could mean “high-spiritedness” or “impudent boldness.” 

Some sentences might be misunderstood now for this reason, as in the case of crack in the following: “For no man can lose in a crack the friend of a dozen years, and remain unmoved.” Crack, here, means “moment,” as in “the crack of dawn.” I had been using the latter phrase for years, but did I ever stop to think what crack meant? I may have assumed it meant something like “sudden appearance.” After I became alert to this meaning, I spotted it again, used in this way, in a magazine article: “Attendance was not required at every meeting, or even expected, but at the crack of each opening hour I could be found loosening my coat on the threshold of that month’s designated spot…” 


I would also come upon standard English words that are less often encountered, such as titivate (nothing to do with “titillate”) or hobbledehoy. One day I would encounter affray; the next, fleer. And then meed, wang, ruck, swag (used as a verb), or scud. I looked up each word—I had to, so I could “translate” it—and I established an extensive glossary to keep track of the words I was finding, along with their meanings. To help with this, I used several online Scots–English dictionaries, and some Cumbrian word lists. 

Other words were somewhat familiar to me, but not common—unknown, for instance, to my dinner companions one evening, sophisticated and seasoned writers and readers all, when I tried out a couple of them: anent and asseverate. Those borderline words, which we encounter now and then but wouldn’t be able to define, might include debouch (not debauch), worsted, and inanition. On some days I know what contumely means—or, I should say, in certain contexts; on other days, or without a context, I don’t. 

And finally, there are those words that are well understood by adults but that a child today is not likely to understand: infamous, conclave, crux, surly, surmise, vigilance, sardonic, taunt, gibe, immolate, aghast, élan, epithet, antipathy, wraith, smithy, erstwhile, hearken, paean, mortification, dallying, wizened, derelict, musketoon, impugn, and so on. 


Ollivant’s style, though generally clear and vivid, includes one stylistic feature more common to the mid-1890s, and that is the use of inversions. This could make for a momentary awkwardness in the reading of a sentence. I tended to turn the inversions around to make the sentence easier. 

Some were not difficult—“But what cared he?” became “But what did he care?” “Dared hardly contemplate” became “Hardly dared to imagine.” “Sometimes he could restrain himself no longer” became “Sometimes he could no longer restrain himself.” But other instances of inversion could be quite challenging, such as “Then had there been done something worse than sheep-murder.” 


There were sentences that combined two types of difficulties: a complex construction with a couple of unfamiliar words. In one of the climactic scenes, we have the sentence: “Up and down the slope the dark mass tossed, like some hulk the sport of the waves.” 

I try to imagine how a child might read this. She might understand the first part— “up and down the slope the dark mass tossed,” since she knows there is a fight going on; in fact, it is a fight to the death, at the end of the book. What happens, then, when she does not understand hulk—or at least not in the sense Ollivant meant it, as “ship”—or sport, again, not in the sense he meant it, as “plaything,” and then comes to waves, which presumably would bewilder her when combined with the rest of the sentence. Ollivant is comparing the whirling mass of fighting dogs to a boat being tossed by rough waves. I imagine she would simply accept the words into her brain without trying to fit them together in any way. Would she enjoy the words in themselves, and the vague image of waves doing something to this dark mass, or would she skip over the words and go on without responding? How do our brains deal with passages in which some of what we read we don’t understand? 


Here is another example of a sentence that combines more than one difficulty: a somewhat complicated idea expressed in sophisticated vocabulary: “The heat of the Dalesmen’s enthusiasm was only intensified by the fever of their apprehension.” I thought apprehension would be beyond some readers, especially when used within the illness metaphor fever of their apprehension, and then further combined within the overall image of heat intensified by fever. The following, although not much changed, might be easier: “The Dalesmen’s enthusiasm was all the stronger because of their feverish anxiety.” 

During this project, I kept putting myself in the place of a less experienced reader. At a certain point, however, I became confused: As I progressed through the book, I saw more and more difficulties in the vocabulary and sentence structures and found myself changing more and more of the language. Then I had to step back and reevaluate what I was doing. I was heading down an impossible path: by the standards I was establishing, I would have to recast every sentence, every phrase. So I tried to return to a middle path, changing only the most difficult things, allowing some of the less difficult to remain. 


If I wanted the book to be attractive to modern readers, another, much trickier problem was what to do about the stereotyping of women and the occasional glimpse of sentimentality. I wanted both the characters and the author to be sympathetic. After some deliberation, I decided to take the liberty of changing very slightly some of the stereotyping. I would adjust, here and there, the attitude of the author to the main female character in the story, to the women in general, and even to the boy David. 

I should say that in a translation from another language, I would not tamper with the text in this way; I would not adjust the author’s attitude, feeling ethically bound to present the book as closely as possible to the original, as it was received by its native readers. But my rules were a little different here. 

Owd Bob is described early in the book as having “the brains of a man and the way of a woman”—apparently a common formula at the time (it appears twice more). I replaced it more elaborately than usually, since its implication did not make sense to me: that all men are smart and all women are subtle in their manner of coaxing others to do as they wish. This belief is put in the mouth of a character, not advocated by the author; now I’m not sure I would make the change. But I did change it to: “As clever as any person and as gentle as the spring sunshine.”


There was rarely a paragraph that did not seem to need changing. Yet sometimes one sentence would follow another in which everything could be left as Ollivant had written it. I was “translating” by typing the text out verbatim. Uneasy, I had to remind myself what the point of the project was, that it included leaving the text alone whenever I could. 


It was when I encountered difficult words in the narration and began deliberating over them that I came face to face with at least three stubborn and unexpected problems.

Problem #1: How difficult should I allow the text to be? 

How old a reader was I directing the book toward? Was it a child of ten or twelve, and also an adult? If so, just how easy should I make the prose? And which vocabulary would be too daunting? If readers did not know haggard, they would probably not know gaunt. Would they know conspirator, clad, mangled, mutilated, lacerated? If they did not know glower, they might not know scowl. Did I have to rely on the less emphatic frown all the time? Speaking of emphatic, what is a simple word for “emphasis”—stress?

Problem #2: There are no true synonyms. 

It was at this point, while searching for equivalents, that I realized yet again how particular all these words were, and that they had no exact equivalents. Any substitute I chose carried with it a slightly different shade of meaning. Show was close enough to evince, and crowd to throng, and notice to remark, but was rugged the same as craggy, hit the same as smite, again the same as afresh, closely packed the same as serried, unfriendly the same as hostile, scold the same as reprove, polish the same as burnish, coolly the same as dispassionately, shine the same as lustre

Problem #3: I find words I know but can’t define. 

In the course of this debate, I found that my working understanding of familiar English vocabulary wasn’t quite specific enough when it came to translating a word into something simpler. I knew the word bedraggled, functionally, from years of reading and use; I understood it to mean “rather disheveled,” as in rumpled and perhaps torn clothing. But I did not know that it also involved being wet, as though having been dragged through the mud. I knew that a blunderbuss was a gun, but not precisely that it had a short, large-caliber barrel and was flared at the muzzle. I learned, from looking it up, that a hulk was not just a ship, but one that was large, old, heavy, unwieldy.

I had recently learned more about bracken—which, in this novel, is trampled and bloodied during a climactic fight between Red Wull and Owd Bob. I had become familiar with it when comparing earlier English translations of ​Madame Bovary,​ in which Emma Bovary rides through it with her first lover, Rodolphe. I subsequently saw some actual bracken myself on an autumn walk in the woods. Before that, I had guessed from my reading, wrongly, that it was some kind of rough ground cover, a sort of heather, low-growing and a little prickly—not, as it is, a type of coarse fern. In another novel by Ollivant, bracken appears again, thigh-high to the main character. 

How (even if slightly) inaccurate one’s understanding of words is: After decades of reading, writing, and translating, I still did not know, until I looked it up, that a wayfarer was usually on foot; or that a gutter was not restricted in meaning to what runs alongside a road or at the eave of a roof, but could be any furrow or groove. It was a little shocking to think that even those of us who are literary, whose lives are involved nearly every day with reading and writing, may be using and understanding certain words, perhaps many words, somewhat ​approximately​. 


I  discovered how inexact my definitions were, because I looked up many words in various online dictionaries, hoping there might be lists of useful synonyms I could access quickly. Looking up a word this way was much quicker than picking up a printed book and turning the pages, and it was perfectly adequate most of the time. One disadvantage was that I had to learn to ignore the ads inviting me to websites for help with heroin addiction or Huntington’s disease, or for losing belly fat, or an item about the scandal that might bring down the White House, about a Mormon “plan of happiness,” or simply the question “What’s your football fantasy?” 


Because I plunged into this project of “translating” ​Bob, Son of Battle​ without considering it from all angles, several misgivings occurred to me as I went ahead with it, and I had some doubts about what I was doing. I went on, anyway. 

Misgiving #1: The loss of the dialect entails a loss of color and texture. 

With the standardization of the dialect, and the simplification of some of Ollivant’s sentence structures and vocabulary, there would inevitably come—no matter how hard I tried to retain as much of the interest as possible of his style—a diminution of color and texture, particularly in the loss of the vivid regional speech and the nuance of the descriptions, with their naming of local features. As I made these changes, I experienced what I had found once before, when I attempted to put the first chapter of Laurence Sterne’s ​A Sentimental Journey ​into modern English, because part of the interest of Sterne’s prose lies precisely in the words and constructions he chose to use, and they could not be traded out without harming the sense and spirit of the work. 

There was no question that “Tak’ it aff at onst, ye muckle gowk”—what M’Adam yells at David, who has gone off into the rain with his overcoat—was more interesting (if less comprehensible) than my rendering of it: “Take it off at once, ye great fool.” 

Misgiving #2: You don’t have to understand every word of a book, anyway. 

What threatened to undermine the whole project, I realized, was the idea that it is perfectly all right to read a book that is full of mysterious words and sentences, references and quotations; that I did not in fact need to do what I was doing. I could have left it alone, a treasure to be discovered intact. 

Reading without understanding every word is in fact how we readers learn new words. Difficult words are “good” for children, and children don’t mind them—children actually like them. Children may like the dialect, as Mary does in ​The Secret Garden,and as did one adult acquaintance of mine who had read Ollivant’s book when she was a child: she enjoyed learning the dialect or just sounding it out without understanding it. 

One may even be moved by words one doesn’t understand at all. 


In an exciting book, mysterious words are tolerable to a capable young reader, because they don’t generally occur in formidable clusters but are scattered through a narrative that’s otherwise clear enough, and the formidable clusters can be skipped over. Because the story is so powerful, you can read right over these hard words and puzzling expressions and not mind, because you are so eager to know what happens next. That is what I must have done when I first read ​Bob, Son of Battle.​ In fact, this is the way we learn words, whether quite accurately or not—from reading a new word in a context in which we understand what it means, either exactly or approximately. In fact, as one correspondent, after reading about my project, pointed out to me, children as they grow up are constantly surrounded by language they don’t entirely understand, the language of the adult world. 

As I was learning foreign languages through reading alone a few years ago—first Dutch and then Norwegian—I acquired new words sometimes with but usually without a dictionary, from reading them in their contexts. I realized I was more likely to remember them because (1) they were repeated in the story (in a Dutch detective story, for instance, the recurring word ​betuignis,​ “witness”), and (2) they were an integral part of the story that was unfolding, so that after I finished the book I was likely to associate the word with a part of the plot. 

I realized at a certain point, as I worked on ​Bob, Son of Battle,​ that in fact there was a close connection between this project of making Ollivant’s book easier to read​ by translating unfamiliar words, and the project of learning Norwegian solely through reading page after page on which almost all the words were unfamiliar: they were in fact opposite projects.


But do many children today still read patiently through language they don’t understand? Not everyone will keep going when they come to a hard sentence. They may give up, put the book away, and never return to it. So this became my answer to the first two misgivings: the book in my version might have less color and character, and perhaps there were children and adults who would have read the original, or were already reading it, but this version would at the very least bring more readers to a good book and perhaps lead them back to the original ​Owd Bob,​ to enjoy the speech of Cumberland and Scotland and every word of the story as it was first written. 

Misgiving #3: The darkness of the story. 

I have almost always approached any translation I undertake without reading the text beforehand. There are several reasons for this, but a primary one is to keep my own interest stimulated and thus my prose more alive. I do not know what is ahead on the next page. I kept to this principle in working on ​Bob, Son of Battle.​ But the problem with working this way, in this case, was that a great many years had passed since I last read the book, and although I remembered its larger themes and more important characters, I did not remember it in detail. 

And so as I went along, I was surprised by how dark a story it is, how many scenes there are of violence between father and son, or between dog and sheep, or between dog and dog, or that portray the crowd turning against an individual, or an individual blind drunk on the kitchen floor. Is this a children’s book? A book suitable for children? I was struck by another misgiving: here I was, working to bring back into view, mainly for children, a book that would then prove hardly suitable for children. 


Yet many children have read the book without apparent harm. One acquaintance of mine in England, a book reviewer, editor, and commentator, read it with her father when she was seven; it was their favorite book. A retired Oxford professor wrote to me that his unpleasant and unfeeling headmaster used to read it aloud to the boys every Sunday—one of the few bright spots in his otherwise gloomy school week.


But as I review, in my mind, the children’s books that left the deepest impressions on me as a child, many or most of them included or even hinged upon difficult material. I did not particularly gravitate toward these themes, since the books I remember are for the most part classics of children’s literature. Perhaps the material did not usually contain elements as graphic as sheep killing and recurrent physical combat, but certainly there was a heavy presence of such dark topics as bereavement, loneliness, estrangement within families, death, and poverty. Important characters in the books, both children and adults, were emotionally cold or cruel, deceitful, cowardly, jealous, as well as kind, honest, compassionate, courageous. Usually, of course—in contrast to the case of ​Bob, Son of Battle—the resolution of the story was a positive one. In some, the protagonists return safe from hazardous adventures, but in many others, importantly for the emotional effect of the story, adults who have been estranged or hostile warm to the child or another protagonist, or else a child’s own failings of character—cowardliness, recklessness, meanness, selfishness—gradually weaken and disappear under beneficent influences. 


One question might remain unclear about Ollivant’s novel: Did he even intend it for children? I had responded completely to the book when I was a child. It is regarded, by long tradition, as a classic for children. But his family is firm in saying that it was not meant for children. It may have been co-opted for the children’s market because of its subject matter: dogs are central to it, and two children are among the main characters, growing up as neighbors and coming to love each other. Whereas a book may appeal to both children and adults, the marketing people in the publishing world may be the ones who direct the book to one readership or the other. 


Having to read very slowly, as I worked on ​Bob, Son of Battle, gave me the leisure to think about the traditional elements of fiction, especially suspense and the suspension of disbelief, even as I was experiencing them myself. 

As I typed on, I tried to remember how the story ended. I knew one part of the outcome but had forgotten others. It was harder, of course, for me to get caught up in the story as I worked on it, because I was working on it so slowly. But I did get caught up and, as the evenings wore on, I would want to get through just one more page before I stopped, and then one more. As I came closer to the end of the novel, the action became more suspenseful, and I had to force myself not to look ahead. 

I became acutely conscious, at certain moments in the plot, that on the other side of a page, when I turned it, I would find out what happened. Reading became very physical: my actions of turning the page—made of paper, made of wood pulp—and resting my eyes on the indented black type at the top of the next page, would give me the answer to the question in my mind; I was hanging on it. I had forgotten, for the moment, that this story never took place, that it was invented, and by someone very young. 

The question that I was hanging on, when I realized how complete was my suspension of disbelief, was which dog had been killing the sheep at night. The answer had been close at various times in the story, and now I was ​really​ about to be told what it was: the page was so physical, the answer there on the other side. And then I was satisfied: I had the answer—only to be deceived. For the ​real​ answer was a few pages farther on. 

Away from the book the next day, when I had only fourteen pages to go and was awaiting the answers to a few more questions about what was going to happen, I realized that the story still had reality for me; the characters seemed to be there still, about to go on with the action. I could tell myself that none of this had really happened, that these characters did not exist, but I still believed in them. I don’t know if the events of the book seemed all the more real because I had experienced them as a child. 

The continuing power of suspense was strong even when I reached the stage of reading proofs and making small corrections, despite the fact that I now knew the story. The words would not disappear from the page, nor would the action go on without me if I stopped reading, and I needed to stop to make changes in the text, yet I still felt, at a highly dramatic moment, that somehow I might affect the outcome if I did stop. In some part of me I must have believed that the story could turn out differently this time, that it still hung in the balance. 

Tears came to my eyes during one scene, and again when I came back to work the next day. I would say to myself, But this did not really happen, and then feel pained again, as though it had. How powerful is this thing, the suspension of disbelief—how powerful are fiction and its illusions! We read, at the end of the novel, that M’Adam sits cradling in his lap the great head of Red Wull, who is no more. We believe it, even though, really, before Ollivant conceived them, there was no M’Adam and no Red Wull. What are we crying for? But once the words are written, and read, and imagined in our minds, they are real to us.

More Reads

I Can’t Wait to Get Started

Amber Husain

Three Bodies in Texas

Mallika Rao

Songs in the Key of Childhood

Chris Feliciano Arnold