Babar’s “Wonderful” Trip to America

By Helen Therese Frank (University of Melbourne, Australia)



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About the author(s)

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne, Australia.

PhD (French), The University of Melbourne, 2003
GDip Children's Literature, DipFrench, BEd (Secondary);
Previously Secondary teacher and Academic Librarian

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Babar’s “Wonderful” Trip to America

Translating Cultural Displacement

By Helen Therese Frank (University of Melbourne, Australia)


Translators of literature for children tend to produce texts that are consistent with the receiving culture’s ideology and values. Laurent de Brunhoff’s work, Babar Comes to America (1965), published in two volumes in French as Babar à New York (1966) and Babar en Amérique (1967), is an intriguing narrative as it presents a decidedly negative portrayal of Babar’s experience of the foreign. The present study investigates signs of Babar’s displacement in the French and English editions from the perspective of cultural semiotics. Babar’s activities during his visit offer choice insights into the range of cultural codes and translation strategies that underscore aspects of French and American culture. At a semiotic level, the analysis of clothing, colours and food reinforces the importance in the French edition of upholding Babar’s ‘Frenchness’ in a climate of foreign influence, revealing a playful yet subtle discourse of French anti-Americanism. Themes of the family and the environment further reveal that the translator has played down the ‘Frenchness’ and anti-Americanism of the original text in favour of a more neutral depiction for an American readership. The changes contribute to an overall simplification of the written text without affecting the size and positioning of the visual text.

Keywords: literary translation, traduzione letteraria, children's literature, letteratura per l'infanzia, french children’s literature, babar fictional character, cultural mediators, translation strategies

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In their role as agents of change, translators have a unique opportunity to interpret, improve and create anew for a new audience, with each translation being, by definition, different from the original text (Pym 1997). Translating fiction for a child readership means that translators work from a specific image of the child and concept of childhood to create a new text for readers in a given culture (Oittinen 2000). Translators adopt strategies that domesticate or foreignize the text, a choice that essentially describes the difference between assimilating texts to the linguistic and cultural values of the target culture, and not conforming to the dominant values. Where strategies of domestication lead to the translator’s invisibility, strategies of foreignization render the translator visible in the text (Venuti 1995). Such ‘visibility’ in translated children’s literature is evident in the translator’s ‘voice’ - the discursive presence of the translator as narrator of the translated text (O’Sullivan 2003:197). In the model of narrative communication offered by O’Sullivan, it is suggested that two distinct voices operate in the narrative discourse of the translated text, one belonging to the voice of the narrator of the original text and the other belonging to the voice of the translator. On a paratextual level, the translator’s voice is that of ‘the translator’, while within the narrative the voice is that of ‘the narrator of the translation’ (202). This distinction is of special interest in the discussion of the presence of the different voices in the translation of picture books. Of further interest in the process of translation as rewriting is the relationship between the visual and the verbal, and the whole and its parts, and the impact of this relationship on readability (Oittinen 2003).

The present study focuses on Babar, the beloved Gallic elephant, and his cultural unease when visiting America. Written by Laurent de Brunhoff, the son of Jean de Brunhoff (1899-1937), Babar Comes to America (1965) is essentially a travelogue with significant cultural content. To source this new title about America, de Brunhoff and his wife were invited to the United States in 1963, with expenses paid by the American publisher and several American companies who are acknowledged in the text and illustrations (Hildebrand 1991). This book marked the transition in the early 1960s of the primary publisher of Babar titles from the iconic French publishing house, Hachette, to the American publisher, Random House. Random House had been the long-term publisher of the titles in translation by both Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, but the change of primary publisher from Hachette after almost 30 years meant that these popular works would be issued in English before French. Even though the author continued to write in French, the French public had to wait another year or two for each new title from their popular national author.

There are two important aspects concerning the publication of the English edition before the French. The first is that most critical works refer to the content of the English edition, which of course is not the original text but what is narrated in translation for an American readership. In citing the English text, critics have reinforced a story about Babar in America that does not always resonate with the sentiments and style in the French edition. The second aspect concerns the role of the translator and the ‘universal’ strategy of explicitation in children’s books. Given that de Brunhoff was himself a foreigner in another culture when visiting the United States, it is not surprising that his perceptions of the American way of life reflect the work of someone who is domesticating the text for French readers and explaining unfamiliar concepts and behaviour. At the same time, the translator is negotiating a text about and for her own culture and she therefore dispenses with the majority of explanations in the text that relate to the behaviour and meanings associated with culturally specific customs and acts. Essentially, the narrator is performing the role of a translator, leaving the American translator to perform an editorial role with material that is not ‘foreign’.

This study highlights the translational and ‘editorial’ strategies that account for significant differences in the French and English editions. The strategies may be summarised as simplification of the meaning and splitting sentences to make short sentences; removal of detailed description and everyday realist content; removal of the character’s reflection and commentary, such that the deletion of phrases indicating the character’s train of thought lead to observations and emotions that are purely factual and detached; suppression of ‘Frenchness’, in particular those elements in the original text relating to etiquette, protocol and the family; shift in point of view from the perspective of the child in the original text to the adult in the translation; elimination of direct speech in favour of the narrative voice; omission or replacement of the explicit; and less use of literary devices such as wordplay, alliteration and sequencing of the narrative. These differences are discussed in relation to the major themes and to the overriding issue of the translation of culture. The external features of the English and French editions are strongly implicated in the transmission process and warrant consideration at this point.


Size, Language and Pagination

After the release of Babar Comes to America by Random House in 1965, the book was then issued in French in two parts, Babar à New York (1966) and Babar en Amérique (1967). The British version entitled Babar Goes to America (1969) is identical to the American version except for the title and several words that differ in use in American and British English. What appears a minor change of wording in each title from “comes” to “goes” to “in” reflects rather a difference in cultural perspective, as it is the American people alone who are receiving Babar into their country. The French editions are in large format (23 x 32 cm) and form part of the “Collection Grands Albums Hachette”, otherwise known as “Big Babars”, and run to 31 numbered pages each, excluding title pages. The American and British editions are slightly smaller in size (21 x 31 cm), consist of 63 unnumbered pages, and include four events that do not appear in the published French editions: a single page showing Babar meeting his family in San Francisco, and double page spreads recounting Babar’s visit to Lake Michigan, to the seaside town of Carmel, and to a football game in New Haven. The font in French and English is standard Times Roman typeface, whereas one of the most noticeable differences in the later French editions, such as the Hachette Jeunesse editions, is the choice of a font that resembles French cursive handwriting.

Given the primacy of the illustrative matter in these picture books, it is probable that the exchange of rights included strict guidelines relating to the retention of the size and placement of illustrative material on each page. Apart from the four incidences already noted as ‘absent’ from the French edition, the visual narrative remains the same size and in the same place throughout the French and English editions. However, the layout of the written text on the page differs, as the American edition has less written text than the French. The text block on each page is 20mm in the English edition and 21mm in the French. The spacing between the lines of text is kept at 5mm in both editions, but the font is slightly smaller in French (13 vs.14). The greatest difference is the overall number of lines of text, as the layout of the French edition comprises an additional 32 lines for the events recounted. This combination of smaller font and greater total lines of text confirms that the French text has been significantly shortened. It could be argued that deletions and changes are the primary indicators of instances of cultural difference, thereby serving as a major point of reference in this study.

Cover Art

The American and British editions, and the first part of the French edition, Babar à New York, all feature the same cover illustration of the Statue of Liberty holding Babar up high on one outstretched hand, with Babar wearing his green suit and crown and holding an American flag. The second part of the French edition, Babar en Amérique, is a playful satire on one of the stereotypical images of tourists in general. Babar wears a green suit, vest, bowtie and cowboy hat, his binoculars and camera are slung around his neck, a small travel bag sits at his feet, and a large American flag forms the background. Babar epitomizes the polished and satisfied ‘traveller returned’.

While the Statue of Liberty is recognized as a universal symbol of freedom, democracy and international friendship, so too is the elephant a symbol of the Republic. Historically, the statue was a gift from the French people to the Americans in recognition of the friendship established during the American Revolution. A joint project, America was responsible for financing and making the pedestal and the French were responsible for the statue. Originally intended to commemorate the centenary of American Independence day in 1876, the project ran behind schedule and the dedication ceremony did not take place until 1886. The collaborative enterprise reflects the long history of French-American relations, marked by significant treaties, pacts and agreements intended to develop and sustain friendship and commerce between France and the United States. On a semiotic level, the twofold images of the pedestal supporting the statue and the statue holding a crowned elephant may be read as the shared ideals and solidarity of two ‘chosen’ nations, the New World and the Old, where the prosperous modern nation proudly elevates the institutions, traditions and values of Europe. While the illustration of Babar happily seated on Liberty’s hand holding the American flag in his trunk emphasizes the reliance of the Old World on the support of this ‘superpower’ nation, a less favourable interpretation might be that Babar’s physical displacement is reflective of the perceived ‘threat’ throughout the centuries of the American displacement of France. As cover art, readers would not necessarily associate such deep-seated sentiments in the French-American relationship but would be more inclined to equate the American setting with a tale of harmony and happiness. However, if everything seems so harmonious from the outside, what is the cause of Babar’s disappointment and displacement within the text?

In order to identify the factors that influence Babar’s cultural identity, it is helpful to consider the blurb for the book in English, as the function of the blurb is to sell the book. Interestingly, there are no blurbs for the two French editions or for the American edition. The potential of the blurb to market the book partially explains why readers are not told the truth about the number of ‘low spots’ in Babar’s travels. In travelling through ‘the land of plenty’ with Babar via selected illustrations and text, it becomes clear that Babar has trouble coping with American values that place importance on materialism, technological prowess and modernism. He is essentially a product of traditional ways of behaving and has trouble reconciling the perplexities of modern living with his European values.

Blurb (English)

Babar, King of the Elephants, is invited to Washington by the President of the United States. Then he begins an unofficial trip from coast to coast, with his family joining him on the way. Here are some of the high spots: An automobile factory in Detroit; Cable cars in San Francisco; A Texas ranch; The Grand Canyon; A jazz session in Greenwich Village; Death Valley

The setting of this story is America, which means that from the outset Babar is stripped of the external signifiers of his culture and the milieu is no longer Gallic. Gone are the immediate identifiers of Babar’s ‘Frenchness’ in the form of tangible icons, yet Babar’s responses to American culture are still decidedly ‘French’. The translator has used transformative strategies to smooth down this ‘Frenchness’, such that Babar is not Americanized but his ‘Frenchness’ is reduced. While Hildebrand (1991) is correct in observing that the American publisher and translator have gone along with de Brunhoff’s candid and humorous style, there is no basis on which to support her view that they portray a similar America. There are notable differences in the way the French text subtly reflects historically based French sentiments towards American culture that range from apprehension to admiration.

Encountering the Foreign

Babar’s encounter with the foreign exemplifies the difficulty experienced in adjusting to another culture’s ways of behaving and thinking. In France, Babar performs activities that constitute his everyday routine and have meaning and significance within French culture. Yet the performance of these same activities in another cultural setting highlights the important distinction between difference that leads to mere curiosity and difference that requires understanding in order to adapt. Just as Babar has learned to adapt his animal ways to a human world, and to a French world specifically, his trip to the United States highlights instances where he fails to connect with the specificity of American cultural environment. Babar’s cultural displacement is most evident in instances where his encounter with the foreign reveals differences in social and ideological meanings. Whether the occasion presented is a visit to a museum, gallery, formal dinner, graduation ceremony, or an American football game, each event conveys a set of expectations that is not necessarily met with familiar responses. On occasions Babar manages to adapt more quickly and more successfully, and these moments contribute to a sense of personal satisfaction and general happiness. At other times, however, his mood becomes irritable, dejected and even apathetic, leading to the disappearance of his characteristic bonheur and esprit.

The translator, M. Jean Craig, is faced with translating a work about her own culture for child readers who share her culture. Where French children reading the story are encountering cultural difference at the turn of each page in the form of American cities, attractions, buildings and apparel, American readers instead meet with what is more likely to be familiar. The translator’s task is to produce a work that reflects what is acceptable and desirable to the receiving culture, but this book comes with an added constraint. How does the American translator of a book about America and American culture negotiate the moments of satire, mockery, parody, humour and negativity for a new readership?

In considering this question, it may prove helpful to recall an incident in 2005 when the French President, Jacques Chirac, caused a considerable stir by insulting British cuisine, saying that Britain produced the worst food after Finland and therefore did not merit trust as a nation. Chirac claimed that the statement was made in jest, but the British and French media capitalized on the heated debate as the comment had touched a nerve regarding cultural perceptions and portrayals. The incisive overviews of French-American cultural perceptions provided by Matsumoto (2000) and Stanger (2003, 2004) show that the relationship between France and the United States has a long history of bitterness, distrust and hostility, primarily due to France’s perceived loss of world power. Roger (2002, 2005) strongly contends that there has been a continuous anti-American thread in French political and intellectual life dating from the French Revolution, but particularly during the 20th century. Americans are stereotypically viewed as ‘aggressive’ and a threat to French existence, revealing an ambivalent relationship across the generations with America and a strong sentiment that the French do not resemble the Americans in their culture, traditions or history (Miller 2005). However, Nettelbeck (2007) confirms France’s longstanding distrust of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilisation but emphasizes her minority stance of anti-Americanism. Nettelbeck stresses that despite moments of intense anti-Americanism associated with specific events, such as the war in Iraq, the French have maintained a positive image overall of American people due to shared values of economic and democratic freedom.

In the representation of cultural difference in texts for children, the translator has to make decisions regarding the message, style and cultural sensitivities. As the story of Babar in America is a text that offers an opportunity to translate for both child and adult readers, the strategies adopted are commensurate with the different levels of the text. De Brunhoff cleverly incorporates details that appeal to children while at the same time portraying a slant on American culture that is well understood by adult readers. While all readers delight in this animal with human traits, it is a more sophisticated audience that recognizes the subtleties in the text that touch on cultural sensitivities. One of the means by which the author conveys Babar’s unease in the new cultural environment is through the use of colour and clothing, codes which in combination with events reflect essential aspects of Babar’s ‘Frenchness’.

Clothing and Colour

In children’s books, characters are defined as much by the clothing they wear as by personal characteristics and behaviour. Projecting an image via clothing is a common means of conveying a statement about our perception of, and sensitivity to, a given situation. One of the hallmarks of Babar’s ‘Frenchness’ is his stylish, refined clothing, thus reflecting the essence of bourgeois European ‘good taste’. Over the course of his month-long visit to the United States, Babar’s iconic stout figure is adorned with a number of outfits for formal and informal occasions.  He shows an awareness of social etiquette in his clothing choices, and his selections are for the most part appropriate for each occasion. The staple attire for the King of the Elephants is a bright green suit with matching buttoned waistcoat, a white shirt, black bowtie and black shoes. This formal outfit, modified only slightly on occasions to incorporate a pale blue or brown bowtie and brown shoes, is worn on 21 of 31 days, and at 35 of the 55 events over the 31 days. Babar’s nature-friendly green makes a transition to yellow, pale blue, pale brown and red for informal occasions throughout the text, and to black, deep purple and brown for formal occasions. Table 1 lists Babar’s itinerary in America and notes the clothing he wears for each occasion and his emotional responses to each event. Additional notes are provided where the French edition differs from the American edition, and all negative experiences for Babar are bolded.

[url=]Go to Table 1. Babar’s itinerary, clothing and mood[/url]

Clothing colours as cultural codes indicate that brown and olive green are also nature-friendly colours, and it is no coincidence that Babar’s brown overcoat, olive overcoat and brown Trilby hat are always worn with his green suit, thus a double enfolding of nature on himself. This cultural sign of the link between colour and the natural environment can also be seen in the choice of pale brown bathers for the swimming pool at his friends’ house in North Hollywood, a casual green and red check shirt for playing baseball with children on the lawn in Scarsdale, a blue check shirt and trousers for fishing on Lake Michigan, a blue and green check shirt worn on the ranch in Texas, and olive trousers for his long trek in the Grand Canyon. With the exception of the trek, the nature-friendly colours reflect positive experiences.

Representing his social acclimatization to western codes of behaviour, a black dinner suit and white shirt are worn on three formal occasions: dinner with the American President at the White House; a Beverly Hills reception in Babar’s honour; and an evening consisting of dinner with friends at a Japanese restaurant followed by a visit to a jazz club. Babar wears a red bowtie for the first occasion, but the illustrations for the two remaining occasions obscure his neck region. Interestingly, the first two formal occasions do not carry any expression of emotion from Babar, with the text simply recounting the facts. In contrast, his evening dining with friends in a ‘foreign’ restaurant and later visiting a jazz club is highly successful. Analysed within a historical context, the favourable reaction to Japanese food reflects a post-war familiarity with Asian cuisine in France, just as the jazz club reflects the positive impact of American jazz and bebop on French culture from the 1920s (Nettelbeck 2004). Babar’s openness to other cultures is also evident in his highly enjoyable visit with American Indians, where he enthusiastically joins in their dancing and music. As a cultivated character, these incidences reveal Babar’s willingness to engage with the ‘Other’, whether in the form of people or expressions of their cultural practices and products.

A deep purple suit, white shirt and yellow bowtie are worn for Thanksgiving, where the King of the Elephants is given the honour of carving the turkey. The visual text shows that Babar clearly enjoys the occasion with his family and hosts, Bob and Helen, and also looks smugly comfortable with his legs crossed on the couch for the traditional ‘male’ post-dinner cigar with Bob. The colour red is associated with sport, and Babar wears red trousers for playing baseball with children on the lawn in Scarsdale, and red board shorts for surfing in Carmel. The large sedan that he drives to visit places of interest on the West Coast is also red, a symbol on these occasions of Babar’s status. Even his elbow resting on the frame of the car door as he ‘cruises’ in Los Angeles captures his sense of pride in imitating the behaviour of the locals and mastering the so-called cultural obstacles.


Babar’s primary choices of headwear vary between his gold crown for official occasions, a black or brown Trilby hat for daily activities, and a yellow, pale blue or red cowboy hat for informal and recreational pursuits. These three forms of head covering signify his identity as ruler, bourgeois gentleman, and tourist. The crown symbolizes his status, identity and dignity; the Trilby is a symbol of his chic elegance and class; and the cowboy hat acts as a symbol of his accommodation of American culture. The crown is worn only for the official occasions that occur at the start of Babar’s trip, whereupon it is packed away for the remainder of the journey. The Trilby is donned for several outings in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, it is always worn with a suit, and it appears on more occasions than the crown and cowboy hats. The cowboy hats are worn for outdoor events when Babar visits Death Valley, Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, a Texas ranch, and when stranded in the Arizona desert. The cowboy hats are consistently teamed with casual shirts and trousers, but on his visit to New Orleans Babar wears a yellow cowboy hat with his green suit. This mix of formal and casual attire in a city that exhibits so much ‘Frenchness’ in its architecture, food and language may be interpreted as a poignant metaphor for the blending of European and French cultures: French, American and French-speaking American. Given that it is the last stop on the journey before returning to New York to sail back home, this cultural blend may be interpreted as an equivalent formulaic ‘happily ever after’ ending for children’s books.

There are a further two items of headwear that appear in the text, an Indian headdress and an academic mortarboard. The former is worn by Babar on the occasion of his enjoyable meeting with the Native American Indians, again reinforcing the accommodation of indigenous culture, as does the removal of his shoes to dine at the Japanese restaurant in New York. Sitting cross-legged at a low table in the restaurant - no easy feat for an elephant - Babar’s cultural sensitivity goes further in his use of chopsticks for eating, again reflecting the wider social phenomenon of the influence of Japanese and Asian culture in France in the twentieth century. The final hat worn by Babar is awarded to him in an honorary capacity, and this is the doctoral mortarboard, the “chapeau-galette”. Even after the ceremony he continues to wear the mortarboard in the student office while enjoying a discussion with students. His ease with the occasion reflects yet another national trait of ‘Frenchness’ - politesse - the aristocratic model of behaviour dating from seventeenth century France that pervaded the spirit of the entire nation, thus contributing to ‘Frenchness’ (Yim 2007). The intellectual environment is pleasant and stimulating to someone as learned as the King of the Elephants, and Babar relishes the moment by performing an act consistent with the milieu, that of smoking a pipe. Previously seen in the Thanksgiving incident, the setting-behaviour relationship of smoking in male company is associated with positive experiences for Babar.

The Colour Green

From the perspective of cultural semiotics, the most significant aspect of Babar’s clothing is the specific shade of green allocated. Other shades of green are used for remaining characters but nothing is as bright as Babar’s green. Even on the days when Babar wears one of his casual outfits, the trousers are the same bright green. As a cultural code, green is commonly used to represent nature and health (Lee & Kim 2007). All other shades of green are slightly darker or lighter and lack the uniform solid colouring of Babar’s outfits. The only characters to wear close shades of green are three women in New York, one woman in Chicago, three hotel porters in New York, and a male passenger on the ship departing from New York. The illustrations depicting the three women in New York show one woman eight places ahead of Babar who wears a green hat with a white flower trim; another woman five places ahead of him wears green court shoes, a matching green top inside her light blue suit and a green beret; and the woman immediately in front of Babar carries an unwrapped loaf of bread and wears a dark green coat and matching hat with blue flowers. In Chicago, a young mother accompanied by her son wears a green V-neck jumper. The three male hotel porters loaded down with the family’s luggage wear green jackets with blue trimmings; and a male passenger in a green suit waves goodbye as the boat departs American shores. De Brunhoff has therefore allocated shades of Babar’s signature green to women in the street, to male porters and to a male passenger, thus equating aspects of Babar’s persona with ordinary people and events rather than with the rich and famous.

Colours and the Built and Natural Environments

When analysed further in relation to the natural and built environments it becomes apparent that the use of green is highly selective throughout the text. De Brunhoff rarely uses any shade of green for scenes depicting the built environment. Whether it is the Washington monuments, Park Avenue, hotels, building sites, drugstores, restaurants or car factories, de Brunhoff has reserved the use of shades of green for Babar and for features of the natural environment, such as grass, trees, ivy, foliage and the sea. The illustrations that abound in a multitude of shades of green show Babar in Central Park with squirrels on his trunk, in Scarsdale playing baseball with children, on the lawn outside ivy-covered buildings at Harvard University, admiring the Rocky Mountains from the train, sketching by the sea-green waters at Fisherman’s Wharf, driving through Yosemite Park, and admiring cattle at a Texas ranch. Settings in the natural environment that represent places of disappointment for Babar, such as Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and the Arizona Desert, show minimal use of green amidst a plethora of browns and beige.

Working from the observation therefore that shades of green are used in scenes where Babar is happy, it is no coincidence that images of the built environment that contain a few shades of green are the settings of New York, Scarsdale, Chicago and New Orleans. In New York, the city he had been so keen to visit, a street scene shows green used for a newspaper stand, two cars and a bus; Babar sits in a deep olive armchair in the Hilton Hotel enjoying his breakfast; the window of the antique shop is framed in a solid dark green; in Scarsdale, his friends’ boys watch television lying on a bright green mat; in Chicago, one of the cars is dark green; and in the old French Quarter of New Orleans, the latticework and shutters of buildings are a vast array of greenish gold. For the most part, however, the frequency of pale if not bland shades of colour increases with depictions of the built environment. The Washington monuments are depicted in simple black, white and grey; Park Avenue and the skyscrapers of New York city appear in weak hues of pale green and brown; the telegraph poles and oil-well pumps on the drive to Disneyland are coloured black, brown and grey-blue; Los Angeles and Chicago are a mixture of muted tones of lemon, pink-beige, and grey; and San Francisco consists of muted shades of pink-beige, green and light blue. If green equates with happiness for Babar, then this strongly suggests that the built environment is a constant source of disappointment. Another motif that exposes the theme of displacement in this book is food, and the following section treats the translation of references to food and food behaviour within the context of the underlying assumptions about the value of food in French and American culture.


The decisions translators make in negotiating food references for a target audience represents an important means of socializing children into their culture. Food is mentioned or illustrated on ten occasions in the French and American editions, although not necessarily recounting the same occasion.

[url=]Table 2. Food References[/url]

The French edition contains more detail relating to food and food behaviour, which is consistent with the centrality of food in French culture in general (Flandrin & Montanari 1999). Having noted that Babar ate lunch on the plane, the French edition then emphasizes Babar’s level of comfort in the Hilton Hotel as an important factor in setting the right environment for enjoyment of his breakfast. Two descriptors relating to qualitative aspects of Babar’s breakfast (“confortablement”, “délicieux”) do not occur in the simple reporting of facts in English:

French: Babar, assis confortablement devant la fenêtre, prend un petit déjeuner délicieux: du jus d’orange, des toasts, du thé et des céréales.
[Babar, seated comfortably in front of the window, eats a delicious breakfast: orange juice, toast, tea and cereal.]
English: Seated in front of the window, he has his breakfast of orange juice, toast, cereal, and tea.

Behaviours associated with food consumption are intended to maximize the degree of enjoyment and the sense of tradition. The French account of the Thanksgiving meal reinforces French food habits and etiquette by noting cousin Arthur’s bemused reaction to the practice of placing cranberry sauce and applesauce on the same plate. What may seem ‘odd’ combinations of food, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, are simply practices that are unfamiliar in French culture, and highlighting such practices can serve a humorous or didactic function. At Lake Michigan (in English edition only), Babar is thoroughly bemused by the fact that the fishing party seems totally unperturbed by the unsuccessful attempts to catch fish, and his bemusement turns to incredulity when they all begin barbecuing “skewered meat and spare ribs”. A non-food related but similar subtle reflection on the American way of life that is also met with bemusement is the Harvard-Yale football game, where American behaviour is depicted in terms of effort (“Come on, Harvard! Hit them again! Harder!”), entertainment (“The bands march across the field”) and the ‘fun’ of learning (“The Yale and Harvard teams play with Arthur a few minutes, just for fun. “But no matter how heavy I am,” thinks the young elephant, “there’s nothing much I can do when a whole team jumps on me!”). Whether the reader interprets these two events as expressions of anti-Americanism or simply as a satire on American stereotypes (‘meat-eaters’; ‘aggressive’; ‘domineering’; ‘team players’; ‘winners’; ‘showy’), the fact remains that de Brunhoff is highlighting cultural difference.

In Babar’s culinary encounter at a drugstore, the function of the text is didactic and explicit in French, with explanations given for the iconic “hamburger” and “cheeseburger”:

French: Il ne sait que choisir: hamburger ou cheeseburger? Bifteck haché sur un petit pain ou bifteck haché et fromage fondu sur un petit pain?
[He doesn’t know what to order: hamburger or cheeseburger? Minced beef on a small bun or minced beef and melted cheese on a small bun?]
English: He can’t decide which to order - a hamburger or a cheeseburger.

Perched across two bar stools in a drugstore is not conducive to the same degree of enjoyment of food, and it is no coincidence that Babar forgets his European manners and overeats in such an environment. The unfamiliar setting contributes to his uncharacteristic loss of restraint and sees him literally ‘pigging out’ and paying the price for overindulging in American food products. Not only is his manner of eating hardly representative of French manners, but also the foods selected contain little nutritional value and simply represent high-fat, high-sugar choices that are the antithesis of luncheon offerings in French culture. One has only to consult primary school luncheon menus in France to see the emphasis on nutritionally balanced yet varied and interesting meals. The metaphor of ingestion is a metaphor of cultural assimilation, as Babar is keen to absorb everything in the new culture, to consume the foreign, but the foreign does not agree with him. He does not belong in this culture, and the consumption of foods synonymous with American culture backfires totally and makes him sick. The ‘outsider’ is rendered even more alien in attempting to integrate, only to be rejected. In another food-related incident with similar consequences, Babar’s young son, Pom, eats too much lobster in San Francisco and feels hopelessly sick, proving that Babar’s children also have problems in adapting to the new environment.

The incident recounting Babar’s enjoyment of Japanese food in New York sits in direct contrast to the complete absence of detail recounted when dining with the American President. Even brand names for food in American culture receive more attention than the presidential meal, with both editions containing illustrations for “Cornflakes”, “Del Monte pineapple” and “Heinz tomato ketchup” in the supermarket in Scarsdale, thereby acknowledging the American sponsors of the trip. The specific reference in English to the local fare in New Orleans of “fried chicken and pecan pie” is a general reference in French to the quality of the city’s restaurants, “les restaurants sont excellents ici” [the restaurants are excellent here]. Popcorn accompanies television viewing for the young children at the home of Babar’s friends, but noticeably Babar does not eat any, again reinforcing differences in cultural eating habits. Where American culture tends to associate entertainment with snack foods, French culture encourages small servings, minimal snack foods and restraint from eating between meals. The late night picnic at the drive-in cinema reinforces the setting-behaviour paradigm once again, and highlights the link between the type of food consumed and the social occasion.

Tradition and Modernity

The theme of nostalgia emerges from the comparisons of the Old World of Europe and the New World of America, where traditional markers are employed in contrast to the symbols of progress. In the French edition, Babar’s tongue-in-cheek comments on the logic and convenience of drugstores selling medications is intended to underscore differences in traditional and modern ways of behaving. Babar reflects on the possibility of introducing drugstores in his own elephant country. The author’s choice of “faire trois pas” captures the essence of the humour in the concept, as elephants and drugs represent a most unlikely relationship, just as it is difficult for four-legged animals to take only three steps - another sign that Babar is out of step with American culture. Rather than showing restraint or changing one’s behaviour, the availability of antacid represents the ‘quick fix’ modern solution to overindulgence. There is a change in narrative point of view from Babar’s reflection to the narrated voice in the American edition, and a colloquial one at that: “Drugstores are certainly convenient. Too bad that there aren’t any in the country of the elephants.” Interestingly, this incident is immediately followed by Babar’s disappointment at not being able to find the jewellery store recommended to him. The single shop has been knocked down in favour of a 50-storey skyscraper, currently under construction. Just as jewellery represents things of lasting value, so too does Babar represent traditions and ways of behaving that have to make way for the new. In this incident, Babar is a passive observer of change as he looks through the gaps in the fencing of the construction site.

The built environment is one signifier of replacement and progress, bringing with it stress, the impersonal and discontent. In contrast, the natural environment signifies freedom, peacefulness and affinity with nature. However, Babar is not against change per se nor is he antagonistic to modern structures. Several incidences reveal his admiration and approval of the mix of old and new. The first concerns his appreciation of the architecture in Chicago: “il est très impressionné par cette énorme ville, avec son vieux métro au pied des gratte-ciel” [he is very impressed by this huge city, with its old metro station at the foot of skyscrapers]. His awareness of the aesthetic environment is lost in translation, as the English sentences read like a guidebook in naming specific buildings and streets for American readers: “Babar admires Chicago, especially the Merchandise Mart and the Marina Towers. Here he is on State Street”. Gone is the significant comment on the blend of old and new. The second incident concerns the drive through the explicitly named “Yosemite Park” in English, described only as “a marvellous forest” in French. The French text includes a sentence that is absent in English and that shows Babar’s aesthetic awareness again of old and new: “les arbres sont aussi hauts que des gratte-ciel” [the trees are as high as skyscrapers]. The third incident takes place at the Golden Gate Bridge, where Babar thinks “the bridge is as beautiful as a cathedral”. In the French edition, there is no text accompanying the illustration for this episode; instead, the illustration forms the title page of the second volume (Babar en Amérique) and carries the book’s title, the name of the author and the publisher. Babar’s reaction to the scenery on the drive to Disneyland constitutes the fourth incident that feeds off a broader cultural and political discourse of environmentalism. In contrasting traditional and modern forms of technology, the wry humour in the comparison reveals a more subtle comment on the infiltration and ready adoption of modern ways at the expense of the aesthetic environment. The natural environment is contrasted with the built environment through the use of the terms “des forêts de poteaux télégraphiques” / “forests of telegraph poles” and “des armées de pompes à pétrole” / “armies of oil-well pumps”, the latter said to resemble “d’énormes oiseaux en train de picorer” / “enormous birds pecking away”. Two references to nature are therefore intercepted by a reference to technology, thus reinforcing the subtle environmental message.

The local supermarket is an environment that Babar would rarely frequent in his capacity as king and ruler. In what is depicted as an uncomfortable setting for Babar relative to his size, de Brunhoff is possibly also alluding to his gender as a hindrance as he is the only male in the illustration amidst several women and children. His clumsiness in knocking over a bottle of cider is yet another reflection of his disorientation and unease in an unfamiliar setting in the built environment. The choice of cider is poignant, as he knocks over and breaks a product that spills, smells and requires staff assistance. Babar’s clumsiness in the supermarket is counterbalanced by his proficiency in negotiating the maze of highways in Los Angeles in his open-top car. He makes the most of the situation by commending himself on his level of skill and shows considerable Gallic pride in gloating that he has proved the local Americans wrong who said he would lose his way in these modern jungles. With his elbow casually resting on the car door as he cruises through Los Angeles, Babar has the upper hand for once on his disorientation in America.

Explicitation and Emotional Content

There is evidence that the French edition is more explicit than the American, a finding consistent with the fact that the narrator reflects on a culture that is not his own and therefore explains and enlarges the text. Providing more detail about the flight to America is one example of added explicitation in French, as is the explicit “dust” (“une poussière”) in French for the non-specific “something” in English that gets in Babar’s eye in Park Avenue. Explicitation takes another stylistic form in French in the prominence given to the emotional content associated with an act. Whether answering questions from the press, observing the landscape or eating, the French edition consistently recounts the way Babar feels and responds to an activity. Specific instances illustrate this tendency. On arrival at Dulles International Airport, the members of the Press ask him two questions regarding his clothes and his crown that are not included in the American edition. In answer to why he wears a green suit, Babar says that it is his favourite colour. In response to whether his crown is made of gold, he answers that of course it is. These questions reflect an interest in Babar’s appearance rather than his culture, country or status. It is considered impolite and rather impertinent to comment on, let alone to question, the appearance and accoutrements of a visitor, especially a king. (A parallel can be drawn here with the response from the press to the new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose penchant for ‘flashy’ accessories has earned him the nickname “Président bling-bling”). In this sense the text is a comment on differences in norms of politeness. At the same time, the questions reflect a child’s point of view, that is, the inquisitive and personal questions that children innocently ask. The episode can therefore be seen as evidence of the author’s focus on child readers.

French: Entouré par les journalistes et photographes, Babar dit quelques mots en anglais avec un accent terrible: Je suis très heureux de venir dans votre grand pays, le pays de Washington, de Mark Twain, le pays des cow-boys et des cosmonautes.
[Greeted by photographers and the press. Babar said a few words in English with a terrible accent. “I am very happy to come to your great country, the country of Washington, of Mark Twain, the country of cowboys and cosmonauts.”]
English: Surrounded by reporters and photographers, Babar says a few words in English, but with a strong French accent. “I am very happy to come to your great country, the country of Washington, of Mark Twain, of Danny Kaye…”

Both versions gently satirize the French image of Americans, and the stereotype of non-native speakers of English. The translator tones down the comment about language proficiency and gives a more politically correct description. In the French edition, Babar alludes to cowboys and cosmonauts, thus drawing on the symbol of American individualism and frontier culture in “cowboys” and on technological progress and space exploration in “cosmonauts”.  In the English edition, the translator indulges in maximizing the satirical moment in referring instead to Danny Kaye, the exuberant entertainer who had his own popular weekly television show from 1963-67. A gourmet chef who lavishly entertained royalty, celebrities and actors, including French personalities, Kaye was also the proud owner of the French luxury car of the Fifties and Sixties, the Facel Vega.

A further example of explicitation is the drive-in cinema in North Hollywood, where the French edition gives a thorough explanation of the phenomenon:

French: Quelquefois, le soir, ils vont tous ensemble dans un cinéma en plein air. On ne descend pas de voiture: il faut se ranger bien en file et fermer les portières. Un haut-parleur est accroché sur la vitre pour les paroles et la musique. Les enfants adorent ces soirées, surtout à cause du pique-nique dans la nuit noire.
[Sometimes, in the evening, they all go to an outdoor cinema. You don’t get out of the car: you have to line up the car and close the doors. A loudspeaker is attached to the windowpane for the words and music. The children love these evenings, especially as they have a late-night picnic.]
English: One evening they all go to see a movie at the drive-in. The children love it, especially since they have a picnic supper in the car.

On a literary level, the rhythm and alliteration in the phrase “pique-nique dans la nuit noire” is not rendered in translation, nor is a further alliterative phrase pertaining to squirrels in Central Park, “les écureuils sautent sur sa trompe” [squirrels jump on his trunk]. On another occasion, after having told French readers that the hotel is so large that its six lifts are hardly enough, bus etiquette is then explained in considerable detail in the French edition:

French: Dans l’autobus il n’y a ni receveur ni billets. Il faut mettre une pièce de 15 cents dans la tirelire à coté du chauffeur. Et le chauffeur n’est pas toujours aimable parce qu’il a trop de choses à faire à la fois: tout en conduisant, c’est lui qui rend la monnaie.
[In the bus there is no conductor or tickets. You have to put a 15-cent coin into the fare box next to the driver. And the driver isn’t always nice because he has too many things to do at once; he has to give back the change whilst driving.]
English: The driver scolds him for putting a quarter into the fare box instead of fifteen cents.

Again, there is a loss in English of the rhythmic and alliterative constructions such as “il n’y a ni …ni…”, “la tirelire” and “à faire à la fois”. At times the translator has been able to create a similar construction, such as the successive ‘s’ sounds in “swallow several times” for “sa salive” [his saliva], or to add a construction in a different place, such as “fortieth floor” as a ‘match’ for the French “six ascenseurs” [six lifts], but the literary balance sheet shows more losses than gains.

An incident in the English edition that is worthy of particular attention involves added text containing cultural content. In the French edition, Babar talks to his friends in the Japanese restaurant about his visit to an antique shop. In the American edition, this visit includes an added explicit reference to the item purchased that just happens to be a brass rooster. It is not uncommon for translations to fill in missing details in instances where the text leaves some doubt or lacks full information (Frank 2005). However, the English translation not only creates what is missing for the reader, but the translator has chosen a significant cultural artefact as the ‘missing’ object. As one of the national emblems of France, the Gallic Rooster (le Coq Gaulois) decorated French flags during the Revolution and remains the symbol of the French people. The setting of an antique shop represents the past and its traditions, and Babar’s acquisition of the rooster is essentially a sign of him reclaiming the essence of his ‘Frenchness’.  In giving back to Babar what is already his, the translator in this instance is either acutely sensitive to the demise of Babar’s hold on his cultural inheritance, or is simply playing up the association of symbols of the French nation.

Another important difference is the degree and kind of didacticism in the original and translated texts. This is well illustrated in an incident involving cable cars in San Francisco. The illustration shows the male elephants riding on the sides of the cable cars, but there is no sign of Céleste and Flore. The French text focuses purely on the enjoyment to be gained as a family from the experience of riding the trams (“très amusants pour une famille d’éléphants” [great fun for a family of elephants]), and on the description of the city (“C’est une belle ville tout en pente” [It’s a lovely sloping city]). In contrast, given the absence of females in general on the cable cars and of the female members of Babar’s family specifically, the translator has given in to a didactic impulse and has judged this moment worthy of an additional phrase to highlight an important gender issue, in that “women are not permitted to ride on the outside of the cable car”. The tendency in the French edition to focus on the family is the subject of the next section.

Explicitation and the Family

The centrality of the family undermines another key aspect of the ‘Frenchness’ of the original text, as Babar and Céleste are presented as ideal parents and a model of family affection, loyalty, strength and leadership (Lurie 2004). The French edition consistently accounts for a higher total number of references to named characters in the story (70 vs. 64). Where the French text emphasizes the activities, behaviour and speech of Babar’s children, the English text tends to omit them. Several examples serve to illustrate this translational phenomenon. In both editions the family members discuss the possibility of joining Babar in America, and they decide to meet up with him in California. But it is only the French edition that comments on Babar’s good mood once the decision is made (“de très bonne humeur” [in a very good mood]). In the train crossing the Rocky Mountains, the French edition states that Babar is already thinking of his family, as he has lots to tell them and is already excited at the thought. Again there is no mention of the family in the English edition. When the boys come up with the “naughty” idea to roller blade down the steep slope of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, the French edition states that Babar, Céleste and Flore are looking for the boys and then catch sight of them rolling down the hill. The inclusion of Flore confirms her rightful place in the family as a whole, and the engaging illustration shows the young and less adventurous female looking coyly innocent tucked in safely between Babar and Céleste. At Disneyland, in an incident which captures the typical desire of children to do one more thing when a parent suggests that they must surely have had enough, only the French text contains a phrase giving gentle parental advice, “Une autre fois, Alexandre, une autre fois” [another time, Alexander, another time], thus maintaining the emphasis on a caring and cohesive unit.

Deletions in translation also occur in respect of Babar’s feelings about his family that underscore the importance of the family paradigm. In the French text, Pom’s overindulgence in lobster is met with concern for his discomfort rather than admonishment. As forgiving and loving parents, Babar carries Pom on his shoulder back to the hotel, a doctor is called, and it is only the French edition that includes a sentence saying that Céleste maintains a bedside vigil, much to Pom’s delight. At the Hollywood party in honour of Babar, the French text focuses on the children’s desire to dive into the swimming pool, and on Flore’s acceptance of every fruit juice offered to her. Neither incident is recounted in the English translation, nor are the children mentioned.

French: Babar et Céleste étaient attendus par le célèbre acteur Steve Mac Gregor qui donne une fête pour eux dans sa villa de Hollywood. Pom et Alexandre meurent d’envie de se plonger dans la piscine, et Flore accepte tous les jus de fruits qu’on lui donne.
[Babar and Céleste are expected at a reception given in their honour at the Hollywood mansion owned by the famous actor, Steve Mac Gregor. Pom and Alexandre are dying to dive into the pool, and Flore accepts every fruit juice offered to her.]
English: A famous moving-picture director, Urchin Walls, gives a reception at his house in Beverly Hills in honor of Babar and Celeste. Some of the movie stars are there.

De Brunhoff’s illustration is delightfully child-centered, showing Babar’s two young sons dipping their feet and hands into the swimming pool even though fully dressed. In addition, Flore’s white dress has been painted with a creeping tinge of orange around the edges, giving the effect that she is beginning to turn orange with each juice consumed - even her shoes are already totally orange. The fusion of written and illustrative perspective creates a particular brand of humour that characterizes de Brunhoff’s style. Consistent with de Brunhoff’s representation of gender in the rollerblading incident, Flore does not join the boys in their playful antics by the pool but remains the courteous and sociable young lady. The Beverly Hills reception in the English version shows the translator’s focus on literary technique rather than the theme of the family, as the intent to create a similar pun with names is successful in the substitution of names. The famous jazz musician known as “Mister High Priest”, Thelonious Monk, is referred to as “le grand Théodorus” [the great Théodorus] in French and “Theodorus Priest” in English; and a play on the name of the Hollywood actor, Steve McQueen, is “Steve Mac Gregor” in French and a clever reference to “Urchin Walls” in English.

The translator’s manipulation of the emotional content of the original text is found in the account of Babar’s visit to Death Valley, the penultimate negative experience. There is no sense whatsoever in the translation of the degree of discomfort felt by Babar as he stands exposed to the intense heat of the desert sun.

French: Dans le désert de la Vallée de la Mort le soleil est brûlant; Céleste a pris son ombrelle. Arthur veut photographier toute la famille devant une mare d’eau salée: il installe son appareil automatique et court se mettre à côté de Flore pour être sur la photo lui aussi. Pourvu qu’elle soit réussie!
   « Quelle chaleur, dit Babar. Quelle chaleur! Mais quelle chaleur! Je meurs de soif, repartons vite. »
[In the desert of Death Valley, the sun is scorching; Céleste has brought her umbrella. Arthur wants to photograph the whole family in front of a stagnant pond of salty water: he sets up his automatic camera and runs to stand beside Flore so that he is in the photo too. Let’s hope it works! “What heat, says Babar. What heat! Goodness, what heat! I’m dying of thirst, let’s get going quickly.”]
English: This is Death Valley. Since the sun is blazing hot, Celeste has brought along her umbrella. Arthur wants to photograph the whole family beside Bad Water Pool. He sets up his automatic camera and hurries to stand next to Flora, so that he can be in the picture too.

For the reader, there is a certain degree of humour in the realisation that an elephant is uncomfortable and thirsty in the sun, and that a family photo is being taken in such a desolate environment and in such trying circumstances. However, the main issue here is that the translator glosses all references to Babar’s discomfort and distress in order to paint a more acceptable ‘picture’ of the setting and situation. In doing so, the literariness and the complementarity of illustrative and textual material in the French text are lost in translation. De Brunhoff uses the number ‘three’ in different ways throughout the text, such as the threefold visit to see the Golden Gate Bridge, a visit hampered on the first two occasions by the presence of fog. As noted earlier, the covers in French and English feature three main objects, either Babar, the Statue of Liberty and American buildings, or Babar, his suitcase and the American flag. Here in Death Valley, Arthur’s suggestion to set up the tripod to take a family photo shows the threefold motif again of three undulating mountains in the background, the tripod, and the three-way ‘lens’: the reader, the reflected image of the family in the salty lake, and the actual image captured on the page. Babar’s threefold exclamation (“Quelle chaleur!”) concerning the intense heat is another example of the use of a motif in French that contributes to the literariness of the passage and enhances the correlation between text and image.

Babar’s rapport with the animal world is also a stronger theme in the French text than in the translation. On three occasions Babar interacts with animals: squirrels jump on his trunk in Central Park; he shows concern for the donkeys in the Grand Canyon, such that he chooses to walk rather than ride; and he admires the breed of bull on a Texas ranch. Not only do the squirrels take a liking to him, but also two young children are pictured with Babar, a girl sitting beside him and a boy extending his hand towards Babar. The King of the elephants has universal appeal, it seems. At the Texas ranch, the French text has a didactic purpose in highlighting the distinctive features of the breed of bull that has no horns, whereas the English text names the breed of bull (“Black Angus cattle”) but focuses on the tricks the bull can perform to entertain the public. Babar’s concern for the donkeys is related to his weight as an elephant, and he advises his cousin Arthur not to impose their considerable weight on “les pauvres bêtes” [the poor beasts], described simply as “the mules” in English. This episode reinforces Babar’s benevolence and appreciation of ‘all creatures great and small’.


This analysis has highlighted several important and subtle differences in the French and English editions that contribute to the weakening of Babar’s ‘Frenchness’ and to an overall simplification of the text. The first change concerns the removal of detailed description and everyday realist content. Details have an important textual function that contribute to the realism of scenes and help the reader identify with everyday events. The translated prose tends to simply repeat the pictures and dispense with the minutiae of the French text. The second change is the removal of the character’s reflection, commentary and train of thought, such that Babar’s observations and emotions become more factual and detached. While reflective in French, he lacks emotion in many instances in English and the text becomes simply a medley of facts rather than a lived experience. Third, there is a shift in point of view from the child’s perspective in the original to an adult in the translation, and direct speech is often eliminated in favour of the narrative voice. Fourth, the implicit is made concrete; and finally, sentences are fewer and shorter, with a corresponding loss of literariness. Most importantly, the French text conveys unashamedly French bourgeois values and ideals in the character of Babar, thus underscoring the importance of French notions of good manners, civilized living, personal appearance, self-control and order. Perhaps this explains why the French flag is flying as the boat leaves America, and why in all subsequent titles Babar remains predominantly on French shores, yet to make another “wonderful” trip to America.


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About the author(s)

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne, Australia.

PhD (French), The University of Melbourne, 2003
GDip Children's Literature, DipFrench, BEd (Secondary);
Previously Secondary teacher and Academic Librarian

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Helen Therese Frank (2008).
"Babar’s “Wonderful” Trip to America Translating Cultural Displacement"
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