Anyone who has spent any time in the App Store knows that what's on offer there is fundamentally different from what one would find in a bookstore or library, even allowing for the obvious differences in format. One in particular that has struck me is the ease with which works from non–English-speaking countries find their way to the marketplace.
Check out children's and YA editor Vicky Smith's last column on reading with both guilt and pleasure.
Trolling the Internet for information on exactly how an app is approved for inclusion in the App Store yielded a number of online bulletin boards with complaints from developers that Apple was taking two weeks—or even more!—to thumbs-up or thumbs-down would-be apps.
At this point anyone who has ever tried to sell a manuscript to a traditional publisher is probably pounding the wall. Acceptance of a manuscript can take months, and the revision process after that can lead to a years-long wait between submission and a book’s publication. Books coming to the United States from another country go through a complicated process of rights negotiation, and, in the case of foreign-language books, they must be translated as well. The traditional publishing model tends to resist the additional complexity of books from abroad.
So with no apparent input (beyond the option to reject) into the actual content of an app and the clear desire to fill its virtual shelves chockablock, the App Store has filled itself with children's-book apps that originated overseas and fast-tracked their way stateside. This international fluidity combines with the essentially garage-band aspect of much app development to make for some fairly, um, interesting cultural encounters.
That segment of the population that delights in Chinese-menu mistranslations can have a field day among these apps. The relatively low budget many developers are working with clearly affects the quality of their translations. For most of these translated stories, the result is an English text that lacks grace, or in some other way "reads" off. One of the earliest apps we reviewed, The Monkeys Who Tried to Catch the Moon, from mainland China–based Rye Studio, features a stiff text with the occasional translation misstep: “There’s only one moon on the earth, and is up in the sky [sic].” Scott's Submarine suffers from the same malady: “The crab is a crustacea [sic] with 10 legs.” This sort of mistake is legion, and while it isn't too horrendous, it does pull English-language readers out of the experience.
Perhaps the nadir is reached in a "Little Red Riding Hood" variant called Bad Wolf, from a Brazilian developer that makes the story available in Portuguese and Spanish as well as English. A stylish-looking modernization of the traditional tale, it equips Little Red Riding Hood in a red hoodie, earbuds and "snickers" (no, not the candy bar but evidently meant to be "sneakers"). Every page is a howler: "Feeling sorry for the health of the lady, the one who is a Wolf pretends concern. This is one of his evil tricks. He realizes that if he makes it fast, his hunger will be a passed desperation."
A foreign-accented narrator can sink an app, too. Of When the Lights Go Out, from Zentric (which keeps its exact location secret but presents its website in both English and Spanish), our reviewer wrote, "Native English speakers may find the narrator’s heavy accent distracting (she refers to a ‘wild and hang-ry animal,’ talks rapidly and even sounds downright sultry at times)." Russia-based We Are Faces presents The Wolf and the Little Goats, a variant of the brothers Grimm tale, with an "English text [that] is awkward, and several words are mispronounced by the heavily accented narrator."
But beyond opportunities for poking fun, the internationalism of the App Store can result in a story that may make all sorts of sense in its origin culture but just feels weird in the United States. Muchavka and the Giant, for instance, from Russia, presents the concept of opposites by looking at these two friends. Muchavka is a little girl, though, and our reviewer was struck by an offhand scene that just didn't work for her American sensibilities: "some parents may object to the fact that a grown man and a young girl are ‘good friends,’ especially when they picnic in the wilderness alone and both relieve themselves within the same vicinity to demonstrate the difference between boys and girls." What may have been unremarkable to author/illustrator Grivina may seem downright creepy through American eyes.
Is this a reason to lament the influx of international apps? No, not at all—just another version of the old saw, buyer beware. There is a lot to celebrate about the ease with which stories from other nations are making their way here, and I will consider some of those next week.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor for Kirkus.