Rhyme, rhythm and reason: Translating children’s verse

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

It was on a recent walk with my daughter that the idea for this blog came about. She was picking the petals off a daisy, one by one, and I asked her if children still play He loves me, he loves me not (apparently it is still a thing). I started to tell her the French version, and for the first time, really, noticed how different it is and started to wonder why…

He loves me? How much?

Interestingly, when I looked further into this metered chant, recited for centuries by British children to determine whether the object of their affections reciprocates their love, I learned that the game is, in fact, of French origin.

Daisies in a garden

Officially Effeuiller la marguerite – or The Daisy Oracle in English – the French original (Il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, passionnément, à la folie, pas du tout) comprises six lines and demands rather more precise details than its English counterpart. French children are not only interested in whether he loves me (il m’aime) or not (pas du tout), but how deeply his feelings run, on a scale of 1 to 4, so to speak, where 1 is un peu (a little) and 4 à la folie (truly, madly, deeply).

Before realising its French origin, I observed to my daughter how it actually made sense that the French was a version rather than a translation, because translating the two-line English chant into il m’aime, il ne m’aime pas wouldn’t quite “fit”. Even considering variations on this, the French version, rather than a direct translation, appears to be a definite better fit for the rhythmic petal-picking action of the game.

Nursery rhymes are not for the faint-hearted!

Regardless of the language of the original chanting game, or indeed rhyming game, nursery rhyme or rhyming story, when translating children’s verse, the translator is faced with a number of challenges, deliberations and decisions that will dictate the approach they adopt. The challenges posed by the rhyming and metrical patterns of the source verse. Deliberations over maintaining or recreating meaning and cultural references. Decisions of what to prioritise: meaning, rhyme, meter or affect.

Naturally, there is no one fits-all approach, nor one perfect approach. The best approach the translator can take is to pinpoint the essence of the original and render this in a target version that works for the target audience. After all, what is the point of translated rhyme if it does not capture hearts and imaginations?

The evolution from babies to toddlers to reading children

Instruments of development

It is a well-known fact that stories, songs, rhymes and play are instrumental to a child’s development. Like all babies and young children, my daughter loved being read to and sung to and joining in, and the benefits of this were clear both in her language and cognitive development and her communication, motor and social skills.

What she by far enjoyed the most were rhymes with rhythm and/or meter, whether nursery rhymes like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or rhyming storybooks like The Gruffalo. She simply delighted in not just the words and meaning, but also in their singable nature, out of which was born one of her catchphrases: “Again, again, again! One, two, three!”

A whole wide world to explore

There are a wealth of fantastic English-language storybooks, songs and rhymes out there, but why not encourage children to broaden their knowledge and understanding of the wider world by sharing and enjoying stories and songs from other countries and cultures?

Fun, engaging books and songs translated into other languages can prove beneficial linguistically speaking, either when striving for bilingualism or simply to promote general language skills, and culturally speaking, by familiarising children with other customs and ways of life from an early age.

Keeping the rhythm going

One nursery rhyme popular around the world is Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The lyrics are from a 19th Century English poem and the tune is set to an earlier French melody, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.

Both the English and French versions are in couplets, thereby preserving form and rhyme. The meaning differs slightly between the two versions, yet the essence of a lullaby is maintained. In addition to the original form and rhyme, the original meter is also preserved, which means that both versions can be sung seamlessly to the same tune.

Playing with puns

There’s quite possibly nothing a translator loves more than a pun! In the case of the clapping game A Sailor Went to Sea, the play on words is on the homophones sea and see.

As is evident from the above, the French Un Marin alla en mer does not retain the pun, as this is simply not possible in French, in which sea = mer and (to) see = voir. This is compensated for by maintaining a sense of rhyming (lines 1 + 4) and mirroring the number of lines and repetition within lines (form), which along with preservation of the original meter, lends itself well to clapping in the target version, too.

Picture perfect

Known in both song and story form in English, There was an old lady who swallowed a fly is entitled La vielle dame qui avala une mouche in French. The tale follows the old lady swallowing the same insects and animals in the same order in both languages. This works in terms of the translation corresponding to the images in the picture book. In other words, the translator had no choice here, even though in some cases it may have made their life easier to substitute the original creatures to aid rhythm and rhyme!

Another picture-related point French speakers may pick up on is the use of ventre (stomach) over bouche (mouth). Even though bouche rhymes with mouche (fly), and would in this respect be a better translation to retain the rhyme – indeed, I feel ventre jars somewhat – the translator again finds their hands bound by the pictures.

A monster of a task

Children’s verse in translation is a vast and fascinating topic, and this blog a mere drop in the ocean of the kind of stumbling blocks the translator has to circumnavigate:


Think inventive words (like Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo, so named to facilitate rhyming with know, although the “monster” in the original Chinese folk tale is a tiger) and grammatical sacrifices (I don't know Miffy as her original Dutch character (nijntje), but her rhyming stories work in

English, despite, or perhaps because of some rather interesting grammatical re-structuring), to name just a few.

Nothing requires more creativity in the world of translation than poetry. Children’s rhyming verse falls under this genre, and as such requires a certain artistic flair. It is not a field for the faint-hearted! The translator must be bold, confident, resourceful and inventive if they are to successfully navigate the twists and turns of meaning, rhyme, meter and affect to create a target version – and not necessarily a straight-up translation – that will have its little listeners eagerly demanding “Again, again, again! One, two, three!”

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