Laura Watkinson is a translator and translation-activist who brings books into English, from Dutch, Italian and German. Watkinson, a three-time Batchelder Prize winner, talks here about the challenges of translating books for young people.
Part 2 of this interview will appear on BookRiot as part of #WorldKidLit Month.
What attracted you to translating children’s literature? Are there skills, do you think, that mark a successful children’s-lit translator that are in any way different from the skills of an grownup-lit translator?
Laura Watkinson: Well, I translate books for readers of all ages, although I do particularly enjoy translating children’s literature. I think it’s important to feel a connection with the book, regardless of the age group for which it’s intended. If it’s not the kind of book that I’d want to read for myself, then I’m probably not the best translator for it either. I have a longstanding interest in children’s books – it goes all the way back to childhood and never stopped – and I have a great respect for authors who write books that appeal to younger readers and capture their interest. My bookshelves have a large children’s section in a range of languages, and a lot of my friends and professional contacts are from the world of children’s literature, so that’s always been an interesting and rewarding area for me.
I think there is a perceived barrier there for some literary translators, though, when it comes to children’s books. One translator friend told me that she’d be too scared to translate children’s books because she doesn’t “get” them. That’s probably a wise decision. If you haven’t read a children’s book for, say, thirty years, you’re probably not going to suddenly start enjoying them now, as a reader or as a translator. Another translator, though, told me that he’d translated a picture book for free because it was “easy”. Ouch. Through my work with picture-book writers and with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (I founded the Dutch chapter of the SCBWI in 2008), I know just how difficult it is to write a picture-book story that works well. The task of translating picture books is also one that needs to be approached with care, and no one should ever be working for free.
So, as for skills, I’d say: translate what you like to read. If you don’t normally read children’s books or YA literature, that probably isn’t going to be a good match for your writing style. You need a certain playfulness to translate poems and puns and funny names in children’s books, but then again, playfulness is a useful tool for all literary translators.
What did you particularly enjoy about bringing Tonke Dragt into English?
Honestly, it felt like a massive relief! I was so pleased to be able to help The Letter for the King and its sequel The Secrets of the Wild Wood into English, for Pushkin Press. Translating a third title by Tonke Dragt, The Song of Seven, also for Pushkin, was a delight and a bonus. But those first two books had been such an obvious omission from English translation for so long that it felt as if it would never happen. They’re part of the canon for readers of Dutch children’s literature, and it was about time they were translated into English, after having been written in the 1960s and reaching so many readers in Dutch and other languages. They have such great characters and cracking stories – just the kind of story I love as a translator and a reader. I’ve recently been approached to translate a couple of Italian children’s classics, too, which I’m excited about. We have some catching up to do in the English-speaking world!
If you met someone who currently translated Thai or Arabic or Kiswahili or Korean literature into English—and wanted to switch to translating literature for young people—how would you advise them?
I’m not sure it’s a matter of making a switch as such. It’s perfectly possible to translate literary novels and stories for young people in tandem, as long as you feel that connection to the story. For instance, I recently translated a beautiful novel by Otto de Kat for MacLehose Press, The Longest Night, which is very much a reflective story for adults, written from the point of view of an old woman who is approaching death, as she thinks back on her lost loves and regrets. And now I’m working on a picture book about a bunch of animals who are queuing up to use the loo! So I’d just say again, think about what kind of books you enjoy. If you’re reading a book and it starts to translate itself as you’re reading, that’s probably a sign that it’s a book you’ll enjoy working on.
What is the role of prizes in the ecosystem of translated children’s literature? Is there a need for more? For more attention to them? For any changes to how they work?
Oh, that’s a difficult one. Yes, there’s some publicity around prizes, which can raise the profile of translated children’s literature. But all translated books deserve a warm welcome and a little celebration. The beauty contest aspect, with its winners and losers, does make me feel uncomfortable at times. And to what extent does that publicity help? Do those books reach many new readers as a result?
From a personal point of view, it’s great to have your favourite books recognised, especially as a translator in the English-speaking world, where responses to translations can be a little on the hostile side and expectations sometimes appear to be different than for books originally written in English. Some readers seem to focus on what they think might have been “lost in translation” (that old chestnut…), or you see comments, even in respected publications, along the lines of “Why did the translator use that word?” “I found a spelling mistake! It must be a bad translation.” That’s a kind of sentence-level thinking that’s more suited to language classes at school than to literary criticism, and it’s not something that you’d typically find in a review of literature originally written in English.
What I’d like to see even more of is publicity for translations as a whole and, yes, mention of the translator’s name, coupled with a mature and positive response to literature in translation. I think we’ve seen great improvement in these areas in recent years, partly because of the work of the Translators’ Association, for example, and because of initiatives such as #namethetranslator.
A healthy aim would be to encourage the continued growth of strong networks within literary translation, along with the recognition of translators and decent remuneration and royalties. So much depends on good, long-term connections. Fair pay and positive, trusting relationships help to create an ecosystem in which literary translators can develop sustainable careers and networks, and in which publishers have trusted readers who can help them to find and bring wonderful stories to readers. This ideally results in happy translators, publishers and readers – and even more great books in translation!