Design and the Translation: ‘Olive the Sheep Can’t Sleep’

Translation of a picture book isn’t always just about moving words from one language to another, but also about accommodating the art and design:

By Sarah Richards Taylor

Olive the Sheep Can’t Sleep (Olívia, a ovelha que não queria dormir), written by Clementina Almeida, illustrated by Ana Camila Silva and translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, came to us as an import from Portugal and was one of the more challenging import titles I’ve designed in my time at Charlesbridge. Typically, imports require minimal design work such as updating typefaces, but in this book’s case there were some additional considerations.

The cover of the original Portuguese edition, though beautifully illustrated, was more conceptual than we wanted for the U.S. market. Olive was shown asleep as a cloud-like shape, evoking the idea of counting sheep as a way to get to sleep. For our edition, we decided to show Olive awake on the cover to more clearly express the title.

I spent a good chunk of time in Photoshop mocking up cover ideas using the art from inside the book, new images from pieces of the interior art. At first, I had Olive outside in the daytime, but the editor, Yolanda Scott, made an excellent observation: Wouldn’t it be more obvious that she’s having trouble sleeping if she’s awake at night? That lightbulb moment lead to the creation of the final cover art for our edition.

Inside the book, the changes were much simpler. We changed the endsheets from pink to a sky blue, both to make the clouds appear more natural and to reduce the amount of pink overall. Right or wrong, there’s a concern that too much pink (or purple) on a book in the U.S. market can make them seem too “girly” and deter gatekeepers. We opted to use the daytime version of the cover art as the title page. All subsequent art changes were made only to make space for our text, for even though we cut the text substantially, we increased the type size throughout to emphasize the appeal of the book for the very young.

Once we’d finalized our design in-house we sent a PDF of the jacket and text to the original publisher for their approval (which we do for all imports). For the most part, since changes are typically minor, this step is a formality, and we get approval almost immediately. In the case of a title like Olive the Sheep Can’t Sleep, we provided additional explanation for why we made such significant art and text changes. In this case, the Portuguese publisher understood our reasons for the changes and approved all our work. Occasionally an original publisher may have concerns about changes and we talk it through and adapt as needed.

There’s no set-in-stone way to handle an import because there are so many considerations that go into adapting a title: the tone of the text translation, the target audience, the cover art/title treatment, etc. Imports are fun to work on (at least to me!). I enjoy the design challenge posed by projects like this, where I get to take an existing book and its art and type, and then figure out how to adapt it visually for our market.

Sarah Richards Taylor is a designer at Charlesbridge Publishing, which publishes high-quality books for children with the goal of creating lifelong readers and learners, and has previously worked for Barefoot Books. She has degrees in Illustration and Publishing from the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Emerson College. When she’s not designing books she’s reading, drawing, painting, and playing with her kittens, Simon and Garfunkel.

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