Rachel Ward on translating Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost

Tomorrow is publication day for Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost, by Alex Rühle, illustrated by Axel Scheffler and translated by Rachel Ward (Andersen Press). We catch up with Rachel about what it was like to work on, and some of the challenges and fun along the way.

What’s the story behind Zippel … how did it get snapped up by the publisher? Did you pitch it or was it the original publisher/agent? How did you come to translate it?

ZIPPELRW: Klaus Flugge at Andersen published my first translation and at intervals he asks me if I’ve got anything he might be interested in… So I contacted him about something else, to which he replied: “but how about this first?” I don’t know for certain, but I presume it was the Axel Scheffler illustrations that attracted him both to Zippel and to The Train Mouse by Uwe Timm, which will be out some time next year.




Is Zippel a pun? What does it mean?  

Zippel is short for Zippeldesticks, which the little ghost exclaims on a regular basis, and so it’s the name given to him by Paul on the grounds that Karaputzonogypolatusomow (originally Karaputzonogipolatüsomau ) is too long and hard to remember. I’d have preferred to spell it Zipple, but here the publisher wanted it the same as in the German.

Were there any interesting challenges in translating this book? Anything you and your editor had long discussions over?

There were lots of challenges – Zippel sings little rhyming songs all the time, gets his words muddled and is confused by the human world, so there was a lot of wordplay involved. The biggest problem of all, which we never satisfactorily resolved, is that Schloss can mean both lock and castle. Zippel is a “Schlossgespenst” which would normally mean a castle ghost, but here he lives in the lock on Paul’s front door, and castles and keyholes are both relevant to the plot… In the end I had to re-write it to call him a “keyhole ghost” and leave out some of the jokes, replacing them with stuff like “But don’t ghosts usually live in castles?” etc.

There were also questions of how German to leave it in terms of cultural differences around school and home life, where the publisher’s preference was always to make it more familiar for the children, so we have Three Mill Street rather than Dreimühlenstraße but the school still keeps German hours. There was a lot of stuff about how bad the mum’s cooking was that seemed a little uncomfortable, so we added in a line at the end about how dad took over responsibility for cooking. We also had to decide what to do about the use of “Scheiß- / Scheiße” and a few milder bits of (non) swearing.

Did you meet Axel Scheffler?! Was there any collaboration between you and him, or were the illustrations already finished?  Did any illustrations need to be changed because of changes in the English edition?

Sadly, I haven’t had any contact with Axel Scheffler, although I’d love to! The illustrations were already done for the German edition and in fact we changed a few details in the text to match the pictures rather than the other way around.

How did you get into literary translation? 

I studied modern languages at UEA and really enjoyed the final year translation module. I can still remember the moment when, doing some practice translations, I thought “this is what I want to do for a career”. I wanted to stay in Norwich so I applied for the MA in Literary Translation also at UEA, which I finished back in 2003. As I said above, I was lucky enough that Andersen Press published the book I worked on for my dissertation (Traitor by Gudrun Pausewang). I’ve been working as a translator of literary and creative non-literary texts ever since, although I had a bit of time out while my children were small.

Do you prefer translating for adults or for children? Is it different, and if so in what way?

I prefer working on well-written texts – whether they’re for children or adults comes second to that. Often, children’s books are more fun and offer more room for creativity. I was working on some very serious academic texts recently on important, but difficult subjects, so it was lovely to be able to balance them out with Zippel and the Train Mouse.

Which children’s book(s) in German or French would you love to see translated /translate yourself? 

There are lots of children’s books I’d love to translate that I’ve championed over the years from a beautiful French picture book about a train driver, to one about a depressed German lizard, to various anarchic middle grade books. Simone Buchholz, whose (multi-award-winning!) crime fiction I also translate, has written a children’s book that’s a lot of fun, and there are a few on New Books in German that I love too. I also dream of a version of Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives where the Berlin street slang doesn’t sound like it was written by Enid Blyton.

Thank you, Rachel!


Rachel Ward, MA, MITI, lives in Wymondham, near Norwich, UK, and has been working as a freelance literary and creative translator from German and French to English since gaining her MA in Literary Translation from UEA in 2002.

She specialises in children’s and young adult literature as well as crime and other contemporary fiction. Non-fiction interests include history, politics, art, journalism and travel.

She blogs on reading and translation at A Discount Ticket to Everywhere and is on Twitter as @FwdTranslations.


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