Translating children’s literature at the BCLT Summer School

One hot week in July 2019, a group of translators gathered at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich UK, for the BCLT Summer School‘s first week-long workshop on translating writing for children, led by Daniel Hahn. Five translators from the multilingual #kidlit group told us all about it…


What did you enjoy most about the BCLT summer school? 

Gabriela Sosa: I enjoyed meeting people from different places and cultures; getting to know their unique perspectives on the translation subjects we covered. It’s really interesting to hear what people from different backgrounds think.

Heidi Gilhooly: It is really difficult to say what I enjoyed most as the whole experience was so good. I thought Daniel’s sessions were wonderful, he must have spent hours planning the content as everything ran so smoothly. Not a minute was wasted and I believe that we all felt included, our views respected and our work valued. I also enjoyed the presentation – although I had felt apprehensive about it – and the opportunity to meet authors and hear from agents. And of course networking with colleagues proved very important.

wild thingsMelody Shaw: It has to be the rumpus. We did a multilingual reading of Where the Wild Things Are as part of our final presentation. Including the wild rumpus. It’s on Facebook. Probably for evermore…

Well, OK, lots of other things too. It was fantastic to spend a whole week in the company of a huge group of people with the same interest; translating is often such a solitary occupation – it was great to be able to discuss so many ideas together.

Being given a book in a language I don’t understand and told to translate it. Translating a book solely from the pictures was a revelation – and a surprisingly enjoyable creative writing exercise.

But no, the top moment still has to be the rumpus.

Tyler Langendorfer: It’s a great way to meet new (or reconnect with old) friends and colleagues from all over the world who share your passion for world literature. I myself didn’t know that many children’s book translators outside of social media, so it was delightful to spend a whole week in a workshop with others who specialise in this area.

The summer school is also a wonderful reminder of the wealth of languages that comprise world literature. Even though half the workshops focused exclusively on one source language (Spanish, Italian, and even Slovenian!) there were many participants who could read at least a couple (beyond English). The representation of languages in the multi-lingual prose and poetry workshops was very strong – Finnish, Arabic, Korean, Icelandic, and others.


What made you want to spend a week on children’s texts rather than literature for adults? 

Gabriela: I enjoy reading literature for adults but I love children and YA more. There is something about those stories aimed at audiences that are still developing and growing up that will always attract me. Maybe it’s because most literature for adults has forgotten that as humans, we are always growing and changing, so there is rarely a sense of wonder about life, as if adults already had all of the answers. Children and YA lit don’t do that. Sure, there are those books that underestimate readers, but most of them don’t. I like writers that tell the story without being pretentious and as if walking side by side with readers, instead of looking down on them.

Heidi: A couple of reasons really: a) I had been on a Children’s Translation Summer School in Finland in 2018 and felt this was a good way to follow on from this. b) The opportunity to work with Danny Hahn whom I had met briefly at a previous event. c) This was the only one I could attend as I translate from Finnish (and I am not into poetry)!

Jane Roffe: To be completely honest, I’m not sure I would instinctively have plumped for the children’s literature group. There were two factors at work. One was Danny’s ace reputation and the other was thinking that the other group available to me (French) looked very serious and I wasn’t really in the mood for that. At that point my love of children’s books was somewhat buried, perhaps due to lack of contact with them. The best part for me was reconnecting with that reality. It was a joyful reunion, and one I’ve been building on ever since.

Melody: Probably because I’m still a big kid at heart, and just love children’s books for the joy of the shared reading experience. (My children will tell you I used to take bedtime
stories very seriously. My special skill was a different voice for every one of the engines in Thomas the Tank Engine). Also because I’ve not yet attempted to translate a children’s book, so I was interested in exploring their particular challenges.

du iz takTyler: Children’s books present their own set of challenges, and many of them boil down to how a child understands a story and how an adult understands it. This is especially the case with picture books, where the pictures are at least as important as the text for a child reader, if not more so. The text needs to complement the pictures in such a way that it enhances their effect, instead of delaying or detracting from it. In the workshop we examined one book – Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis – which, written in an invented insect language, must have posed a unique challenge for its translators. Though I imagine it was liberating to have the artistic license to create one’s own analogous language, they also had an obligation to make it sound convincing to readers of the target language and congruous with the images on the page. As an example, words invented for German readers, due to the aural or visual similarities that they might have to real, existing words in that language, would need to look and sound different from their Serbian counterparts.

There’s also the challenge of rendering a translation that is understandable for children, but at the same time no less imaginative. For example, in the various translations of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that we analysed during the workshop, we noticed that virtually none of them managed to adequately capture the poetic idiosyncrasies of Sendak’s phrasing (e.g. the line “and in and out of weeks” used to described the duration of Max’s sea voyage). Regardless of the inherent difficulties presented by the target language, a good translator will come up with their own suitable equivalent, even if it requires some degree of deviation from the source.


Has the summer school changed the way you think about translation? How? 

Gabriela: We did an exercise with the first Harry Potter book, reading the a translated passage in each of our languages first and then trying to translate it back into English. We realised, that although it was the same story, there were different details, like colours or the way the characters are addressed, subtle differences that change the perception of the story in each language. It made me realise how powerful translation truly is, for even though the story remains the same, for such dedicated readers as the Harry Potter fans, those details can have a huge impact in the way we understand the characters.

Heidi: My thinking has been freed up somewhat, with this I mean that I am more likely to experiment more with language, be less scared of trying different ways of expressing an idea.

Jane: Yes, especially where picture books are concerned. Looking beyond the text to the book as a whole, in all its elements, was an eye-opener.

Melody: Mmm…certainly on the level of collaborative work. I’d wondered how that works out in practice, but it does seem to be a great opportunity to polish each other’s work and produce an even better end product. Jane (another member of our group) had also come across the idea of RevClub – virtual meetings via Skype to workshop a short text, an idea which our group was very positive about.


What are you working on at the moment? 

Gabriela: I’m starting a role in publishing in my hometown (Guatemala City, Guatemala).

Heidi: I’m working on a blog by a psychologist. I am also expecting to be asked to do a sample translation of her non-fiction work. So not a children’s book at the moment, I’m afraid.

Jane: Sample chapters of two books, one adult memoir/polemic and one YA novel, plus (in collaboration with my daughter) a new translation into French of Where The Wild Things Are. All speculative.

Melody: Learning a new language. It’s high time!

Tyler: I’m polishing a sample translation of a YA novel that I would like to pitch. It deals with the re-emergence of Nazism among East German youth during the last decade of the GDR (German Democratic Republic).


Which international children’s books would you love to see published in English translation? And why? 

idhunGabriela: The Idhún Trilogy by Laura Gallego García (YA lit)  and more books by Guatemalan writers. There are some good children books like Los Habitantes del Aire by Vania Vargas and Alas Para Olga by Rubén Nájera.

Heidi: I would certainly like to see some more Finnish children’s books translated into English. I really like the children’s illustrated book Koira nimeltään Kissa (A Dog Called Cat). This autumn a sequel, Koira nimeltään Kissa tapaa kissan (A Dog Called Cat Meets a Cat). This book has just been shortlisted in the children’s literature category for the prestigious Finlandia Prize. I would love to see both books translated into English. [Any editors reading? Contact Helsinki Agency for more info!]

And these are just some examples. My feeling is that books from other countries and language areas will enrich children’s cultural awareness and enable them to integrate better into the world.

Melody: Not sure I can answer what international children’s literature I’d like to see in translation – I need to explore it a bit more first. The group “September is #WorldKidLit Month” on FB definitely helping in that direction, thank you!


Do you feel more prepared now for the voyage of getting your work into print? How? 

Gabriela: Not really, there is a long way to go.

Heidi: What a tough question! I certainly feel more prepared and skilled – but that is not to say that I don’t have some wobbles and anxiety attacks when it comes to sending work off.

Jane: I feel I should do, and that we were given a lot of help towards this during the week. But I also know that lack of confidence is still getting in my way.

Melody: I believe so. Certainly having a publishers’ panel and discussions amongst ourselves helped offer a little more understanding of the publishing industry.


About the translators

profile pic.jpgGabriela Sosa is a literary translator and copyeditor from Guatemala, with a MA in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia, UK. She is currently working as an editor for Saqarik, a publishing project from Librería Sophos (in Guatemala City). She also has a background as a bookseller. Gabriela is interested in projects that help build bridges between cultures. She works with various documents from German and English into Spanish.



Heidi Gilhooly grew up in Finland, the land of the Moomins, and has lived all her adult life in the UK. She is passionate about stories and as an emerging Finnish to English translator she is keen to make Finnish literature available to the English speaking readership. She has a profile on Kääntöpiiri, the Virtual Community for Translators of Finnish Literature.



Jane Roffe is a freelance translator from French to English, who has worked in the translation business since 2002. She also edits academic texts written in English by non-native speakers and destined for publication, and translates subtitles for online videos. She has translated samples from On ne naît pas grosse by Gabrielle Deydier and L’aube sera grandiose by Anne-Laure Bondoux. She can be found at Oxford Comma:




Melody Shaw is a freelance German-English translator with a penchant for offbeat humour. Her prizewinning translation of an excerpt from Christoph Poschenrieder’s novel Mauersegler was published in Comparative Critical Studies, and you can find her blog on literature in translation at




Langendorfer_Photo (1).jpgTyler Langendorfer is a freelance book reviewer and Dutch, German and Spanish to English translator based in Berlin. He was a participant in the American Translators Association’s 2017-2018 mentoring program and received special mention for his entry in the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2016 Children’s Books on Tour NYC Translation Competition. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter @tlangendorfer.




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