My Favorite Memories – Interview with translator Elisabeth Lauffer

MY FAVORITE MEMORIES by Sepideh Sarihi and illustrated by Julie Völk was released by Blue Dot Kids Press in August 2020. Claire Storey caught up with translator Elisabeth (Liz) Lauffer to find out more about the book. In 2014, Liz won the Gutekunst Prize for Emerging Translators so we also asked her to share her top tips for emerging translators.

Claire Storey: Your latest translation, MY FAVORITE MEMORIES by Sepideh Sarihi and illustrated by Julie Völk, is out this summer. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Liz Lauffer: This is a beautifully illustrated, quiet book about a young girl whose family is leaving their home for a new country. With just one small suitcase for her “most favorite things,” our protagonist runs through the things she loves most—a chair her grandpa built for her, the pear tree outside her house, her best friend. When she discovers these things won’t fit, she must find a different way to take them along. It’s an honest story about a child’s feelings of sadness and uncertainty at changing life circumstances beyond her control that give way to a sense of curiosity and hope.

CS: In its original German edition, this book won the 2020 Bologna Ragazzi Award. Did this happen before or after you had started work on the book? Do you think awards like this play an important role when it comes to a book being well-received in translation?

LL: We received this thrilling news about six months after I had finished my translation. Literature in translation, whether for children or adults, tends to have a tougher time gaining widespread attention in English-speaking markets. The BolognaRagazzi Award is a major honor—conferred as it is at a trade show, however, I suspect it’s most recognizable to booksellers and librarians, who may then encourage parents and educators to share these titles with their kids.

CS: How did you get involved in the project? Was this a book you had spotted and pitched yourself or were you approached to work on it?

LL: I was approached by my editor, Heidi Hill, with the project. She had received my name through Riky Stock at the Frankfurt Book Fair New York. Riky has long known of my interest in children’s literature, and I was delighted to learn she had recommended me for this project.

CS: Were there any tricky sections to work on? If so, could you give us an example of some of your solutions?

LL: In MY FAVORITE MEMORIES, which depicts a major life change in a young girl’s life, probably the trickiest aspect overall was achieving the appropriate tone. Our protagonist and narrator experiences deep sadness at the prospect of leaving her life behind for a new home, but I didn’t want her voice to sound overly woeful (or adult), while still expressing the honest emotions she experiences.

CS: What was the process once you had finished your draft? Did you have any long discussions with your editor?

LL: One of the nicest aspects of this process for me—before the editorial work proper began—was running the first draft past my mother, who was a children’s librarian for twenty years. Because of her experience and deep familiarity with children’s literature, she was an especially helpful reader—she caught details in word choice and syntax that I’d have missed. For instance, a young child might be more likely to describe a chair her grandpa had “made” for her, than one he’d “built.” Other edits my mother suggested helped tighten up the text—because the narrative voice is fairly conversational, my first draft was a bit untethered, as I imagined a child’s breathless storytelling. What started as “That’s what’s so great about the ocean,” for example, became “That’s the great thing about the ocean,” which is more declarative and effective in moving the story along.

CS: I notice the title has been changed slightly from the German, Meine liebsten Dinge müssen mit [My favorite things have to come] to My Favorite Memories in the English version. How involved were you in deciding the final title?

LL: My editor Heidi and I went back and forth a bit on the title. I tend to keep my working titles rather literal as I become better acquainted with a text over the months of working on it, so this one started as I Have to Bring My Favorite Things, which then became Packing My Favorite Things. Heidi suggested we shift the focus of the title to reflect the book’s theme of memory and wondered if the word “memory” showed up later in the book. I found the title My Favorite Memories compelling, although I clung to the use of the kid-like word “things” (Dinge) elsewhere, and felt the word “memory” didn’t need to be echoed in the text for the title to work. In one of our email exchanges, I wrote: “I suggest we maintain [the use of ‘things’] in the story (if not the title), rather than substituting the word ‘memories,’ because the initial emphasis is on her packing her small suitcase for the move, and at the end, the fact that the ‘things’ she is waiting for by the sea are actually memories is a conclusion I think readers should reach. To me, it seems the power of the image is the girl’s struggle with wanting to take these tangible items (pear tree, school bus, best friend) that are impossible to pack and of course represent intangibles – home, familiarity, friendship.”

CS: What is it you enjoy about translating books for children and young adults?

LL: One of the challenges I most enjoy in translating books for young readers is the economy of language—when the entire book comprises fewer words than a single page of a novel, every word counts. It’s a bit like poetry in that way. As a translator, you always keep your audience in mind, trying to anticipate any cultural or idiomatic differences that may need addressing, and it seems almost more important to do that for young readers. For example, although the original text refers to our narrator heading down to the “sea,” something perhaps more familiar to children who grow up near (or visiting) the Mediterranean, Baltic, Caspian, Black, or North Seas, my editor and I agreed that for a young American readership, the “ocean” is perhaps a better known image and term.

CS: In 2014, you won the Gutekunst Prize for Emerging Translators. How did you first get into literary translation? Did winning this prize change things for you?

LL: My first major translation project was my college thesis—I translated The Trip to Trulala, a collection of humorous stories by Russian émigré author Vladimir Kaminer. My thesis adviser was Krishna Winston, herself a celebrated translator, and it was she who first drew my attention to the Gutekunst a few years later. I was in graduate school at the time, having just returned from four years of living in Germany (where I’d worked as a commercial translator). That year, 2012, was the first of three attempts I made at the award. Winning in 2014 was a turning point, for sure. I was a greenhorn at the time, but through the award met a number of people in the German literary and US publishing world who have become mentors and friends over the years.

CS: Getting started as a literary translator can quite a daunting experience. What are your top tips for anyone in the early stages of this career?   

LL: The first (and in my own experience, at least, most important) piece of advice I would give to anyone getting started is to be patient and persistent—it took me three years to win the Gutekunst and get my start in the industry, and although each failed attempt was disappointing, my love of the craft and desire to do something with it was enough to keep me going. And it’s not like I could sit on my laurels once I’d won this prize, either. I’ve since applied for countless grants, prizes, and residencies, many of which I haven’t received, some of which I have. One of my favorite aspects of this career, isolating as the actual work can be, is the other people who do it—it’s tough for us all to get together now, but it’ll happen again someday, and when it does, I’d encourage new translators to attend events and conferences to meet their colleagues. Translators tend to be a decent bunch.

CS: Have you got anything exciting in the pipeline you can tell us about?

LL: I’ve got another really fun book coming out in October with Blue Dot Kids Press, Jacob’s Fantastic Flight by Philip Waechter. The pandemic has unfortunately delayed the publication of an outstanding YA title I translated last year, Beyond the Blue Border by Dorit Linke, but it’s slated to appear in 2021 with Charlesbridge Publishing. I’m also busy with a few adult fiction and non-fiction projects at the moment.

Elisabeth (Liz) Lauffer is a German-English literary translator based in the US. She received her B.A. in German Studies from Wesleyan University and her Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2014, she won the Gutekunst Prize for Emerging Translators, which marked the beginning of her career in literary translation.

In addition to her book publications, Liz’s translations have appeared in No Man’s Land and the Asymptote blog. She has participated in the Frankfurt International Translators program (2019), the Artists-in-Residence program through KulturKontakt Austria (2019), and the Art OMI: Writers Translation Lab (2018).

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