Some Days: editor Marilyn Brigham interviews translator Lawrence Schimel

Today is publication day for the picture book SOME DAYS, written and illustrated by 2021 ALMA nominee María Wernicke and translated by World Kid Lit co-founder Lawrence Schimel. To celebrate, we are pleased to be running this guest post by Marilyn Brigham from Amazon Crossing Kids who initially published this interview on an internal Amazon employee site to celebrate #WorldKidLitMonth.

Amazon Crossing Kids is Amazon Publishing’s imprint for children’s books in translation, which aims to increase the diversity of children’s literature in translation and encourage young reading from a range of cultural perspectives. Editor Marilyn Brigham spoke to prolific author and translator Lawrence Schimel about his translation of the picture book SOME DAYS, written and illustrated by María Wernicke, which hails from Argentina. A beautiful and poetic exploration of loss, family, and security, SOME DAYS is a subtle, open-ended story that can have many interpretations. This book could be useful for discussion of such issues as separation, loss of a parent, or saying good-bye before a long break.

Lawrence Schimel with his
English translation of SOME DAYS

Marilyn Brigham: As both an accomplished writer, author, and translator, what does international children’s literature mean to you?

Lawrence Schimel: Aside from being an author and translator (and former children’s bookseller when I lived in New York City) I have always been and remain an avid reader. So my experience of children’s literature is primarily as a reader. I am both voracious and omnivorous, reading across genres and for all ages.

And one of the things I have always marveled at (and been jealous of) as I travel and visit bookshops (obligatory tourist destinations for me) or at the international bookfairs like Bologna or Frankfurt or Guadalajara, is how many wonderful books are being created all over the world, with stories and artwork in different styles and modes, and how those books are often translated into many other languages–but often not into English.

I will often buy books in other languages because the book object is so unique, or I fall in love with the artwork, or it is in a language I can make sense of (even if sometimes laboriously and with a dictionary) even if translated from a language I can’t even read at all. So my library now contains French translations of Arabic titles, or German translations of Finnish stories, or Spanish translations of Korean books, and so on. Which has allowed me to enjoy so many other books.

This is not to say that there aren’t also many wonderful books written in English or Spanish, my primary languages. There are. And in fact, there are many books from across the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking world that I try to be alert for, since distribution is not always the easiest. So I might discover a Spanish-language gem from a small publisher in Chile or one in English published in Singapore or the Philippines.

Each culture has its own traditions, and its own variations of stories, sometimes with many things in common and sometimes with few things in common. But the experience of reading all those different books is always enlightening and enriching and rewarding for me–creatively, emotionally, empathetically. And always enjoyable. I am a true book addict!

MB: Was becoming a translator something that came naturally to you?

LS: I’ve always thought of myself as a writer who came to translation later in life, although doing some bibliographic research in my own archives it turns out that my first book translation was published in 1994, in other words before any of my own books as author or anthologist. So even though I had been publishing fiction, poetry and essays in magazines and anthologies for years before that, I have in fact been translating in parallel for my entire publishing career.

I write in both Spanish and English, and it has been fascinating to me to see how others have translated my work, both into my mothertongue and what I jokingly call my stepmothertongue. If anything, those experiences have helped me to step back and be just the author, to let the translators make their own decisions–even when these are different than the ones I would have made. And at the same time, it’s made me feel more free as a translator to let my own stylistic quirks or moral/ethical decisions shine through in my own translations.

MB: SOME DAYS is one of those books that sneaks up on you – it’s subtle but also extraordinarily powerful with its message. When approaching a translation like this, what are some of the harder language and emotional story arc decisions you have to make?

LS: One of the beauties of this book, I think, is that because María Wernicke is both the author and the illustrator, she is able to narrate the story through both elements–not just the words and the illustrations, but the silences and the white space.

So the trickiest thing in the translation was to preserve that spareness, to not over-explain or over-gloss everything in the translation, but to make sure it recreated that same reading experience, and left enough space for the readers to enter the story.

MB: With so few words in this book, did you find any word or words extremely difficult to translate? Especially when considering the illustrations?

LS: Perhaps the most complicated thing was a grammatical one, which is that in Spanish both “he” and “it” use the same pronoun, but in English we need to use only one. So trying to maintain as much as possible those multiple meanings or nuances was a challenge!

Otherwise, it was just a lot of reading aloud to make sure it flowed well in English but still was as lean and spare (and elegant!) as the original.

MB: Translating picture books is vastly different from adult literature. What is your favorite and most exciting part of getting to explore language through art?

LS: I do love the challenges of it, though–especially because kids are among the most careful and appreciative readers, if you tell them an interesting story, and don’t patronize them.

So one big difference between translating picture books and adult literature is particularly the pictures–so the translation can’t contradict them. Sometimes in a translation, you’ll adapt something, or compensate elsewhere if a joke or alliteration doesn’t work. So if a book says “crazy cat” in English, that would be “gato loco” in Spanish–you lose the alliteration. You could maybe switch it to “loro loco” (“crazy parrot”) to recreate the same playfulness–but that doesn’t work if the artwork shows a cat. So maybe instead you turn it into “gato gordo” (fat cat) to keep both the cat and different word play. For me, the most important thing is to recreate the same reading experience–which sometimes means changing the details in order to pull off in the new language.

Also, curiously, sometimes the artwork itself needs to be translated. For instance, one of my own picture books published in Brazil is illustrated by Thiago Lopes and he’s set it in his neighborhood in Sao Paolo. There is a no parking sign that appears in the backgrounds, which shows a big E with a slash through it for “No Estacionar”. So when the book was published in English, first in Singapore and just recently in the US, the artwork had to be retouched, too, to switch the E to a P.

I also remember a meeting in Bologna a few years ago, where a rights director showed me a forthcoming picture book which showed a garden scene. The vegetables were all labelled with teeny tiny signs the size of the words in English: I pointed out that the art won’t work in Spanish because PEAS is GUISANTES or more than twice as long as the size of the label the artist had drawn in English!

MB: This story is about loss and separation, whether temporary or indefinite, a topic that can be difficult to navigate for young readers. How do you feel that the universal message of this book translates to a wider, international audience?

LS: One of the things I’ve found again and again in children’s books not written in English is a willingness to respect that children live in the world and therefore any subject can be appropriate for children, so long as its written in a way that brings it to their frame of reference.

Often it is not children themselves who find a topic difficult, but the adults in their lives who don’t want to discuss it with them or don’t know how to discuss it with them.

I think that age categories is also something that the non-English speaking world is not as concerned with. The English language children’s book industry is often so focused on reading levels and age labels, in testing and measuring, shoulds and shouldn’ts, instead of enjoyment and sharing of stories.

And one thing that’s true, especially of picture books, is that there is often a shared or double readership, an adult as well as the child, and the best picture books have plenty to offer for both of them, and space for both to enter into the story, through the words and pictures. Such a universal format is therefore the perfect vehicle for such a universal message, like the story in SOME DAYS, with the bond between mother and daughter and their sharing both their vulnerability and their joie de vivre.

Marilyn Brigham is an editor for Two Lions and Amazon Crossing Kids. Her noteworthy titles include the Amazon bestselling What If Everybody? series by Ellen Javernick and Colleen Madden; the Little Monster series by Helen Ketteman and Bonnie Leick; and Along the Tapajós written and illustrated by Fernando Vilela, translated by Daniel Hahn, a USBBY Outstanding International Book and Amazon Best Book of 2019.