Conversation with BJ Epstein, translator of Greenaway Medal shortlistee The Bird Within Me

On 18 March, the shortlists were revealed for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals. Only one book in translation had been included in the longlists for either medal, so we were thrilled to see that The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg, translated by BJ Epstein and published by Book Island has made it through to the Kate Greenaway shortlist. The winners will be announced in June. Here, Josephine Murray talks to the translator of the book, BJ Epstein…

Josephine Murray: The Bird Within Me is about the early life of the artist Berta Hansson. Could you tell us a bit more about the book?

BJ Epstein: The Bird Within Me is a gorgeous book about the importance of being true to yourself. Berta’s mother is ill with tuberculosis and her children cannot get too close to her, in case they get ill as well. Berta longs for her mother and tries to use her artwork as a way of connecting with her and maybe even keeping her alive. While Berta’s mother understands Berta and accepts her desire to be an artist, her father does not, and after the mother’s death, he tries to insist that Berta be like her older sisters and become a housewife. Berta has to learn to let the bird within herself fly free.

The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg, translated from Swedish by B.J. Epstein

JM: How did you come to translate the book?

BJE: I think someone recommended me to Greet Pauwelijn, who runs Book Island, a publishing company that focuses on translated children’s literature. She showed me the book and I fell for it immediately. It is beautiful, in terms of its words, its images, and its content. I showed it to my older daughter and she also found it meaningful and since she is a child in the target age range, that made me even surer that I wanted to work on it.

JM: The title of the US edition was The Bird in Me Flies. Do you know why this title was used, rather than the UK one, and were there any other differences between the US and UK versions?

BJE: There are some small differences between the two editions (mum/dad versus mama/papa, for example). I think in most cases it was a matter of considering audience expectations, and in some cases it was simply about editorial preference.

JM: The Bird Within Me, in the original Swedish, won the August Prize for Best Swedish Children’s Book of the Year, and Sara Lundberg has won multiple awards. Do you think awards help bring a book to the attention of a British publisher, and help its UK sales?

BJE: I do think that winning awards helps the original agent or publisher market the book to publishers abroad, and probably makes the book appealing to publishers in the target markets. But a book has to be genuinely worthwhile on its own merits, without external validation, for someone to take a chance on it, and Sara Lundberg’s text definitely is. My publisher Greet understood Sara’s vision and I am so grateful that she wanted to make it available to readers outside Sweden.

JM: How did you collaborate with Sara Lundberg ?

BJE: Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to meet Sara in person yet. We have had email contact and like most authors I’ve worked with over the years, she has been absolutely lovely. I haven’t ever needed to have contact with an illustrator for translation reasons, but I have loved having contact with authors because I often feel like I’m one of the closest readers they’ll ever have and it’s very enjoyable being able to discuss the book with them and getting their input into the translation. I’d be glad to connect with illustrators too.

JM: How does translating a picture book differ from translating a book without pictures, in terms of your translatorial strategies?

BJE: The illustrations are vital and I have to analyse them as much as I analyse words. A good picture book, in my opinion, is one where the words tell one story, the illustrations another, and together they make a third story that is greater than the sum of its parts. So I have to understand the illustrations and see what story they’re telling and consider how that will influence my choice of words. In the case of this book, the imagery of hands was everywhere. The whole book is about things related to hands: physical connection (or the lack thereof, since Berta can’t touch her mother), intimacy, manual labour, artistry, the self. I did my best to get these associations across in my translation.

JM: You also translated a children’s book about artist Hilma af Klint. Do art and artists interest you?

BJE: Mapping the Invisible is about Hilma af Klint’s life. She basically was the first person to create modernist art but because she was a woman, she did not receive any recognition in her lifetime. I’m definitely interested in art, artists, and artistry, but I was asked to translate this book in part because I had translated the story about Berta Hansson, so I had some understanding about a story about a girl who wants to be an artist but who has to deal with a misogynist culture that does not value women’s contributions. Unfortunately, society hasn’t moved on as much as we would think from Berta and Hilma’s time!

JM: Did you see any of Berta Hansson’s letters or drawings, as part of your translation?

BJE: I researched Berta Hansson (and also Hilma af Klint), including studying their biographies and their artwork. I learned a lot about them and felt that it helped me understand their stories better. I also did art activities with my older daughter based on their style.

JM: What were the most challenging and most fun aspects of translating The Bird Within Me?

BJE: At times, the story might seem simple, but there is so much under the surface of each word and phrase, so I had to think carefully about what associations we have with words in both Swedish and English. This is a fun challenge. I love trying to find a solution that feels right for particular expressions.

JM: Did you feel that translating this book was different to a completely fictional book? Did you feel any pressure or responsibility as a translator, because it was based on a real person’s life?

BJE: Definitely! Berta’s story is personal to her and it’s important for that reason to get it right, but The Bird Within Me is also a universal tale that anyone can relate to. We’ve all lost someone we love, we’ve all searched for connections to other people, we’ve all struggled to be true to ourselves, we’ve all faced obstacles, we’ve all dealt with prejudice of one kind or another. So I wanted everyone to have access to this wonderful book and to feel inspired by it.

JM: As a translator from Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are there any aspects of Swedish, Norwegian or Danish culture or language that are particularly tricky to translate into English?

BJE: I would suggest that there’s a directness in Scandinavian culture that we avoid in English. This is both in terms of the actual speaking or writing style but also in regard to content. We are more euphemistic in English and we avoid certain subjects more. We are also more likely to couch topics in excess words (“I wonder if you would consider possibly doing X” versus “Please do X”). So sometimes translators have to consider how to phrase particular subjects in English; examples might include writing about death or sex.

JM: How did you get into translating children’s literature?

BJE: I fell for children’s literature when I first moved to Sweden at the age of 21. I couldn’t attend a Swedish class for some time because of visa reasons, so I ended up teaching myself Swedish by sitting in the library, reading children’s books and trying to understand them with the help of a dictionary and a grammar textbook. That was not a simple task, because I realised how complicated children’s books can be and I developed a real passion for them. Once I learned Swedish well, I became a translator in general – I have translated many texts, such as cookbooks, art books, short stories, poetry, users’ manuals, websites, financial reports, and much more. Then I decided to get a PhD; I did this in the field of translation studies, studying how children’s books get translated. I’ve basically spent my whole career now reading, researching, writing about, teaching, and translating children’s literature. I feel so lucky.

JM: What are the particular challenges and joys of translating children’s literature, as opposed to adult literature?

BJE: I feel that we constantly underestimate children and try to “protect” them from the realities of life, so some people try to avoid certain subjects or styles in children’s literature. I also think many adults don’t realise how important children’s literature is. Personally, I consider it the most important and meaningful area of literature, because it shapes the next generation. So a real challenge is getting people to take it seriously and to understand why a picture book text can’t, for example, just be run through Google Translate. I love children’s literature because I think it’s a space to explore the biggest issues and feelings, so I feel lucky to get to work on it. And for me, another wonderful, joyful aspect of it is being able to read my translations to my children and to get their feedback.

JM: Do you read books in translation to your children? Are they learning foreign languages?

BJE: I absolutely read books in translation to my two daughters and I always make sure I give the name of the author, the illustrator, AND the translator, and I explain what language the text was translated from. I also read to them in Swedish. My older daughter is learning French in school and also studies Hebrew. I wish I’d learned more languages from an earlier age. I think it’s hugely important and opens up so many possibilities in life.

JM: As well as a translator you are an academic, doula, breastfeeding supporter, writer and editor. Do you find that these fields overlap?

BJE: I think all the fields I work in involve issues of power and language, so there are clear links between what might seem like rather disparate areas of my life. My aim as a teacher or when I am supporting someone antenatally, during birth, or postnatally is to help them to define and meet their own goals and to find the power within themselves, so I have to think carefully about how to approach certain subjects, what language to use, or how to best support people, and this is all relevant to my work writing, editing, and translating too. I also try to make connections between my varying interests and my personal and professional lives, so my next monograph is about how breastfeeding is depicted in literature for both children and adults, and I often write about queer topics, which are important to me.

JM: Have you got any translation projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

BJE: I’m working on two more picture books at the moment; one is a very fun, but tricky text with a lot of wordplay, and the other is about a very ill child. Both are challenging in their own way. I think my next translation to be published will be Summer of Diving by Sara Stridsberg, with illustrations by Sara Lundberg (yes, I’m lucky enough to be working with her again). It will be out with Seven Stories Press.

***

B.J. Epstein

B.J. Epstein is a translator, writer, editor, and senior lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia. She has been translating since 2002, and has translated children’s literature, poetry, short stories, cookbooks, novel excerpts, academic articles, books on art, and much more. She is also a trained doula and breastfeeding counsellor.

Originally from Chicago, B.J. has a BA in literature and creative writing, an MFA in fiction, a Ph.D. in translation studies and an MA in higher education practice.

B.J. is the author of many publications, including three books: Are the Kids All Right? Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature; Translating Expressive Language in Children’s Literature; and Ready, Set, Teach, which is a textbook for usage in English as a foreign language courses. She was the editor of and a contributor to Northern Lights: Translation in the Nordic Countries and True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries, and the co-editor of and a contributor to Queer in Translation and International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults.

She lives with her wife and their daughters and cats in Norwich. You can contact her via Twitter @bjepstein

Josephine Murray

***

Josephine Murray (@MsJHMurray) translates French to English and is studying for an MA in Literary Translation at UEA.

She has a BA in English Literature and French, a PGDip and MA in Print Journalism and a PGCE. After working in journalism and PR for ten years she taught French, German and Spanish in Gloucestershire schools. 

She is now a writer and journalist and teaches children’s classes in creative writing and journalism. She is Chair of CIOL Gloucestershire Network.

2 comments

Comments are closed.