Looking back at BookTrust’s ‘In Other Words’

By Lisa Davis

Several years ago, when I was working at BookTrust, we were approached about developing a programme to not just promote children’s books in translation, but to find a way to get more UK publishers to translate books. And not just literary books or picture books (which the UK already published a limited number of), but young fiction and middle grade that could be commercially successful.

This resulted in ‘In Other Words’, a project which ran from 2017-2019. It received submissions from publishers around the world of books for children age 6-12 that hadn’t been published in English before. In the first year we were hoping for at least 50 submissions but ended up with over 400 books, which came from every continent except Antarctica.

We worked with a judging panel to go through the submissions to narrow down to eight titles each year, of which several titles were highly recommended for English translation. And of the sixteen books recommended, six were bought by UK publishers, with the final one publishing this week. They are:

  • A Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Jim Tierney and translated from Afrikaans [South Africa] by Kobus Geldenhuys (Rock the Boat, Oneworld)
  • Elise and the Second-Hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter, illustrated by Kirsten Raagaard, translated from Danish [Denmark] by Sian Mackie (Wacky Bee Books)
  • The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva, translated from Russian [Russia] by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Puffin Books)
  • Talking to Alaska by Anna Woltz, translated from Dutch [Netherlands] by Laura Watkinson (Rock the Boat, Oneworld)
  • Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto, translated from Italian [Italy] by Denise Muir (Pushkin Press)
  • Me and the Robbersons by Siri Kolu, translated from Finnish [Finland] by Ruth Urbom (Little Tiger Press)

The books cover a range of themes, from activism, imagination, war, disability and adventure. But what is at the heart of all of them is that they are books children will enjoy and relate to, no matter where they’re from.

Some of these authors are bestsellers in their own countries, all had won prestigious prizes, most had their books already translated into other languages, and some even had films made. Yet despite the authors’ significant success, they hadn’t made it into English. This is no fault of their own, as anyone promoting translation in English knows about UK publishers’ focus on selling rights, rather than buying them, particularly with children’s books.

The secret to the project’s success wasn’t much of a secret at all. After narrowing down the submissions (which were essentially a sales pitch), we commissioned sample translations that we presented to UK editors alongside details of each book and their authors’ success. As well as highlighting funding opportunities for translation, we were able to provide a marketing bursary thanks to support from Arts Council England. And, being a large national organization, we had direct contact to every publishing house.

‘In Other Words’ was only designed to run for a couple of years because it aimed to break down barriers and establish long-term connections. And this project wouldn’t have happened if not for the support and determination of Emma Langley to get more translated books into young readers’ hands.

At the time, Emma was working at Arts Council England where she promoted literature in translation, and she was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. She was incredibly passionate about translating children’s books, and had set up and run Phoenix Yard Books, which published a number of books in translation. Shortly after ‘In Other Words’ kicked off, she was interviewed by The Guardian where she noted, “We are playing a very long game, but this is the first step.”

It was indeed the first step, as even after the project finished, it was still able to support Daniel Hahn when he took ten children’s book editors to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2019 to help build more international connections. Some of the publishers who took on these books above have gone on to publish more books in translation. And BookTrust produced resources to help international publishers pitch to English-language editors, parts of which were written with guidance from Emma.

Emma sadly died last year, so never got to see some of these books published nor will she be here to witness the long-term impact we hope the project will have. And while there were a number of us involved in the project, if there’s anyone we should thank for getting these six brilliant books published in English, it’s Emma. 

So thank you, Emma, for helping us take those first steps to getting more children’s books published in English. Now let’s make sure we continue that journey. 

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Lisa Davis is a freelance children’s book editor and publishing consultant. She helped set up and run BookTrust’s In Other Words programme, which supported UK publishers in acquiring children’s books in translation. She now works with authors and publishers around the world, and particularly enjoys hearing from publishers and agencies who need editorial support with their sample translations, including English language adaptations of rhyming picture books.

Originally from Ohio, USA, she lived and worked in London for nearly a decade, and currently lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her on Twitter @LisaLibros or www.lisadavisbooks.com