Me and the Robbersons by Siri Kolu has been a bestseller across Europe for the last ten years. Originally published in 2010, it’s become the most widely translated middle grade novel from Finland and has won prizes around the world. The book is now published in English for the first time with a translation from Ruth Urbom. And even more exciting, it’s the first book in translation for UK publisher Little Tiger Press. Lisa Davis talks to editor Mattie Whitehead about the experience of publishing her first book in translation.
Lisa Davis: Thanks so much for your time, Mattie! Me and the Robbersons is the first book your and Little Tiger’s first book published in translation. Had you considered other books before this? And how did you end up publishing this book?
Mattie Whitehead: At Little Tiger, representation is key to our publishing and we’re always looking for new voices. Exploring fiction from the 95% of the world that doesn’t speak English as a first language is an exciting step!
I have always been interested in books in translation, having studied Spanish and Linguistics at university, so was able to experience the benefits and joys of reading international literature. Literature gives readers the chance to travel the world, to meet new people and to understand cultures in a way that is otherwise impossible. Opinions and beliefs are shaped by experience, so this insight into the experience of others is crucial, and we need to keep opening up the world, especially in times such as these.
In 2019, I was fortunate to be accepted as one of 10 children’s book editors for Daniel Hahn’s scouting trip to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which was funded by the Arts Council England and BookTrust. I was determined to find a book Little Tiger could bring to the UK market. The trip gave me the opportunity to meet with agents and publishers from all over the world, which is how I met Siri’s agent and was introduced to Maisie and the Robbersons. From the first line I was hooked! At the time, there was only a partial translation and synopsis available, but Siri’s characterization is so strong and the anarchic feel to the tale is so appealing that we knew they would be the perfect fit for Little Tiger’s Stripes list.
LD: We’re often told that publishing in translation is too expensive, but there are a lot of funding opportunities for translated books. Were you able to take advantage of these?
MW: We were able to take advantage of them! We are really grateful to have received a grant from the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) and from English PEN’s scheme PEN Translates, which between them covered almost the entire translation cost. Siri’s agent told us about the FILI grant and I was aware of the English PEN opportunity. Having the cost of the translation covered has meant that it’s cost around the same as publishing a book originally written in English.
LD: Did you find the experience of working with a translator much different to working directly with an author?
MW: I really enjoyed working with our translator, Ruth Urbom. While the process differed slightly to working directly with an author, it didn’t as much as I had anticipated. Before Ruth started on the translation, we looked at the character names to make sure we could find equivalents that worked as well in English as they do in Finnish. Then we got stuck into the story! We split the book into three sections and it was so exciting to see the story revealed gradually. Ruth sent me her translations, which I then edited, marking up queries for Ruth in terms of language.
Once Ruth and I were happy with the text, we sent it on to Siri flagging any passages with more significant changes due to cultural or linguistic differences, and any queries on the plot. Once Siri was happy, we moved on to the next section! The process was slightly more time consuming as there were more stages to ensure the story worked for UK readers while retaining its original sense, but it was so rewarding and we feel we achieved just that.
LD: Was there anything that surprised you or was particularly different from publishing a book written in English?
MW: There wasn’t anything that particularly surprised me, but it was a real treat to see how different languages work and the variety of ways to convey the original meanings. In the case of Me and the Robbersons, we had to pay careful attention to differences in Finnish and English cultural references, and to timing as the Finnish edition was first published ten years ago!
LD: Markets can be so variable, even between countries publishing in the same language. Did you encounter anything in Me and the Robbersons that might seem unusual to an English audience?
MW: There wasn’t anything that we thought might seem too unusual, except perhaps for how much liquorice the characters eat! For me, the joy of translated fiction is that it gives readers an insight into a different country and way of life, so we wanted to keep a strong sense of the story’s Scandinavian setting. The story and characters in Me and the Robbersons lend themselves perfectly to the UK market – with direct humour, larger than life characters and an exciting anarchic adventure.
LD: Do you feel that there are any topics or themes that wouldn’t translate well into the English market?
MW: I really believe that translated fiction is a window into a culture that readers may not have had a chance to experience before, so I can’t think of any themes or topics in particular that wouldn’t translate. Reading is not only a pastime but a way to understand the world, giving readers a glimpse into the lives of others, be it wildly different or surprisingly similar. We can discover how cultural, geographical and linguistic differences don’t have to divide us, but rather can make us share our humanity. The joy of working with a translator as well as the author is that everyone brings something different to the editorial process – making sure it works and is relatable to the English market, while retaining the essence and nuances that make it specific to the country of origin and the author’s intentions.
LD: Translators and international literacy agents often say the biggest barrier to getting a book translated is to get an editor to consider it in the first place. What makes it easier for you to consider if you want to translate and publish a book?
MW: It is tricky – not least to find the right people to talk to! The Bologna trip was so useful to create networks. I’m still in contact with most of the agents and publishers I met in Bologna via email and Zoom. When there’s no sample material in English it can make the proposition quite daunting, but a really strong outline with comparison titles and key themes, as well as information about the author, is incredibly useful. That information makes it easier for me to be able to present to rest of the Little Tiger team. Then if we think the book could be a fit for our list, we can commission a sample translation to get a feel for the writing.
LD: How do you suggest translators and agencies approach editors with suggested titles?
MW: For me, a small number of selective titles is the best way forward. It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you see so many exciting books, but it’s never going to be possible to review all of them. I’ve found that it works well to have an introductory chat about what I’m looking for as an editor, so that the agent can follow up with one or two titles that they think could be a fit. Then based on feedback, we can keep searching until (hopefully!) we find the perfect project to work on!
LD: Following your experience of publishing Me and the Robbersons, do you plan to publish more books in translation?
MW: I would love to! We currently don’t have anything lined up, but now that I have my network of international agents and publishers from all over the world, I very much hope I can find new and exciting stories to bring to UK readers.
Thanks so much to Mattie for her time. If you’re interested in hearing more about Me and the Robbersons, check out this interview with Mattie and author Siri Kolu.
You can buy the book here.
Mattie Whitehead is the Editor on the Little Tiger Fiction list, working on books for readers aged five to eighteen. She loves reading (unsurprisingly!) and feels very lucky to work with such brilliant authors and illustrators. You can find her on Twitter @Mattie2507
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