Interview with translator David Bowles

To celebrate International Young Adult Literature Month, Claire Storey talks to translator David Bowles who translated The Immortal Boy by Francisco Montana Ibáñez, released last year by Levine Querido and recently awarded an Honor Title in the 2022 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize.

World Kid Lit: Hi David, it’s such a pleasure to welcome you to World Kid Lit as we celebrate International Young Adult Literature Month. Your translation of The Immortal Boy by Francisco Montana Ibáñez was published last year by Levine Querido. Could you introduce the book for us?

DB: Absolutely! The novel, inspired by a real-life story a student told the author, braids two threads. One is the third-person story of five young siblings trying to survive in Bogotá after their father abandons them, ostensibly going off to find temporary employment. Focused mostly on the eldest, thirteen-year-old Hector, that half of the book builds toward a shocking tragedy. The other story is the quirky first-person narrative of Nina, a girl forced to live in an orphanage while her mother is in prison for political reasons. She becomes obsessed with a small, silent boy named David, whom everyone calls the Immortal Boy and who bursts into violence against bullies. The hope-filled, beautiful friendship between Nina and David contrasts sharply with the grim reality of Hector and his siblings, but as the intertwined glimpses into Colombia’s broken heart reach their final chapters, the reader understands how they connect in a devastating yet beautiful epiphany.

WKL: How did you get involved in the project?

DB: I was already working with Levine Querido on The Sea-Ringed World when editors Arthur Levine and Nick Thomas asked whether I would read Francisco’s book and tell them what I thought (i.e., whether it was worth translating, etc.). I loved it and enthusiastically endorsed it. Then they asked whether I’d be interested in doing the translation. Without hesitation, I said yes.

WKL: When I recently received a copy of the book, I was surprised and excited to find that it is presented as a dual language edition, with the English at one end and the Spanish at the other. We sometimes hear that publishers may wish to hide the fact that a book is a translation; this seems to do the complete opposite! How did that come about? Was the intention always to present it as such and how involved were you in that decision?

DB: The decision was organic and grew partly out of the brevity of the book (compared with other YA titles in the US market) and partly out of the desire by Levine Querido to celebrate its origin and the biliteracy of young people in the US who are its target audience. I was asked what I thought about making it a flipbook—as a former teacher who had used bilingual books in that format to great success, I gave my thumbs-up to the idea.

WKL: With presenting the book as a bilingual edition, is the hope that young people will be encouraged to read both versions?

DB: Certainly, though the primary benefit, in my mind, is that teens who are still acquiring English can refer to the Spanish text when they are stumped or want clarification.

WKL: Did the fact that the Spanish would be presented with the English have any impact on your translation process?

DB: Since it was a decision that was made after I translated the book, no. However, because of a few lines I added in English to clarify socio-cultural elements that many US readers would fail to miss, I did work with the author to insert those observations into the Spanish text as well for this US edition.

WKL: I have recently been carrying out my own project about Young Adult Literature from Latin America. While we have seen a few picture books emerging in translation from the region recently, I was somewhat shocked to discover that in the last five years, this is one of only two Young Adult novels from the Spanish-speaking Americas that has been published in English*. Does this surprise you? Do you have any thoughts as to why that might be?

DB: I had the general impression that very few Latin American books for teens were being translated, but I was shocked to learn just how few. But I also know how unforgiving the US YA market is with voices and structures that don’t fit the most popular and marketable tropes of the moment. It took me weeks to find the right balance for The Immortal Boy so that US readers consuming a steady diet of these curated / “gatekept” titles would find it palatable. The answer, of course, is to bring in more narrative diversity, a greater range of voices—but there’s a lot of commercial cowardice in publishing, frankly. I admire Arthur Levine and his advocacy of kid lit from around the world (and communities of color in the US). Levine Querido is setting the standard that other outfits should work toward.  

WKL: Last year, Manuel Soriano from Uruguayan publisher Topito Ediciones told us that he often hears from English-language publishers that they want books dealing with “local culture”; they have a certain expectation of what books from South America should be like. Is this something you have come across? What sort of stories would you like to see coming from the region?

DB: Much like they prefer stories of tragedy and trauma from communities of color, stories that center a particular stereotype and that often feature white saviors, English-language publishers do seem to prefer stories that exoticize other cultures for the white gaze, either to inspire or titillate readers instead of making them identify with the characters as fully human. Part of that tendency in publishing is the acquisition (as Manuel points out) solely of titles that other Latin American people or that wonder at their “colorful cultures.” I think we should be translating the very best of Latin American kid lit, regardless of the difficulties of voice and tropes, heedless of whether the work is “essentially” Latin American from some rubbernecking perspective.

WKL: You were recently awarded an IBBY Honor for The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas by María Garcia Esperón, Illustrated by Amanda Mijangos – congratulations! How important are awards like this to you as a translator and also for the books you translate?

DB: Thanks! These awards are vital for the visibility of a translator and the work, putting both on the radar of people who acquire titles for schools, libraries, bookstores. I’ve found that my ability to do more translations, to advocate for books in Spanish that ought to be available in English, is greatly enhanced by the recognition, credibility, and sales that come on the heels of an award.

WKL: Thank you so much, David, for talking to us.

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*Please get in touch with us at worldkidlit@gmail.com if you know of others we have missed!

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Dr. David Bowles, UTRGV Assistant Professor in Literatures & Cultural Studies, on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019 at the Liberal Arts Building South in Edinburg, Texas. UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy

DAVID BOWLES is an associate professor of Literatures and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley. He is the award-winning author and translator of more than two dozen books for children and teens, among them They Call Me Güero, The Sea-Ringed World, The Immortal Boy and My Two Border Towns. His work has been published in multiple textbooks and anthologies, plus venues such as The New York Times, English Journal, School Library Journal, Rattle, Translation Review, and the Journal of Children’s Literature. In 2019, David co-founded the activist movement Dignidad Literaria to fight for the literary and cultural dignity of Latinx people in US publishing and education. He can be contacted through his website: www.davidbowles.us