Translation Craft – Lawrence Schimel on Piece by Piece

To celebrate the launch of Piece by Piece by David Aguilar & Ferran Aguilar, Johanna McCalmont talks to translator Lawrence Schimel about why he was excited to work on this title and what sort of translation conundrums he faced.

Johanna McCalmont: Could you give us a very quick recap of what Piece by Piece is about? What struck you most about the book?

Piece by Piece cover featuring David.

Lawrence Schimel: David Aguilar was born missing part of one arm, and his entire life people have made assumptions about who he is or what that means (about him). Piece by Piece is the story of how he learns to come to terms with who he is in a world full of prejudices, and how ultimately his passion for playing and for building things wound up helping change many people’s point of view and led him to be an inspiration for both young and old alike and an advocate for inclusion. When he was 9 years old, on his own, he took a LEGO set and repurposed it to make a working prosthetic arm for himself—the first of many models. A video his father made of him showing off the prosthetic went viral and David wound up getting invited to LEGO headquarters, and also NASA, and he had many other adventures along the way.

It’s a story of resilience and family and triumph that also has so much humor throughout.

How did you get involved with this project? Did you pitch it? Were you approached? Were you familiar with the book before you were offered the translation contract?

In this case, the publisher came to me (we had already worked together on another book), but I was already familiar with the book and some of David’s story. Although now of course I feel much closer to him and his family!

David is in the media quite a lot, especially here in Spain where I live, but also all around the world. And the book was prominently in bookshops, and in the agent’s foreign rights catalogue, so yes, when the publisher approached me, I already had quite a lot of background on the book and the author, and I knew it was a project that was a good match for me.

Photo of David and Ferran holding a copy of Piece by Piece in with David's LEGO workstation in the background.
Photo: Courtesy of Ferran Aguilar

How does this book fit in with the books currently available to younger readers in general? Are there many other memoirs in general? What is so significant about this book and this particular story?

Technically the book is middle grade in English, although age ranges is something that varies greatly from one country to the next. And it’s a book that will resonate with readers across age ranges, I think, and quite easily also “crossover” to adults.

I wouldn’t say that any books “feature” disability. They might address disability or feature one or more characters with a disability. David himself prefers the term diff-ability or differently abled, and I think that slight but important shift in emphasis/perspective is an important one.

There are not so many memoirs by and for younger readers, so that definitely sets it apart. I think that much less non-fiction in general gets translated, compared to fiction or poetry, especially at the middle grade and YA levels.

As for what I think is significant about this story: it is an engaging and accessible memoir about someone young doing cool things––despite circumstances that many people would expect to hold him back or make him ineligible to have such adventures. About how his whole family supported him, and helped him to overcome challenges and obstacles, to follow his dreams. (Even when those dreams weren’t always the path the family wanted him to follow!)

What were some of the challenges you faced when translating this text? Did you refer to other resources before and/or during the translation process?

The biggest challenge was definitely all the humor. Some of it was very language based, and so it was important to recreate new jokes to make sure there was a play on words in the same place, even if it wasn’t exactly the same joke.

There was also a lot of thinking and discussion with my editor that went on about how we were to present or treat certain cultural aspects or words.

I don’t generally have any particular resource I refer to before and/or during the translation process. Every book offers its own challenges, and I do consult many different monolingual and multilingual dictionaries and thesauruses while working on any book.

But the translation decision-making that goes on is unique for each project, and each relationship: not just translator to author but also translator to editor, and how much trust we’ve established over time, to flag things that might be problematic and/or propose solutions for how to resolve or recreate something between one language and the other.

Are there differences in how disability is talked and written about in English (UK, USA, elsewhere) and in Spanish (Spain, Andorra, Latin America)?

Definitely. And this is something that came up quite early on, even though both languages share many blind spots—for instance, the lack of a word in either language for “not being disabled,” how that is taken for granted as an unquestioned default state.

And I already mentioned how David advocates for diff-abled, or differently abled (which works smoothly in both languages, luckily!).

But Spanish, for instance, has the word “manco” for having only one arm (whether from birth or not is not specified) and that’s one that is used throughout the original manuscript, because that concept of one-handedness exists in Spanish (language and thought) in a way it doesn’t in English.

We decided to leave that word in the original and just gloss it the first time it appears, and that let us preserve a lot of the plays on words that use it, like “mancopedia” for “an encyclopedia of being one-armed.”

Spanish also has the word “tuerto” for missing one eye, although curiously does not have a word for missing one foot or leg; there is just the word “cojo” for “lame” or “halt” (that is, an injured leg or foot but without the absence of same).

Is how we’re talking and writing about disability changing?

I should hope so, as society as a whole becomes more aware of and sensitized to ableism, although I am not sure that awareness and a consequent shift in how we talk and write and think about ableism and ability is changing enough or fast enough!

And that is where a book like this about David’s own life story can hopefully help make more people aware of their own unconscious biases and prejudices and hopefully confront them and dismantle them in the future.

Photo of David and Ferran beside WIPO flag with two WIPO representatives.
David was chosen as the image of the World Intellecutal Property Office (WIPO). Photo: Courtesy of Ferran Aguilar

There are lots of Spanish, French and even some Catalan words dotted throughout the text. Can you tell us more about that? Why? How is this mix of languages important to the story?

David is from Andorra, which is a sovereign state in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. The official language is Catalan although it is a thoroughly multilingual culture with both Spanish and French also being widely spoken as well.

In particular, there are moments when David’s mother, when she gets excited or angry, speaks in a fusion of all three languages, and that’s something that’s impossible to translate without losing that hybridization. But since it is clear from the story that she is feeling very emotional when she mixes languages, even if readers don’t understand the French-Catalan-Spanish hybrid they will still know that it signals her emotional state.

Likewise, there are words like “manco” which I mentioned earlier, which are lacking in English—conceptually as well as linguistically. Likewise, the school systems are different, so terms like bachillerato or colonias  are left in the original, because the English equivalents of those words don’t mean the same things.

Also, in discussion with my editor, we agreed to leave some terms in Spanish to recreate for readers a sense of place, leaving the accent on Papá and Mamá for instance.

For many people, David’s story gets narrowed down to his having been born without part of his arm and the prosthetic he makes out of LEGO, but the book is also an introduction to Andorra for many readers, and my editors wanted to let that come through clearly, and that influenced many translation-related decisions.

David Aguilar has a great sense of humour, doesn’t he? And he really seems to express it through the language he uses and the specific word choices he makes. Was this a challenge for translation? Did you have to look for alternatives that would work well in English?

The humor was definitely a (fun!) challenge, but it’s also such an important part of David’s voice.

I made many lists of English idioms using arm/hand/brick/etc. to be able to insert them into the translation whenever I could make a pun or dad joke where they would fit. (The memoir is full of these, and David pulls no punches about the fact that he has one arm. Especially when he is being bullied at school, he uses sarcasm and wordplay to powerful effect.)

I often had to look for alternatives that would work in English, but it was important for that humorous tone to permeate the translation the way it does in the original, and for there to be jokes at certain moments, even if not quite the same.

I remember one joke in the original was after David’s made the prosthetic and comments “quién sabía que iba a ir tan LEGOS” where he substitutes “LEGOS” for “lejos” in the expression “who knew that I would go so far.”

In the translation, we went with “who knew it would be my big brick, I mean, my big break,” which read more smoothly, but still had a pun at the same moment in the story.

The important thing for me is always to try and recreate the reading experience. Which includes tone, register, vocabulary, musicality, all the elements that combined define the “voice” of the narration.

How did you work with the editor and copyeditor on the final version? Were there any particular discussions? That you expected? That you hadn’t expected?

Since I live in Spain there were plenty of details about life here that we take for granted (like the “merienda” which is a mid-afternoon snack that is part of everyday life here since there is such a long gap between the midday meal and dinner) but which needed, in the English version, to be explained for the readers. So there were lots of things that I knew perfectly well how to translate, but in order to properly convey the cultural meaning, we needed to gloss or contextualize them for the readers. And that included the Editor and the Copyeditors, before even getting to the final readers of the book!

One of the biggest issues during the copyedit was making sure the Catalan wasn’t “corrected” to Spanish!

And making sure that everyone understood that Andorra, where David and his family are from, is an independent principality, and not a part of Spain. This wasn’t so much about the editing process, but making sure that in the PR and other materials around the book, they weren’t described as “Spanish” authors but Andorran.

Otherwise, since the book is the launch title for AmazonCrossingKids’ new middle grade line, there was a little bit of copyediting where my “perhapses” got changed to “maybes” but that may just be a stylistic quirk of mine. (Actually, some other US-based editors have made this same edit, in both a picture book and an adult book translation, so it may have less to do with age range than my being slightly out of step with common American parlance.)

In any event, I always relish this sort of editorial back-and-forth (especially when no personal egos are involved), since even if I might not agree with a particular edit or a suggestion, it’s nonetheless flagging something in the manuscript that isn’t quite working yet, and often a third option—neither what I had originally put nor the edit—proves to be the perfect choice.

David and Ferran in an arm lock.
Photo Credit: By José Sánchez, Fotoestudi La Seu.

Did you have much contact with the authors?

Yes, we were in touch a lot during the actual translation, where I needed a little more explanation or extra details in order to explain something to English language readers.

And they also shared lots of photos with me, as we worked on figuring out what photos to include in the special insert for the English edition (not to mention, writing the captions, which are original to the English edition).

I also watched the documentary about David, and that was helpful, too, for the translation since I got to not only see all the members of his family but also to hear how they sound in their own voices.

And now we regularly share good news, via WhatsApp, about the book as the pre-publication promotion kicks off or about David’s achievements in general. I’ll share the link with them when this interview goes live!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Lawrence. You’ve really given us a fascinating insight into how this book came to exist in English. It’s amazing to see all the work that goes into translating for children and how important it is to weigh up the way in which we use language and make sure we do so sensitively. Let’s hope we see the change in the way in which we write and talk about different abilities speed up soon!

Follow David on Twitter @handsolooficial and read more about him (in Spanish) on his website here.

Lawrence Schimel writes in both Spanish and English and also translates in both directions. He has published over 120 books as an author or anthologist, and over 140 books as a translator. His own picture books have won a Crystal Kite Award from SCBWI and have been selected for the White Ravens from the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany and chosen for IBBY’s Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities three times. His work has been translated into over 50 languages, including Maltese, Icelandic, Luxembourgish, Romansch, Changana, isiZulu, Indonesian, and Welsh. His translations into English have won a Highly Commended Award in the 2020 CLiPPA, a PEN Translates Award from English PEN (three times), and a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, among other honors. He was one of the original founders of WorldKidLitMonth & lives in Madrid, Spain. Follow him on Twitter at @lawrenceschimel.