Laura Watkinson, Translator Extraordinaire
By Avery Fischer Udagawa and Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Laura Watkinson, founder of SCBWI Netherlands, has wowed the children’s book world by translating three of the last four winners of the Mildred L. Batchelder Award.
The Batchelder—awarded in the same series as the Newbery and Caldecott—goes to the publisher of the best children’s book in the U.S. that first appeared in another language overseas.
In children’s literature translation, it is the Oscar Award.
Laura answered questions from Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Avery Fischer Udagawa about her winning translations from Dutch.
For SCBWI members new to your work, what are the titles and authors of your Batchelder winners, and what are they about?
Bibi Dumon Tak’s Soldier Bear (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, illustrated by Philip Hopman) won the Batchelder in 2012. It’s based on a true story about a bear who became an army mascot in World War II and all the adventures he and his fellow soldiers had.
|2012 Batchelder winner Soldier Bear, with photo of the real bear taken by Laura’s mother-in-law in childhood, at the Edinburgh Zoo.|
Truus Matti’s Mister Orange (Enchanted Lion) was the 2014 winner, and is about a young boy in New York and his inspiring friendship with the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.
This year’s 2015 winner was another collaboration with Bibi Dumon Tak, Philip Hopman, and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers: Mikis and the Donkey, about a boy in a Greek village who teaches his grandfather that donkeys aren’t machines for doing work, but creatures that need to be looked after properly.
What are some of the special considerations in translating books for young readers, as opposed to books for adults?
When translating books for children, I sometimes provide a little more padding to explain any new concepts, such as special holidays or customs, rather than leaving younger readers to figure it out for themselves. With books for adults, for instance, I tend to leave names as they are in the original, even if they may look fairly unpronounceable to a non-Dutch speaker, e.g. Thijs. However, in a children’s book, I may choose to substitute an “easier” name that works in both Dutch and English, generally something that starts with the same letter, e.g. Tim.
A few little stumbling blocks in a book are okay, as the story does come from a different culture, after all, but sometimes it’s a good idea to make the experience just a little smoother for younger readers.
Now that marketing is so important for authors of books for young readers, what role does the translator play?
That depends a lot on the translator and, of course, on the publisher’s marketing approach. I enjoy helping out with publicity for books and also promoting the role of translation in increasing diversity within the children’s book market, so I’m happy to attend conferences and book launches, for example, and I’m also active online. (See www.laurawatkinson.com and @Laura_Wat on Twitter.)
How do you find books to translate?
I work closely with publishers in both my source and target languages, writing reports on books for English-language publishers and translating excerpts of books and publicity material, too. Sometimes I’ll recommend a book to a publisher if I think it’s a good fit for their list, but most of my projects come to me from publishers.
How does knowing an author personally—as you did Karlijn Stoffels, author of Heartsinger (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)—help with the process of translation? How can it become a problem for the translator?
Karlijn and I both live in Amsterdam, but we didn’t actually meet until after I’d finished translating Heartsinger. I didn’t have any questions for her while I was translating the book, as it’s very clearly written, but she read the translation before publication, and we discussed a few points, which was helpful. I haven’t had any problems with authors so far—touch wood!—but I have heard stories about some authors who have tried to impose their own ideas on a translation. I think it’s sometimes hard for them to let go of their “baby.”
What kinds of books are easiest to transport from one culture to another? And hardest?
I’ve recently translated The Letter for the King and its sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, by Tonke Dragt (UK: Pushkin Press; US: David Fickling Books/Scholastic). They’re absolute classics of Dutch children’s literature—and a real privilege to translate. As they’re set in a fictional medieval world, they were easy to transport into English. There were no Dutch cultural aspects to explain, and most of the characters’ names were invented by the author. The ideas also felt very natural to me in English.
Rhyming picture books are, of course, one of the trickier kinds of text to write—doubly so in translation, I think. You’re not only dealing with the rhymes, but also having to make sure the text still matches the pictures, and that you can maintain any puns. It can be great fun, but I often feel the pressure of the deadline when it comes to rhyming texts. Still, if the illustrations and the story are great, it’s a lovely challenge for a translator.
What is your favorite children’s book in translation, from/into any language?
I wouldn’t really make a distinction between books in translation and books originally written in English. Whether in translation or in the original, they’re all stories in their own right.
My favorite children’s book is probably Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, originally written in English, but also translated into a number of other languages. So many books that were written originally in English have been translated into countless other languages, and often the readers don’t even stop to consider the fact that they’re reading a book in translation. I’d love it if we could reach that position in English-language publishing, too, and see great books as great books, whether translated or not. There are some fabulous books out there in languages other than English, and we should be welcoming them into our language and onto our bookshelves. We are missing out on so many great stories, authors, and experiences.
What is your favorite “myth” about translation?
It’s become a cliché: the phrase “lost in translation.” A translation and an original can obviously never be identical, as they’re written in different languages and filtered through different associations and images, but a translation should be able to stand on its own, as a text in its own right. Translators work hard to respect the essence of the original, and although some aspects may have to be sacrificed, there’s plenty a translator can add to the work to maintain some kind of equivalence. If it’s a great story in the original, it’ll still be that same great story in translation.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann (www.lynmillerlachmann.com) translated The World in a Second by Isabel Minhós Martins, edited Once Upon a Cuento, and authored Rogue, Gringolandia, and Surviving Santiago. She is a We Need Diverse Books team member.
Avery Fischer Udagawa (www.averyfischerudagawa.com) translated J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani. She is SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator and SCBWI International Translator Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org