Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 2 June 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC-7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC-5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC-4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC+1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC+2).
Translating for the Future: Children’s Literature in Translation
Lawrence Schimel in conversation with Daniel Hahn, and moderated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented Translating for the Future: Children’s Literature in Translation livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 2 June 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC-7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC-5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC-4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC+1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC+2).
Translators of children's literature—always read by both adults and children— face various unique challenges, including the potential for bi- or multilingualism, the incorporation of illustrations, and differing cultural taboos or views of what is and isn't appropriate for children. Many classics of children's literature (The Little Prince, Pippi Longstockings, the Grimm & Andersen fairy tales, etc.) are read in translation, even if they're not treated as such the way adult books in translation would be. Are translators of works for children "translating for the future" by helping them to develop empathy and learn about other cultures in our globally-connected world, or are they simply sharing universal stories full of delight and emotion that hopefully create lifelong readers?
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with about seventy books to his name. He is has been co-editor of a series of reading guides for children and teenagers, and in 2015 published a new edition of The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. His translations (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) include a wide range of books for young readers, from picture-books to young adult novels.
Lawrence Schimel writes in both Spanish and English and has published over one hundred twenty books as author or anthologist, in a wide range of genres, including fiction, poetry, graphic novels & children’s literature. He's won a Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a White Raven, and the Lambda Literary Award (twice), among many other honors and awards. His translations into Spanish include the graphic novel They Called us Enemy by George Takei and picture book Millions of Cats by Wanda Gàg; his translations into English include the middle grade novels The Wild Book by Juan Villoro and The Treasure of Barracuda by Llanos Campos, children's poetry collection Poems the wind blew in by Karmelo C. Iribarren (winner of a PEN Translates Award from English PEN), and YA novel La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (Global Literature in Libraries Best Translated YA Award Honor Title).
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and editor of Once Upon a Cuento, a collection of short stories for children by Latinx authors. She has three published novels for children and teens — the award-winning YA novel Gringolandia, its companion Surviving Santiago, and the pioneering own voices novel Rogue, for middle grade readers. Her historical novels MOONWALKING, a middle grade verse novel co-authored with Zetta Elliott, and TORCH, for YA readers, are forthcoming in 2021. She has translated picture books, middle grade novels, and screenplays from Portuguese and Spanish to English and is currently co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee. She reviews books for multiple publications and blogs at www.lynmillerlachmann.com.
Esther Allen: Hello, and welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a translator of Spanish and French and Professor at City University of New York. And I'm here with Allison Markin-Powell who translates Japanese literature, works with the PEN Translation Committee, and has been a driving force, co-organizing Translating the Future, the conference you are now attending. Allison?
Allison Markin-Powell: Before getting to today's scheduled conversation, we must say something about the events that are consuming our nation and our city. Tonight, there is an 8pm curfew in New York. The last time a curfew was imposed in the City That Never Sleeps was in 1943, and that was in response to protests over police shooting a Black soldier. However much may have changed since then, clearly too much has not changed. We say the name of George Floyd and stand with the Black community that has endured unrelenting violence throughout the history of this country. We also stand with those who bravely, peacefully, continue to protest that violence, and the courageous journalists who continue to do their essential work in the face of attack from those who shouldn't be defending freedom of speech.
Esther: Regina Bernard, my colleague at Baruch College, has written an essay titled "Why We Can't Breathe." I urge you to read all of it at fourthreethree.org. I'll share just a paragraph here, a paragraph as simple and direct as a story told to a child. “George, I didn't know your name when you called out for help. You should've been able to breathe. They should've given you water. You should've had your breath. You should all still be breathing. Your breathing, my breathing, the rising and falling of lungs in Black and brown bodies should not come at the discretion of anyone else. It is not a privilege to breathe. Distracted now by the demonization entrenched in moving and burning, we forget that this is not just today, not just yesterday, but could be tomorrow and the day after.”
Allison: Thank you all for joining us for the fourth installment of our weekly series Translating for the Future, a conversation between some of the fiercest advocates for children's literature and translation, Lawrence Schimel, Daniel Hahn, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Lawrence, coming in from Madrid, writes in both Spanish and English and translates from both languages, as well. Danny, in the UK, is a writer, editor, and translator from Portuguese, Spanish, and French. And Lyn, here in New York City, is an author, editor, and translator from Portuguese and Spanish. You can read about their many achievements and awards on the Center for the Humanities website. We are particularly grateful to World Poetry Brooks, hailed by Anne Carson as the publishers of excellent new books in unusually excellent translations, for generously sponsoring today's conversation. You can find them online at worldpoetrybooks.com.
Esther: This series of weekly one-hour conversations will be the form that Translating the Future continues to take throughout the summer and into the fall. During the conference's originally-planned dates in late September, several larger-scale marquee events will happen. And you'll hear more about those soon. We'll be here every Tuesday until then with compelling conversations about the past, present, and future of literary translation and its place in the world where we now find ourselves. Please join us next Tuesday at 1:30 for A Manifesto for Our Time, a conversation between Elizabeth Lowe, Matthew Harrington, and Larissa Kyzer about an ongoing project to update the 1970 Manifesto on Translation that accompanied the World of Translation conference that our conference, Translating the Future, commemorates. And please continue to check the Center for Humanities site for future events in this conference.
Allison: Translating the Future in convened by a PEN America's Translation Committee, which advocates on behalf of literary translators working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers, and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by today's moderator Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Larissa Kyzer. For more information, look for translation resources at pen.org. Today's conversation will be followed by a Q and A. Please email your questions for Lawrence Schimel, Daniel Hahn, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep questions anonymous, unless you know it your email that you would like us to read your name. And if you know anyone who's unable to join us for the livestream, a recording will be available afterward on HowlRound and the Center for the Humanities sites.
Esther: Before we turn it over to Lyn, Lawrence, and Danny, we'd like to offer our sincere gratitude, as ever, to out partners at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and PEN America. And now, over to you, Lyn, Danny, and Lawrence.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann: All right, thank you very much for that introduction, Allison and Esther. And thank you, Esther, for sharing those remarks about our current situation. And thank you to all of you for tuning in. We have an interesting conversation on tap, so I will get started. Two weeks ago, in their conversation, Translating the Uncertain Present, Madhu Kaza and Lina Mounzer talked about the tension between reflecting the original language and culture and making the translated work accessible to those who are reading the book in translation. How does this balance change when the readers are children and teenagers who have fewer cultural references yet, we hope, a greater openness to the world?
Lawrence Schimel: Danny, you look ready to start.
Lyn: Danny, we're pointing to you.
Danny Hahn: I took a breath, which obviously suggested that I was going to exhale an answer, and I'm not sure I was going to. The answer to that question is it depends, which is the answer to all interesting questions, I guess. It depends on the book for children in the same way it depends on the book for adults. There are certain things which are certainly true about child readers. Lyn, you talked about the cultural, I suppose, the cultural knowledge they have. It's hard to generalize about children, but the only thing we can say absolutely categorically about children is they have not been around as long as grownups have been around. The one thing that defines children is they are newer to this place than we are. And so, the amount of international cultural stuff they will have accumulated is less. And so, we may sometimes have to make allowances for the fact that they won't know as much about the world as a grownup reader. But while we make allowances, definitely perhaps, and while the constraints of working for children are very different in lots of ways, I don't think the principles are different. I think, mostly, when you're translating for children, you're trying to do the same thing as translating for grownups, which is to decide what it is that's important about this thing and work out how to keep whatever it is you think that is important.
Lawrence: I think also, just touching back to what Lina and Madhu were talking about, among other things, they talked about that we make a lot of assumptions about the readers of translations and that very often translations have... We demand of a translation more explication than we would demand of a book that is written in the original language. Very often in books for adults, we may have vocabulary we don't know, that we have to look up, or that we understand from inference or things like that, but we expect that all of the cultural references in a translation, especially translations into English, are going to be glossed or explained or fully dominated. And that's not something that necessarily needs to be the case. There's a lot of different, we haven't yet mentioned the children's book, but you have everything from word books through teenagers. There's a huge range of books that are out there, especially for the younger ages. You have a double audience. You have an adult reading with a child. So very often, there can be things that can be explained by the person who's reading the book with the younger reader if there are things that they don't understand. But also, I don't think that we can take for granted, or I don't know, I think that it's a fallacy that the teens don't necessarily have all of the culture information. I think, a lot of times, especially teenagers connected to the internet, are much more aware and in touch with what is going on on the global setting, and that it's the gatekeepers who think that they're not prepared or they're not ready to deal with some of these things.
Danny: I think the thing you said about the dual readership is incredibly important for the younger end, that there is always going to be some kind of mediating happening, because it's not the three-year-old who's going to go to the bookstore and give their credit card and buy the book. And they're not gonna be the ones who, on the whole, are going to be consuming the book on their own without someone else mediating the language for them. They can read the pictures, but not the text. There are challenges to that dual readership, or that dual, those kind of double, that double consumption, I feel like. But as you suggest, Lawrence, there's also that opportunity that we don't necessarily have to rely on what a three-year-old will know. We just need to rely on what the other person is prepared to, is in the position to explain to them, to gloss for them. It's also really, especially the younger one, it's a much more interactive. It's a much less, if you're reading a picture book to a very small child, it's a much less transmit-only reading experience. And there's a much more interactive and back-and-forth conversational experience.
Lawrence: I also think, I mean, what you were just talking about, Danny, about the difference that the three-year-old is gonna be able to go and buy their own book. I think that, very often, the children's books that get translated, there's a big difference between the illustrated books and then the middle grade and older fiction, whereas the younger books often sell on the artwork rather than necessarily the story. That's not the only case. I think there's a little more leeway in terms of picture books or the kinds of picture books that are... I mean, especially since they're mostly translating into English like it was from Spanish. For the US, a lot of the titles are Latin-American titles, and I think that a lot of pushback I get from editors is that they want the middle grader or young adult fiction to perform its latinidad in a way, so that a book in translation has extra demands on it than a translated picture book. I mean, a lot of times, you can have just a translated picture book about friendship. It doesn't have to necessarily be about... You know, it could be a book from Argentina without being full of Argentine-ness, whereas, for the older ages, I think that most editors, if they're going to publish something that is a Latin book, a book from Latin America, they want it to be performing its Latin-American identity in some way. It's much harder, or at least, I find that there's a lot more pushback than if I say this is just a great rom-com that happens to be set in Montevideo. Or this is a fun science fiction novel written by a Colombian writer. If it's not about Latin-American-ness, I find that there isn't interest to publish that sort of work.
Danny: I agree. I agree up to a point. I think my experiences are the same up to a point, and that I think, certainly, fiction is expected to do different things to a picture book. We're always saying you read it because it's a different culture and a different world, and so forth. And the picture book is performing something certainly different. But my experience is often that it's the picture books that are harder to sell to publishers and translation, precisely because of the thing you mentioned, which is that they were buyers on the artwork. But in a sense, a picture book, I think that the visual style, the kind of aesthetic of a lot of picture book artists outside the English speaking world, is very, very different, instantly recognizably different, to what we publish in the US and the UK in a way that a novel often isn't. And so, these very different visual styles, in my experience, tend to be a really, really easy way of publishers saying no to things, that you show them a picture book, and they don't really need to know anything about the text or the story. They immediately look at it and go, "Well, this color palette is weird, and the shape of it is a little bit weird, and I don't really like the way they do faces, because it's not the same way that John Classen does." You know, whoever. And so, the fact that the pictures should be a kind of shortcut. It should be much easier to get picture books translated, and the translation is obviously cheaper, because there are 300 words instead of 100,000 words.
Lawrence: But the printing is more expensive.
Danny: Full-color printing is massively expensive. We can talk about that, as well. But as something about the pictures that when I'm... So, Lawrence and I both go to book fairs like Bologna, which is a big international children's book fair. And often, the conversation I have with publishers when I show them things, they'll make a very quick decision based on the illustrations, but the decision is almost always no. It's obviously the default conversation in publishing book fairs. But the pictures, rather than being a shortcut, make it easier for people to decide this is something I can see selling to the parent of a three-year-old in New York. They immediately go, "This doesn't look familiar. At first glance, this looks weird."
Lawrence: I think also that a lot of anglophone editors, especially UK and US, looking at picture books from abroad. The English language market tends to like a single, or at most two lines per page, and a lot of other territories have much text-heavier picture books, and that's something that can also be a big detriment. I did just wanna explain, especially if there are people who don't know how picture books are done, the four-color printing, which the standard equal to C, Y, M, K, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. And a lot of times, what happens with picture books is that they are printed simultaneously in different languages for the different territories all at the same time. So, if you have, let's say, 10,000 copies in English for the US market, and you have another 5,000 in French and 3,000 in Spanish for Mexico, and another 3,000 in Spanish for Spain. I think we're up to 21,000. So, if you print 21,000 copies of the yellow, the blue, and the red together, and only change the black plate, and then, all of the binding happens simultaneously. It's a way of bringing costs down. As a result of that though, one, especially the American, the British, and the French tend to export a lot of books, and to do a lot of these co-editions as a result, and also because of the way that hierarchies work of power and what is considered universal. I'm from New York City. So, to me, a taxi is yellow and black. Here in Spain, the taxis are white, but we have so many picture books that have yellow and black taxis, because Spanish publishers will just add on to a print run from an American publishing house. I'm a weird person. I write and I translate. I do not draw, but I am drawing something which you will see if this recognizable. What is that?
Danny: To me, what it looks like is a letterbox in America.
Lawrence: It’s an American letterbox.
Lyn: A mailbox.
Danny: Yeah, we don't have those here.
Lyn: It’s a mailbox here.
Lawrence: And they would recognize that it's a mailbox. And that's a result of what comes out of New York is considered universal in a way that what comes out of Madrid is considered provincial.
Danny: That is a mailbox to people who either were brought up in the US or who watched "Stand By Me" quite a lot and imagined driving down that highway with a baseball bat and swinging at the letterboxes.
Lawrence: Usually not at the age of the picture books, but still. These are questions, though, that happen, or that influence what gets published and where things get published. If publishers are used to printing their books in English and then being able to sell rights in other territories to bring down their own cost, as well as the rights income, a lot of publishers don't want to buy in a book, which has the translation cost. Usually, there's not an author or an illustrator available to do promotion. There's a lot of easy excuses for publishers to say no to doing translated books.
Danny: Yeah, I think you described that the co-editions is the basic business model for picture book publishing for big publishers in London, and I imagine in New York, as well. And you can't do that for a book for which you're only going to buy a single language territory. And the business model goes all to hell at that point. Sorry, Lyn, we've taken this question. I don't know where we are anymore.
Lyn: All right, well, I'll go on to another question. You've actually answered two of the ones I've written down. But you're also focusing a lot on the role of gatekeepers. And I know you also translate for adults. I'd like you to talk a little bit about two things. One is the relative importance of gatekeepers in children's books versus adult books. And the second, related to that, is how you approach cultural taboos or sensitivities in one culture than may not exist in another. Madhu and Lina talked about the refusal to translate. Have you ever refused to translate for that reason? And if so, why?
Danny: Lawrence, you can go first this time.
Lawrence: Jumping in, I guess, on the first thing, one of the easiest gatekeeper issues, in terms of translated literature, is editors, especially anglophone editors, who do not speak a lot of other languages. That's something that happens to be fairly widespread. That's one reason also why, when we were talking about the difference between picture books versus older fiction, even an editor who monolingual in English can fall in love with the art and say, "We'll work with a translator to do something, or even just rewrite the text." Danny, you had to do that with "Happiness is a Watermelon on the Head." And you were credited as the author of the text, not as the translator in that case, fleshing it out to make a picture book that worked in the English language market. One of the biggest problems, among the many gatekeeper problems, is, in order for things to sell into the English language market, there needs to be a sample translation done in English and then presented to readers. That's a huge obstacle that translated fiction has different than original language fiction.
Danny: But that applies for fiction for grownups or children. The difference in the gatekeepers between grownups and children is at the next stage, the point at which, who is it that's deciding what is going to be stocked? Well, it's not gonna be the children. Who is it gonna be decided that what's gonna be bought? And it's not gonna be the children. It's not gonna be the children themselves who are on the judging panels. It's not the children who are deciding what goes into libraries, and so forth. The problems are also slightly different, I mean, as far as their problems, they're so different in the UK and the US, because they're a slightly different bottlenecks. There is things like the public library service is a huge driver of children's reading in the US. And the public library service in the UK is very beleaguered at the moment and there's not a huge buyer of books. And so, there's much less influence, in that sense, at that kind of decision-making point. I think, probably for quite a long time, it's also probably fair to say that we, we decided that it was easy to blame librarians or teachers or parents or someone else being stupid somehow. And this is why we weren't able to make, get the books published that we wanted to. We weren't able to make successes at books. And actually, at their best, the people who we talk about as gatekeepers are the enablers. They're not the ones who stop books getting through. They're the ones who put the books in the children's hands. The best allies we have are the librarians and the independent bookstores, very much like for grownup fiction. The taboos is an interesting question, and a different one, I guess. It's certainly true that taboos are different culture to culture, and I discovered this quite sharply a few years ago. I was editing an anthology, a two-volume anthology, one for children and one for teenagers, and these two volumes were being published simultaneously in English and in Danish, a Danish publisher and a British publisher. And I was talking to a publisher in Denmark about which of the stories, we have 35 stories to start with, and which of them would go into the children's volume, and which would go into the grownup volume. And the Danish editor had, what seemed to me, entirely arbitrary rules about what constituted acceptable children's and young adult fiction. And I had, what I'm certain seemed to them, entirely arbitrary rules about what constitutes acceptable things to go into children's and the adult fiction. There are sometimes possibilities simply to make alterations as a way of mitigating things that are taboo in the receiving culture, which I've had to do, particularly when I've translated a book that may be 50 years old. But this is something that applies just as much to books for adults. I have anxieties about what certain kinds of reviewer are going to say about certain kinds of book, because I know that the receiving culture feels differently about a kind of language or a kind of representation or a kind of issue to wherever the book was coming from. This is something that I think keeps translators up at night whether they're working for children or not. Or it may just be me. I don't know.
Lawrence: Yeah, one thing Danny mentioned was the library system. Definitely, the US library system is very strong and has strong Latin-American collections. That's actually a plus that books written by Latino authors, whether in English or in translation. That's one of the few plus things. It's a negative though, for instance, if I'm trying to pitch titles from Spain, which don't count as Latino. So that's one thing. I don't think that I've ever refused to translate something based on objectionable content. I mean, hopefully, that sort of stuff doesn't... They didn't do a children's version of Woody Allen's memoirs or something like that. That sort of content is generally not happening. I think that, a lot of times, there are things that can be published, especially in Europe, not just the art style, but for instance, questions of nudity. You know, you can have a beach scene and people can be topless on the beach scene, and it's completely normal. And Americans will be scandalized by that. Actually, one of my own picture books, as an author, was once rejected by an American publisher who liked everything, but it had a Christmas tree in a background illustration, and they said, "It's not a Christmas book. We can't have religion at that..." And that was just something that the artist was Spanish, and Spain is such an uber-Catholic culture. There are a lot of things, like the inherent machismo, in the Spanish language a lot of times, these are things, especially in kids books, where I'll flag them for the editor and say we should discuss this or soften this or things like that. As Danny was saying also, language changes and our expectations of language change. This is something that happens, for instance, gender-neutral language. I just translated two board books by First Nations Canadian writers for Orca Books. And one of them is a lovely board book called "Little You." One of the problems with Spanish is that it's a highly inflected language, so everything, all nouns have genders. And all of the diminutives have genders. And so, there's no . There's no gender-neutral way that is accepted. There are now one trend in adult languages to replace the O A with an X. The current trend in Spain is to use an E. So, in place of . Obviously, you can't do that with a kid who's learning language at the same time as they're getting these books. In this case, I changed the title to "Tu Eres Tu." 'Cause the book is very careful. It presents a lot of different models of families, sometimes with only one parent, sometimes with two parents. The child is never gendered in the book. And so, I did a rhyming version that was gender-neutral. So, sometimes if instead of saying , I changed it to , you are perfection, as a way of getting around that, but I had to take a lot of liberties. The French translator just translated everything in the masculine singular, which is the heteronormative way that the French works. The Spanish works the same way, but to me, I felt that, both for the translator that I am and for the kind of book it was, it was more faithful to the book to try and do as much as possible to preserve that gender-neutral. I mean, it was written very carefully in today's world. But this is also something we haven't talked about yet, that I think the most important thing is to recreate the reading experience in a translation. Very often, especially for kids books or illustrated books, we have to take a lot more liberties in order to recreate that experience, but it's also true for the question of taboos or difficult words. If a book has things that are not easily explained or that you have to look up in the original, we shouldn't have to gloss that in the translation. The reader should get to do as much work in the translation as they do in the original, if that makes sense.
Danny: When you were talking a moment ago, Lawrence, about some of the, for example, machismo or something in the original text, and the ways you might be able to soften that and the way you might be able to produce in the English text that somehow mitigates the things that are most problematic in the original. This is something which you can, with very few exceptions, can only do in the words, and you can't do if the problem is in the pictures. So, you were talking about nudity, for example, and there is this famous example of the Sendak "In the Night Kitchen."
Lawrence: ”In the Night Kitchen," right.
Danny: In which the toddler-aged boy is naked, and there are these stories about prudish librarians drawing little diapers on this child. I translated a French picture book a couple of years ago where there was nothing objectionable really in the text. There was nothing problematic in the text, but it was pointed out by the first American editor who looked at it that there was not one person of color among any of the characters in this book. And this was not a conversation that anyone had had about this book when it was published in France. And became an issue when we published in English for reasons we understand. But that's not something which you can simply fiddle around a little bit with the words and disguise the problem. There is a lovely French picture book. I now can't remember the name. It came out a year or two ago. Which plays with this idea of what you're allowed to write in children's books. And the text basically says, on the verso side, the left-hand page, the text says, "This is a story about a cowboy. He likes to shoot guns and he likes to drink bourbon, or whatever, and he likes to smoke cigarettes, and he likes to swear." And on the opposite page, there is a picture of a monkey. And underneath the monkey, it says, "We're not allowed to show you a cowboy, so here's a picture of a monkey." And then, the next page it says, "Of course, we can't possibly show you a gun." So here, he's holding a banana. And then, the next page, "Of course, we can't possibly show you him swearing." And so, here he is singing a song. And I've had various conversations with publishers in the UK and the US about this book, because I feel it's such a lovely way of talking about what we can and can't put into children's books. But the problem is the fact that these things are there, even if they're there in order that we say we're not allowed to talk about him, means the publisher would have to be comfortable with a book in which someone has talked about smoking even if they're not smoking. And there is at least one publisher who said, "If we can take out the bits about the smoking and the drinking and the guns from the text, then we can certainly publish it." Which suggests maybe they hadn't understood the point of the book.
Lawrence: What the book was about.
Lyn: They really weren't interested in publishing it.
Danny: Maybe they just weren't.
Lawrence: And that was their euphemistic way of telling you that.
Danny: I think so.
Lawrence: I think there are also different attitudes, like what you were mentioning, the picture book that had no people of color depicted anywhere, which may be a reflection of the society. Probably not, but a lot of times, there are these blind spots that happen. I think this is also one of the biggest dangers of us not having enough translated books from all around the world, that we normalize those absences. Not just not having people of color, but not having books from a wide, diverse, global community. We are over-connected all around the world these days through things like Zoom and all of our social media and things like that. We're aware of what's going on, to a greater or lesser extent, from very young ages, I think. Being able to have access to, as well, stories and different kinds of stories and culture from these places and not just... Especially given the terrible things that are happening right now in the US. The American poet Patricia Smith tweeted the other day that the last time she remembered a televised assassination of a white person was JFK's assassination 57 years ago. She was just appalled at how it's become so common to show the murder of Black people. A lot of people have also been, very rightly, saying these days, yes, there's a lot of important work that needs to be happening, a lot of reading that needs to be happening about race and de-structuring everything, but there's also, we can't overlook Black joy and Black celebration and things like that. And I think that's something that's very important for all of us to do. I know that certainly, as a translator, or as someone who has a certain amount of privilege, one of the ways that I deal with it is that I translate a writer of color every year in one direction or the other. That's a personal commitment that I've made, that I do. Both of the cultures that I work in, both translating into English all around the world and translating into Spanish especially for Spain, need to have more writers of color translated in something that's... Very little books get translated in general. Very few writers of colors get translated into English, as well. These are a lot of issues that come up. I don't wanna talk too long. I can come back to this, if you wanna jump into any of 'em.
Lyn: Well, we have a question that is related to this. We have a ton of questions. So I'm gonna actually start with this one, because it relates to what you just said. Are children's books in other languages taking on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism in their countries? If so, would English language publishers of children's books have any interest in translating these books, or do they prefer safer subjects?
Danny: It depends. That's all I've got. It depends. There are certainly publishers all over the world who are doing interesting things, who are asking difficult questions in books, including books for quite young children, just as there are publishers in the English-speaking world who are doing that. And there are certainly some things to be found that we aren't producing ourselves, and we can import if we find someone else doing better than us. But I also think that one of the benefits is, Lawrence used that word joy, and I think one of the things that we also get is this celebration of lives all over the place that are not necessarily things that come to us because they embody problems that we somehow have failed to deal with ourselves. I don't know, Lawrence, whether there are particular examples of books or publishers you can think of, but certainly there are small publishers that are doing books that are interestingly, I guess, political, you'd call them that, in the Portuguese-speaking world and the Spanish-speaking word, just as there are in English. My sense is that it's mostly small publishers, and it's mostly publishers that are not easily scared. And this is probably the same about anglophone publishing, to some extent. That was a lot. Does that sound right?
Lawrence: You’re right. I would say that I do think that there are certain subjects that publishers in other languages do more easily. I think maybe one of the things that happens, there's a less materialistic parochial attitude towards the kids that what happens in English very often. So I think that, for instance, picture books about death. I think that many other cultures do them better, and a lot of the picture books that are published in English about the subject tend to be translations that come in like the Wolf Erlbruch book about Tulip. In my arms.
Danny: ”Duck, Death and the Tulip."
Lawrence: Yeah. There's a lot of books that treat the subject intelligently and treat the child readers intelligently without necessarily trying to soften it or avoid talking about it or avoid hiding the reality of the world.
Danny: It’s true with particular cultures though, as well. If you were to find the really interesting books about what would be considered difficult or taboo subjects in English from other countries, you will mostly find them coming from the Nordic countries, from Germany, from the Netherlands. And you'll also find them, in a lot of cases, one of the things that's also different is the speed at which the taboos change. So you will find books that deal with sexuality, with sex, with all manner of things that are finding their way into picture books in the English-speaking world now. And you'll find them in picture books from Denmark or Sweden that are 20 years old, 40 years old, where this problem was dealt with a long time ago, and this is simply something which is perfectly possible conversation to have without having to draw little diapers on all the pictures.
Lawrence: Yeah. Just to give a few more examples, especially because homophobia was one of the ones that was answered, I think that one of the very first picture books about a gay couple with a child was a photo-illustrated book translated, I think, from Danish or Swedish. I can look. It's behind me, but I'm blanking on it. But another really good example is "King & King," which is a Dutch import. That was a book that happened, that was brought in, in translation into English, long before. And it paved the way for other English language books to then come and be published much more openly, because that sort of broke the dam. To give an example of some non-Scandinavian or Northern European books, though, that also dealt with, or translations that dealt with things, would be Tera Gloomy, like "The Gas We Pass." All of the books that he had done that dealt with bodily functions in a way that hadn't been as easily child-friendly in time.
Danny: It’s also coming and going in waves within cultures. The taboos become strengthened and weakened with political waves, as well. And it's not hard to think about, even in the English-speaking world, books that were published 20 or 30 years ago that now would be seen as much harder taboo to break. A very famous one Lawrence oughta know is something like Babette Cole's "Mummy Laid an Egg!" which is a book about where babies come from. And there is an entire double-page spread which is just pictures of different sexual positions. It's incredibly funny, and it's a book for quite young children. It's done with immense charm and humor, and it's really really a very brilliant thing. But in a way, it felt like that came out at a time when there was a relaxing of some anxieties that probably, we've probably been pulling back in the other direction since then, in the English-speaking publishing book.
Lawrence: I think there was also, Jessica Kingsley published a translation of an Icelandic book about body positivity, which was something. Then again, it has a lot of naked bodies. That's the kind of thing that generally happens coming in. You have a few people in the English-speaking world who are doing this sort of thing and finding publishers for them, but I think that, a lot of times, that there are less taboos for these issues in many other territories. Just to mention a good, I mean, because there were a lot of issues. In just one book that you translated, Dan, "Don't Cross the Line!" is another good political book that we didn't mention yet. And also, Lyn, yours, the one that you translated of "King of the Jungle." Both of those are good examples of political books that are very au courant that are coming in from, in this case, from Portuguese-speaking. It's not only the Scandinavian Nordic countries that are doing hard-hitting work that we need to have in English.
Danny: It’s also true that there are different cultures suddenly in different bits of Europe have had different attitudes towards politics as something that is part of your day-to-day life. There are lots of really interesting... Lawrence and I were talking on Twitter the other day about another Iberian, I think it was an Iberian dictatorship picture book.
Lawrence: It’s, yeah, A Sí La Dictatdura.
Danny: Right, and there's something about using the dictatorship if you are in a country where the dictatorship was very recent and very present and very obvious, that actually allows us to have conversations about authoritarianism. Any country where the authoritarianism has been more subtle, in some ways, has been, in some cases, under the surface, but has certainly been more devious and less obvious, which is why a book like "Don't Cross the Line!" But also, there are books, there's a British illustrator called David McKee with books like "The Conquerors," which are finding ways of using these really big, what feel like, big political things that happened over there. So those countries that have dictatorships and things. You know, those ones, those Latin countries that do these eccentric things, and actually saying, well, this is not an alien thing to us, even if we haven't been talking about our politics with this kind of seriousness that it certainly has required up 'til now.
Lyn: Yeah, okay, we have another question related to that. And I've been trying to get in. Question by Mohini Gupta, who is a writer and translator from New Delhi. What happens when we are reverse translating into our languages, say, an Indian language? And when we lack vocabulary in combating racism, homophobia, sexism, et cetera, things we wanna address with kids in these languages, it becomes even more important to talk to young kids in other languages about these issues and bring some of this awareness back into our cultures through our languages as well. How do you suggest translators navigate this limitation?
Lawrence: I was actually just gonna respond to what Danny had said, though, about, and this is gonna tie in, 'cause I was gonna use Mohini as an example. The whole question of colonialism and colonialism in translation, with the David McKee saying that stuff over there, it's something that we did mention briefly. Maybe, I guess, the easiest thing, one of the books that I've translated is "La Bastarda." So, this is the first novel by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English. It was published by the Feminist Press in the US and by Modjaji Books in South Africa. It was published as an adult book. It won an award for young adult literature. It has a 16-year-old protagonist. One of the things I found as a white male American translating an African woman of color was, for instance, it uses the word curandero. So, if I translate “witch doctor,” that's a very loaded colonialist term. One of the things we did in the translation was I... The book was written in Spanish, but includes a lot of Fang vocabulary. In the original Spanish, it has a gloss at the end. What I did was I contextualized or added definitions in the text rather than having the glossary so that it was more readable. I didn't want people to think I translated the book from the Fang. In the dialogs, we left a lot of the individual terms of endearment. So it would say the grandmother, but it would actually say abuela in the actual dialog. So it had the same texture of the Spanish. And one of the things I said was we should leave curandero in the original, glossing it, so that it's understandable what this figure is. To me, it was not appropriate for me, as a white American, to be using witch doctor, even though that could be a valid term for that. One fascinating example was one of a translation Mohini has done herself of translating Vikram Seth's "Beastly Tales" into Hindi. So, in this case, Mohini is translating an Indian writer writing in English. And one of the things that she did was, for instance, in one of the poems, he talks about the BBC, the Beastly Broadcasting Corporation. And what Mohini did, because of the colonial situation of the British and India, she adapted all of the British references to local Indian references. So she made new puns of different animal related, but using Indian radio stations. This is something she did because of the colonial, political situation, which would be very different than if she was translating a Hindi writer into English, especially into English not for an Indian publisher, but for a publisher outside of India. In that case, you would wanna preserve as much as possible of the cultural nuances and the details. Mohini is also in charge of coordinating a very interesting series of interviews with translators called "Mother Tongue Twisters." One of them was by a translator named Rita Kothari who was talking about hybridity. This is something I wanted to touch on, and we hadn't yet. Because we often use a lot of languages, there's not always a purity of the people, even people who read the translation don't necessarily have a full-on familiarity with the other language. An example would be Hinglish, Hindi and English, or Spanglish. It's very different to read something in Spanglish or translate something in Spanglish if you're in Texas than if you're in the UK for instance. There's a lot of geopolitical things that work, as well. I may have gotten too far from her question. Danny, do you wanna be more faithful in answering?
Danny: The only thing I'll add is that one of the things Mohini was talking about in the question was if we don't have the language to talk about the things. This is one of the places where children's books have that benefit, because of the thing we were talking about earlier with this dual readership. For the younger children, there is a kind of potential mediation, or at the very least, there is a potential conversation that happens around every book, every reading experience, because up to a certain age, there is always an adult involved, if not reading the book to you, finding the book for you, allowing you to read a book, not allowing you to read a book. There is some kind of potential conversation with a parent or the teacher, whoever it is, an older sibling. And that conversation allows you to explore a lot of the things that might be challenging for a reader for whom this is a new thing to think about.
Lawrence: I think the most recent book that you've translated, it just came out, is "The Refuge." And even from the title, I think that's something where some readers might not, or might need help understanding what refuge means, like from a lot of the other concepts that are in the book.
Danny: So that one, I'm delighted and impressed you have a copy. It's only been out for about 20 minutes, that book. It's very lovely though. Thank you for the advertisement. It's something which we talked a little bit about with the editor. Again, editing is another issue. It's completely different with children's books and especially with picture books. There are lots of words in that book, certainly in my English translation, which I wouldn't expect a four- or five-year-old to know. But I fully expect the grownup, or the older person of the four- or five-year-old, to be able to talk about. So, things that are not completely explained in the context or that's not explained because the pictures do most of the work. Those are the things that are part of the conversation, which kinda shores up every reception that the child has it for reading, that experience.
Lawrence: Even the themes of the book are also very directly addressed, themes of war, escaping, coming to another country. I've actually translated a book that's, the friendship is very similar, but the background is very different. It's a book coming out later this fall from Blue Dot Kids Press called "The Day Saida Arrived," which is a friendship between a Moroccan and a Spanish girl who learn one another's language and have adventures together. It's a much sweeter story, if that makes sense. The reasons behind the going from one country to the other or being a refugee in another country are still there, but they're much more offstage than they were in this book, which I think deals with them well, but I think again, going back to the question of stories that deal with this for a very young age, I think, tend to be more common in some other languages than in English necessarily.
Danny: Essentially, about that particular book and what you're describing it, the way it deals is quite on the nose about this is actually a story about a girl who came over on a boat and had a difficult experience. Almost all of the more difficult side of that story is in the words rather than the pictures. The pictures are not frightening. The pictures of the boat, it's kind of impressionistic, and it's a little bit odd, and it's very beautiful, and the colors are generally very light. Right, and so, the pictures, which are the thing that the child is getting the most direct access to, because the child, if you have a child on your knee and you're reading them the book, they are reading the pictures. They've got the text coming in their ears, and the pictures coming in their eyes. And the text is being mediated by this person who's being reassuring and telling them whatever they want to tell them. The thing which the children are getting directly is the pictures, and the pictures actually are quite young, in a way, they're younger than this story. The pictures are much safer, are much less alarming, than, as you say, the on-the-nose story about this difficult situation would suggest.
Lyn: I’d like to get one more question in.
Lawrence: If I could just finish on this about translation and pictures, this is just a picture book of mine that was published in Brazil. It's set in Sao Paulo. One of the things that happened is, no parking is no estacionar, so when it was published in English and Singapore, they had to actually change the illustrations to make it “no parking.” So, one of the things we don't often think about, or a lot of people, I think, don't think about, is that you sometimes need to have translation in the illustration, not just in the words.
Danny: I have, on one occasion, had to... There was a page in a book which had, it was a French book, which had lots of pictures of vegetables. I'm not gonna go into too much detail, because it's very odd. But lots of pictures of vegetables, which were captioned with what they sound like if you have a blocked nose. So, in the way that orange in English, because it has an N, “oradge," it sounds like it has a D rather than an N. And one of the problems we had translating it is there are certain words which sound funny if you have a blocked nose, if you're speaking French, but don't in English because they have the wrong letters. And I did have to write an illustrator once and say, "There is a picture of carrot on page 14. Could we possibly change it? Just change the color so it looks like a parsnip, because if it has a parsnip, it has an N in it, and then I can make the same joke. One of the weird—
Lyn: All right. One more question real quick. Because people are pretty insistent, do you usually pitch books you found and loved to publishers? Are you known to those publishers usually? Or do you also approach new-to-you publishers? If so, how do you approach them? Emails, book fairs, snail mail, phone calls? I think we have a lot of practical questions here, and maybe we can try to address a little bit, at least one of them.
Danny: My answer is quite quick. I tend to pitch things very rarely. I tend to get approached, and I say yes or no. There are certain publishers I work with quite a lot, and with whom I have a ongoing conversation. So it's not just they buy a book and send it to me and ask me if I want to publish it. They'll also send me things they're thinking about, and those are ongoing conversations about things they might publish, which happens in person, happens at book fairs, happens by email, and so forth. I relatively rarely pitch things. That's not to do with thinking publishers are unreceptive, so much as the fact that I'm not nearly, compared, say, to Lawrence, I'm not nearly as well read in the books that are coming out in the other languages. I don't often come across books that are really exciting, new books in Portuguese or Spanish or French. Often, the first I hear about them is when a publisher is thinking about acquiring them.
Lawrence: I definitely do pitch quite a lot. I read widely. I do go to a lot of book fairs. I love going to the book fairs. The Jewish mother in me loves matchmaking. I love finding the right publisher for a book even if it's not languages that I do, and I'm not gonna translate it myself. Because I also write, especially picture books... Of the 120 books that I've published, at least more than 60 of them are books. There's a lot of publishers that I work with as an author. A lot of times, I'm very familiar with their catalogs. There's lots of publishers that I know and meet or have met from the book fairs and things like that, and I'll fall in love with a book and either try and pitch it or do a sample. I am also asked very often by publishers here in Spain and in Latin America to do samples of books for them. Sometimes those books sell. Sometimes those books sell, and I'm not asked to do the translation. Sometimes I am. These things happen.
Lyn: And is there a quick piece of advice you'd give to somebody who wants to become a translator of children's books?
Lawrence: I think it's important to read, and to read in both the target language and the original language. It's as important to be reading, if you're translating into English, to be reading current contemporary English language children's books in the same age range that you're looking for. Age range is also something we didn't quite talk about, but one of the things with taboos, especially from Spanish to English, the ages tend to swing. Something that might be , or young adult in Spain, would actually be middle grade. The publishing categories don't map out as easily. There's a lot of leeway, I think, in that. This is one of the reasons why it's important to read not just a book you wanna translate from Spanish. Let's say you need to know then. Is this book with a 14-year-old, is it actually young adult based on that they're smoking or having sex or things like that, because in that cultures, that's okay, whereas kids tend to read older than they are. So, a book for eight- to 12-year-olds might feature a 13- or 14-year-old child, 'cause kids wanna read what's coming up, not things that they're babyish.
Danny: I think the thing about reading the books in your target languages is more important for children's books than it is even for adult books. And I think it's certainly more important with picture books than it is with fiction, if only because the picture book is a form in a way that young adult fiction is not a form. Young adult fiction is only a genre. Picture books are a very particular form. And I think a lot of us, the only reason, if I'm any good at translating picture books, it's not because my language skills, as it were, my other language skills are particularly good, because I have, in other capacities, worked with children's books, and I have some understanding of how picture books work, to do with pacing, to do with architecture, and to do with structure, and to do with the way the words and the pictures work together. And so, understanding the form of a picture book, if you're going to be trying to translate them, trying to write them, or trying to pitch them is as important as feeling comfortable about... I think, not doing that is like trying to translate poetry without reading poetry. It's very different from having continuous prose of a novel, say.
Lawrence: I think it was one thing that we hadn't yet talked about is that the difficulties, or the extra difficulty, in translating picture books or illustrated works is that you can't contradict what's on the page. Very often, you need to take things apart and rewrite them and put them back together again, knowing how a picture book works, to make it work as a picture book in the target language, which is a very different kind of thing than if you're just translating pure text, when you have a lot more freedom to take liberties or different kinds.
Danny: Well, what happened is you end up trying to be faithful, but you're faithful to the pictures rather than the original text. So you'll often find, just very briefly, if there's a picture of a little boy in a blue coat and a green hat, and the text describes him as a little boy in a blue coat, I might, for some reason in my translation, want to call him the little boy in the green hat, because I need it to rhyme with something.
Lawrence: Because you have to recreate the reading experience if it's a rhyming book.
Danny: What I can't do is call him the little boy in the orange coat, because he quite clearly is not wearing an orange coat. So I can use the pictures. I can write to the pictures. So long as that relationship is maintained, if their intention is maintained. The pictures are almost always the thing that I'm trying to be faithful to, and the text is much less fixed. It's much less interesting than that.
Lawrence: There are ways, also being faithful, I think we're running out of time. One last thing, just—
Esther: You’re over time.
Lawrence: We’re over time? I'll stop.
Esther: And no surprise that you guys all had a lot to say to each other. It was fascinating. Thank you so much.
Allison: It was really wonderful. Really wonderful. Thank you all for all of your contributions to the conversation. And once again, we'd like to thank our partners PEN America, the Center of Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center with special gratitude to World Poetry Books, which sponsored today's conversation. Thank you all.
Esther: Thank you.
Allison: We look forward to seeing you next week.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
The conversations are hosted by Esther Allen & Allison Markin Powell.
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