Interview: Laura Watkinson on Children’s-YA Book Translation

SCBWI Netherlands’ Laura at Bologna

By Angela Cerrito

Laura Watkinson’s translation of Soldier Bear (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers) was recently awarded the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. The award is given by the American Library Association to an American publisher for the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States and translated into English for publication in the United States.

I met Laura years ago at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair where she was representing SCBWI’s chapter in The Netherlands, and I really enjoyed learning about her work translating books.

A true story about a bear enlisted into the military would be beyond fascinating but that this took place during a world war and the bear, Voytek, traveled on such a long journey sounds like a fantasy. Have you ever read anything like it before?

I have to say that the story came as a complete surprise to me as well. I knew that army regiments sometimes have mascots, such as a goat or a dog, but a bear! I’d never heard of such a thing before.

Then I started looking into Voytek’s story and reading other books about him, and I was amazed to hear that this really was a true story. There are photographs of him and even short pieces of film footage on YouTube. It’s a fantastic story, and I’m pleased to have played a part in getting it out there.

And, of course, Voytek wasn’t the only animal in the camp. Kaska, the monkey, is also an important character, along with her baby, Kubus, and she actually existed, too. There’s a photo of the real Kaska and Kubus in the back of the book, along with the photos of Voytek.

After the war, Voytek went to live in Edinburgh Zoo, and I found out as I was translating the book that my Scottish mother-in-law had seen this famous bear at the zoo when she was a girl. It felt good to have a very vague personal connection to Voytek. I’m related to someone who actually saw him in real life!

What a wonderful personal connection to Voytek! Voytek was actually a soldier in the Polish military, yet traveled from Iran to Italy and then to Scotland with his group. What was it like to translate about such a diverse mix of cultures in a historical and wartime setting?

Ah, incidentally, at this point I should probably comment on the spelling of the bear’s name. Technically speaking, the correct Polish spelling is “Wojtek.” However, his name was often written as “Voytek” in the English-speaking press, and we decided to retain that spelling for the book, as it’s probably easier for younger readers to handle.

Voytek’s friend Peter was also a “Piotr” in fact, but he’s often called “Peter” or “Pete” in the literature. It’s just one of those things that happen when you travel across borders and into different languages.

As for the setting, the focus of the book is on Voytek and his relationships with his friends and fellow soldiers and the other animals on the camp. He travels in a bubble, as part of a gang. There’s definitely a sense of moving and different environments in the book, though, and you can follow his movements on the maps: he travels a long way from his life in the desert as a cub, crossing the sea to Italy on a military ship, and serving as a soldier in Italy, before moving on to Scotland.

The most important thing is always his bond with his friends, but there are also some hilarious encounters with other people and animals. Voytek manages to capture a spy at one point (a true story) and lands himself in trouble with farmers in Italy and Scotland. His camping holiday with his friends in Italy was one of my favourite episodes. That poor goose!

Kathleen Merz who edited Soldier Bear wrote that the process of acquiring a book to be translated comes first with a synopsis and sample chapters provided by the publisher and next a readers report from a translator who speaks both languages. Do you ever create these reader reports for publishers? If so can you tell us about the process? 

Yes, the typical route to translation will involve a report from a reader who is familiar with both languages and cultures, the source and the target. I write a number of these reports every year for various publishers in the U.K., U.S. and Australia. They’re usually a page or two, no longer than three pages, and will include a summary of the plot and the reader’s impression of the strengths and possible weaknesses of the book.

As a translator, I comment on whether I think the book would translate well or if there might be some cultural or linguistic issues that would prove tricky to get across.

I also like to provide a survey of how well the book has been received in its home country and in any other translations that have already come out.

One children’s-YA editor stressed to me that she’s particularly interested in hearing about the emotional impact of the book: what feeling does it leave you with?

She’s right. I often feel that my emotions on putting the book down are a good indicator of my feelings about the book as a whole – and whether I’d like to translate that particular book!

As a translator, it’s always best to read the actual book before you get started on the translation, so that you can form your own impression. I don’t need to see the reports; they’re just intended for the publishers.

Perhaps it’s also worth pointing out that these reports aren’t only written by translators, but also by interested readers who have an understanding of both markets. It’s just that translators are an obvious choice for the job, but often I’ll end up translating a book that I haven’t written a report on.

It’s a funny old process. The publishers from the various houses meet at the book fairs in, say, Bologna or Frankfurt and discuss the books that sound like interesting options for translation.

However, it’s most often the case that the English-speaking publisher can’t read the book in the original language, so they have to call in someone they trust for another opinion. Often, at this stage, they don’t even have sample translations to go on, so they have to rely on the reader.

One literary publisher is taking a new approach to the issue of acquiring titles for translation. And Other Stories led by Stefan Tobler, has formed reading groups to focus on particular languages. The groups read a number of books in the foreign language and then discuss the titles to see if there are any books that they’d like to put forward for translation. It seems like a great approach for finding good new books and means that the publisher doesn’t have to rely on just one or two readers’ opinions, which has to be healthy.

I haven’t heard of anyone doing something similar for children’s books though. Might be a fun idea!

Your experience includes translating a wonderful variety of books from novels for children and adults, graphic novels and nonfiction. What is the process like to make a work come to life in a new language?

Learn more about Laura.

When I’m translating, I translate what the author writes and aim to reflect the voice and atmosphere that he or she has chosen.

I read, think, put words down on the page, ponder, come back again, tweak, polish – pretty much the same process as most writers, I think.

However, you do of course have the figure of the author lurking in the background.

You have a responsibility to that person and you want to make certain that you do justice to their words, which sometimes involves asking for second opinions from friends and other translators, and perhaps getting in touch with the author if he or she is still alive.

What languages do you speak? Do you translate between each of these languages?

Hmm, well, probably about 80% of my translation work is from Dutch. I translate a wide variety of texts from Dutch, from children’s books and graphic novels to literature and texts about art. I’m probably more connected to the Dutch language and publishers because I live in Amsterdam.

However, I’ve also translated a number of children’s books from Italian and the occasional piece from German. German was always my first foreign language – it’s what I studied at school and university. I’ve also lived in various places in Germany, for about four years in total.

I only ever translate from the foreign language into my native tongue. There are plenty of native speakers of Dutch who can do a far better of translating into Dutch than I can! They’ve been speaking the language all their lives, after all.

What are the best and worst things about working as a translator? Is it solitary work like writing? What would you say is the difference between writing and translating?

Zorba guards the writing space.

Best thing: you get to work with books. I’ve always been a big reader and it’s wonderful to work with stories professionally. It’s always interesting to help bring different cultures together.

And most of the other translators, authors and publishers are really great people to work with, too, which is a huge plus point about the job.

I also love the fact that it’s a job you can do anywhere. I was recently translating a book about Berlin, and I took my laptop off to Berlin and spent six weeks there doing research and working on the translation.

Worst thing: it’s possibly the lack of recognition. Reading some reviews, you might think that a book gets magically translated into English at the press of a button in Google Translate.

I think that perhaps the funniest – you have to laugh – review of a translated book I ever saw included a great long list of facts at the beginning, including the name of the author (of course), publisher (yes), price (okay…), number of pages (hmm), font (maybe interesting from a design point of view), and type of paper used (huh?), but neglected entirely to mention the name of the translator, i.e. the person who had written every single word of the book that was being reviewed.

I laughed – and then I wrote a note to point out the critic’s omission. They were very apologetic, but said that it hadn’t actually occurred to them to mention the translator’s name. Sigh.

And then there are the occasions when the perceived weaknesses of a book are blamed on the translator. There’s honestly only so much you can tweak when you’re translating a book. You have various options at word and sentence level and you can spot consistency issues, but plot and character issues are generally out of the translator’s hands.

It’s so frustrating to see that tired old “lost in translation” line trotted out when you know how much work goes into the process of translation and how many tricky issues the translator has to solve.

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Good and bad: yes, it’s a solitary profession like writing, but I don’t mind that so much. It can be a little difficult though, when you suddenly find yourself in company after a few days of battling away with a text and it feels as though you’ve forgotten how to talk properly to real people. You can find yourself getting a little too excited! Wheee!

Translators are a pretty friendly bunch, though, and a bunch of us use Facebook as a kind of water cooler, for sharing our news and just chatting about translation problems and other stuff.

Goodness knows how translators ever coped before the internet came along! And, of course, organisations like SCBWI are also fantastic for meeting other people who are enthusiastic about great stories and books.

Soldier Bear has certainly been recognized. How did you find out that this book had been awarded the Mildred L. Batchelder Award? What it is like to be an award winner?

Well, strictly speaking, the award goes to the publishing house, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, as recognition for their work in publishing translated books, but I’m delighted to have been involved in the process and so pleased that the book has been recognized by the American Library Association.

I heard about the award when Kathleen Merz from Eerdmans dropped me an excited email. It completely blew me away, as I had no idea that Soldier Bear was even up for the Batchelder. It had felt like just any other Monday afternoon up until that point.

Anyway, I was just in the middle of responding to Kathleen (I’m sure there were lots of exclamation marks involved…) when my SCBWI friend Roxie Munro messaged me and posted on Facebook to ask if I’d heard about the award. There was then a bit of a party on my Facebook page, and my husband and I went out for a couple of glasses of champagne that night.

Bibi Dumon Tak, the author of Soldaat Wojtek, the original Dutch book, also got in touch, which was actually our first contact. Of course, we’re both absolutely delighted that the bear is a winner.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on now?

I’m currently translating a wonderful middle-grade book for Enchanted Lion in Brooklyn. It’s called Mr. Orange, and it’s written by a Dutch writer called Truus Matti and set in New York during the Second World War.

Linus, the protagonist, is a boy whose father runs a fruit and vegetable store. One of the customers on Linus’s fruit delivery route is an artist with whom he develops a close friendship. Linus calls him Mr. Orange, because of all the oranges he orders, but we later find out that he is in fact the artist Mondrian. Matti subtly tells the reader about just how innovative Mondrian’s art was, but she also creates a wonderfully rounded character in Linus through her depiction of his relationships with his friends and family, particularly his big brother, who has gone off to fight in Europe.

Comic books and superheroes are also very important to Linus and his brother, which is an element of the story that I’m really enjoying.

Mr. Orange sounds like it is packed with great characters. Can you recommend any resources for people who would like to know more about becoming a translator?

I’m a member of the Society of Authors, which has a section for translators (Translators’ Association) and also a children’s/YA section, CWIG, the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group.  And, of course, there’s SCBWI. Both memberships are very useful, for professional advice and support from other writers/translators.

This free downloadable book on literary translation also gives a good overview of the profession for anyone who is thinking of making the leap (scroll down for the PDF).

I also have a list of links on my website.

Translation is a great profession to work in. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys getting really, really wrapped up in stories.

Thanks so much for the interview, Angela. Hope to see you again in Amsterdam soon! Hey, how about paying another visit to our SCBWI chapter?

Laura, thank you for sharing your expertise. I dream of visiting Amsterdam again someday!

Cynsational Notes

Interview with Translator Laura Watkinson by Sarah Blake Johnson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “In this case of a picture book, that’s nice and easy – the translator
produces a translation of the whole text and the American publisher has
access to both the pictures and story and can assess the book there and
then. …if a foreign-language publisher is trying to sell something
like a YA novel, it makes little financial sense for them to have the
whole book translated and time is also an issue, so they’ll usually have
just an excerpt translated to take along to the book fair.”

Angela Cerrito writes by night and is a pediatric physical therapist by day.

Her debut novel The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011) was selected for VOYA’s Top of the Top Shelf 2011 and Top Shelf for Middle Grade Readers 2011.

She is the Assistant International Advisor for SCBWI and regularly attends the Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs.

When she’s not writing, Angela enjoys eating, climbing in caves and
jumping off cliffs. She lives in Europe with her husband, two
daughters, a big black cat, a little white dog and a talking parrot.

Angela covers the children’s-YA book scene in Europe and beyond for Cynsations. Read an interview with Angela.

6 thoughts on “Interview: Laura Watkinson on Children’s-YA Book Translation

  1. Laura & Ann, I agree–Laura & Angela both did a terrific job. I'm sad to hear there weren't many books in Spanish for your husband as a young reader, L. Hopefully, your own kids have more choices, English, Spanish & bilingual editions.

  2. Angela & Laura,

    Thanks to you both for a fascinating interview. Translation is hard and it is under-appreciated, so I was really pleased to see you share those frustrations and successes with a wider audience. Translators need to be recognized for their hard work, which brings us all closer together by allowing us to read stories in languages that are not our own! Kudos to ALA as well for this award.

    -Kathleen Ahrens

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