Translator Laura Watkinson founded the Dutch chapter of the SCBWI. She also translates books into English, from Dutch, Italian and German. Her literary interests vary and her projects range from children’s picture books to adult novels and comics.
In 2012, her translation of another one of Bibi Dumon Tak’s books, Soldier Bear for Eerdmans, also illustrated by Philip Hopman, also won the American Library Association’s Batchelder Award, and in 2014 she won the ALA’s Batchelder Award with her translation of Mister Orange by Truus Matti (Enchanted Lion Books).
On top of that, her translation of The War within These Walls by Aline Sax, with illustrations by Caryl Strzelecki (Eerdmans), was named one of the three Batchelder Honor Books 2014. The latter book had already won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
Laura’s part of the SCBWI Europolitan Conference faculty. The conference will take place April 4 and April 5 in Amsterdam.
Welcome, Laura! I am so happy that you could join us for this interview. Let me start with a big hoorah! You must be thrilled to bits that another one of your translations won the ALA’s Mildred Batchelder Award. This time Bibi Dumon Tak’s Mikis and the Donkey. Your translations seem to strike a chord in the U.S. What is the significance of this award for you, for your translations and for Dutch children’s books?
Thanks, Mina! Yes, I couldn’t be more delighted that Bibi’s book won the Batchelder Award this year. So much of it is down to great little publishers with big ambitions and dedication to children’s literature from all over the world. The people at both Enchanted Lion and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers have fantastic taste and select great books for translation.
It’s wonderful that the ALA encourages books in translation with this award, as it means young readers have an opportunity to find out what children in other countries are reading. It’s all about bringing new and interesting voices to a different readership.
It’s not so much a question of exporting Dutch and Flemish culture, but more about the skill of these writers and illustrators. After all, Mikis and the Donkey was set in Greece, Soldier Bear was about a group of Polish soldiers and their mascot, and, while Mister Orange was about Dutch artist Mondrian, it was actually set in New York.
Great stories are universal. It’s wonderful to have that recognized by publishers and readers who are interested in books from other countries.
You translate not only from Dutch but also from German and Italian. You must have a love for languages. Could you tell us a little about that love?
I gravitated towards languages at school, partly because I had such enthusiastic language teachers, but also because I feel that there’s a certain magic in learning a new code and suddenly being able to communicate with other people by using different words and sounds. I went on to study languages at university.
As a translator, it’s great to be able to convey something of a country’s culture by transporting its literature into a new language and a new environment.
How did you decide on a career in translation?
I never really thought too hard about what sort of job I might have after university.
I was fascinated by the subject I was studying, so I enjoyed the experience of being a student and traveling to study abroad, and didn’t really focus too much on what might come next.
I later spent a few years as a language teacher and also did occasional translation jobs, but it took me a while before I moved into full-time translation.
As a student and a teacher, I lived in a variety of places in Europe: Aberdeen, London, Milan, and a number of different cities in Germany, before moving to The Hague and now Amsterdam.
As I moved around, I came to realize just how flexible translation and writing is as a career. If you have a laptop, you can take your job wherever you want. Translation’s really the ultimate in portable careers.
Most importantly, translation is a constant challenge and a puzzle, so there’s always something interesting going on. Every book and every text has its own quirks, and I enjoy the process of getting to know them and working out how to handle their intricacies.
You translate a wide range of books, from picture books to graphic novels and more literary texts. What type of books do you most enjoy translating? Are there particular challenges associated with different texts?
I particularly enjoy working on picture books, as they’re so much fun. I translated a couple of very nice titles for Book Island in New Zealand: Annemie Berebrouckx’s Bernie and Flora and Sir Mouse to the Rescue by Dirk Nielandt and Marjolein Pottie. Those two books are both bubbly and full of life, and they’re great tales for little ones who are new to stories. It’s important to keep the tone light and to make the story easy for parents to read aloud. So, with those translations, I’ll read them out loud to myself (and anyone else who will listen) over and over again.
It can be tricky when the words relate to some visual gag that’s elaborated in the illustrations. If it’s a joke that doesn’t work in English, you have to go back to the drawing board and create a new English version that matches what’s going on in the pictures. The illustrations are there to stay, so you have to craft the words accordingly, while respecting the spirit of the original text.
You translated a Dutch classic, Tonke Dragt’s De brief voor de koning (The Letter for the King), which first came out in 1962 and is a book that generations of young Dutch readers grew up with. It took over 50 years for this book to be translated into English. Can you tell us a little about how Pushkin Press made the decision to publish the book, and how you came to translate it?
The Letter for the King really is a book that should have been translated into English a long time ago. As you say, it’s a classic in the Netherlands and, in 2004, it was even voted the best Dutch children’s book of the previous fifty years.
It had been translated into many other languages, but the English breakthrough somehow never came. Who knows why? It’s a classic for very good reasons.
The project finally took off when Pushkin Press’s new children’s imprint arrived on the scene. I gave Pushkin publisher Adam Freudenheim a sample and he was really enthusiastic, as were his children. So, finally, the book has made it to the U.K. It’s doing well there, and I’m hopeful that this will help lead to more children’s classics finally appearing in English translation.
In other news, I’m just working on the edits to the sequel of The Letter for the King. Expect to see The Secrets of the Wild Wood in bookshops this autumn…
You founded the Dutch chapter of the SCBWI in 2008. Why? And what do you think are the most important reasons to become a member?
I had some friends who had joined the SCBWI in the U.K. and they were all so enthusiastic about the society that I really wanted to become a member too. For me, it was mainly about meeting other people who were interested in writing, illustrating and, of course, translating children’s books, so that we could encourage one another and pass on tips.
So that was my motivation for setting up the chapter in the Netherlands, and I still feel that those connections and that support and friendship are the most important reasons for joining.
We’ve had so much fun since then – and a lot of success stories within the group. It’s great to know that we’re connected to other children’s book lovers and publishing professionals all over the world, and that’s something I believe only the SCBWI can offer on such a scale.
The SCBWI has recently set up a new initiative for translators, led by Avery Udagawa. There’s a lively forum and plenty of enthusiasm for children’s books in translation. Let’s hope it leads to even more great books in translation!
Thanks so much to you, Mina, for taking over the group and providing so much energy and enthusiasm. Here’s to the next few years!
is a published author, writing in Dutch and English. She has three
adventurous middle grade novels, over 40 short stories, and a Little
Golden Book out in The Netherlands.
The first volume of
a three-book middle grade series, Boreas and the Seven Seas, is
scheduled to come out in April 2015. She is the Regional Advisor for The
Netherlands and Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the
Dutch Authors Guild.
In addition to writing, Mina teaches creative writing. She is a
freelance editor and a mentor to budding writers. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @MinaWitteman.