Guest Interview: Lawrence Schimel on The Treasure of Barracuda & The Wild Book for #WorldKidLit Month

Lawrence Schimel, photo by Nieves Guerra

By Avery Fischer Udagawa

September is #WorldKidLit Month, a time to notice if world literature is reaching kids in the form of translations. 

Read a Cynsations interview with co-organizer Marcia Lynx Qualey.

Lawrence Schimel wears many hats: translator, writer, founder of SCBWI Spain, publisher at A Midsummer Night’s Press.

I talked with him about his translations of two middle grade adventure novels: The Treasure of Barracuda by Llanos Campos of Spain, and The Wild Book by Juan Villoro of Mexico. Both tie the joys of reading to wide experience, romance, daring and even ruckus!

Let’s get right into these rip-roaring reads, Lawrence. The Treasure of Barracuda features an 11-year-old boy named Sparks who serves on a pirate crew, which combs Europe and the Caribbean for a sought-after coffer from Asia. The place names alone are legion: Antigua, Barbados, Corsica, Dominica, Española, Formosa, Guadeloupe—and that’s just A through G. How did you keep track of the geography? 

I imagine it was much trickier for the author to keep track of the geography than for me as translator.

By the time I get a text, it has usually been seen by so many eyes at the original-language publisher: author, editor, copyeditor, proofreader. But mistakes do sometimes slip through, and as translators we often wind up stumbling on those because everything must make sense in order for us to translate it.

Had you spent time before with the nautical and pirate vocabulary? Also weapons, from arquebus to mauser . . . did you have to immerse yourself in other lore of the high seas?

That’s one of the interesting things about life as a translator: we’re always learning new things, and new terms, in both source and target language. Even with fiction. In terms of the weapons, they were new to me in both languages!

I did also try and refresh my “pirate speech” to make the dialogues and descriptions read well in English.

Little Pickle Press mounted a great social media campaign using terminology from the book, to get people ready for Talk Like a Pirate Day!

The pirates in The Treasure of Barracuda teach each other to read, in a process likened to “trying to teach a flock of ducks to sew.” The book offers remarkably apt descriptions of reading challenges, such as distinguishing b from d, paid from said. I presume that these examples differ in the original Spanish. How did you bring them into English?

Yes, this was one of the trickiest challenges in the book for me! Because the original samples weren’t plays on words in English, and it was important to recreate the experience of confusing letters and words in a way that would work for English readers. I’m glad that my solutions seem to have worked!

Here is one example, which in the original Spanish used the similarity of the letters U and V to confuse vida (“life”) and uida (“flight”) which should be spelled with a silent H at the beginning:

Muchas veces confundía letras, sobre todo la U y la V, con lo que en vez de «vida» leíamos «uida» (y encima así, sin H; ahora lo sé).

In the translation, I had to take liberties, to use words that could be confused in English, and wound up playing with how the lowercase letters b and d are mirror images of one another. I used:

Often he got letters all mixed up, especially the lower case “b” and “d” which looked so similar, so that instead of saying “drown” he read “brown”.

I love how the pirates experience their world anew once they can read. What are some of your favorite examples of this? 

Well, it may be giving away spoilers to give specific examples. But, once they can read, the pirates wind up saving themselves from danger, disaster, and confrontation, time after time, because of something they’re able to read (in the moment) or something they have read in the past. Whether this is because their adversary assumes that they are ignorant and can’t read, or because something they read bears an uncanny relation to their current predicament, reading offers them knowledge or information that winds up saving the day.

How did you find it translating the comedy, from short phrases (“his underpopulated mouth”) to whole sections, such as one in which a feud over paella leaves two brothers estranged? 

Author Llanos Campos has a background in theater, and I think the pacing of the novel shows her understanding, and it works well in both languages. Llanos manages to have both humor that is language-based, and humor that is more situational or slapstick.

I did worry that the argument about the paella might not be culturally relevant, but since it was playing up the stereotypes of Spaniards, written by a Spanish author, we thought we should leave it in as-is.

Llanos Campos

I found it quite effective! On another topic, the narrator Sparks occasionally addresses readers in the second person. Is this common in Spanish-language novels? 

I think this is actually a much more common convention in English-language novels, especially those from a certain period—“Reader, I married him,” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), etc. Although it’s true that in Don Quixote (1605, 1615), arguably the first modern novel, Cervantes does in fact address the reader.

I understand that The Treasure of Barracuda won the El Barco De Vapor Award in Spain. 

Yes, this was Llanos Campos’ first novel, which was published after it won the award in Spain—an award given out by Her Majesty the Queen in a gala celebration each year in Madrid. The book has been tremendously successful in Spanish (over 50 printings in just a few years), and there are two more volumes of Sparks’ further adventures.

Unfortunately, there aren’t yet plans for these to be published in English. Little Pickle, the publisher who brought out The Treasure of Barracuda, was bought by Sourcebooks a few months after publication, and their focus is on other areas for now.

Moving on to The Wild Book, please tell me about author Juan Villoro. I understand that he is extremely well-known in Mexico. 

Juan is a justly-beloved figure in Mexico, who is an author for both adults and kids. He is a polymath, writing fiction, essays, newspaper columns on politics and sports, children’s books, theater—all at a really high level of quality.

And The Wild Book has been a tremendous success, selling over a million copies in Spanish. I hope that as many English-language readers fall in love with this great story!

(And I know that, thanks to being able to read the English translation, editors in a few other countries have fallen in love with the book, and have bought the rights to publish it in their languages. It will be translated directly from the Spanish, but the editors were only able to read and evaluate it once the English translation was published.)

Juan Villoro

That’s great that the English translation of The Wild Book is having a ripple effect!

Let’s talk about this novel. In some ways it shows the adventure of becoming a passionate reader. It is far from didactic, however: 13-year-old Juan, whose parents are divorcing, endures domestic trauma before undertaking a quest in his eccentric uncle Tito’s library. Juan also experiences his first romance. Did you find it tough to translate the delicate mingling of hard reality, comedy and joy in this book?

I love Villoro’s voice, which I think translates well into English—Juan is very well-read, as this novel proves, and also speaks English very well, which I think made the translation easier.

I also love how he doesn’t write down to kids, but still writes from a young person’s perspective even when tackling difficult issues. He presents life, which is often messy and complicated, and full of both sorrow and joy, often at the same time—to the confusion of those who have to live through it.

I would also say that the book is about coming to appreciate the power and beauty of reading, not necessarily becoming an avid reader or a bibliophile. I think something really important in the book is how many of the characters, even the ones who start off as the most fervent readers, go through “dry spells” or moments when they’re not reading as much or it just doesn’t grab them, for various reasons having to do with other events in their lives.

The book really shows in a lovely way both how reading can exert an influence on our lives, and how our lives can exert an influence on our reading.

I enjoyed the many truisms about reading in The Wild Book: certain details make stories true; books seem to seek their readers. Censorship even comes up: “Trees are like books; if you dare try to burn one, you run the risk of burning them all.” Did you consider the act of reading in new ways as you translated? Did you want to run out and reread the authors mentioned in the book (Dante, Kafka, Melville…) as I did? 

I am an omnivorous reader, so so much in this book resonated for me. It is one reason I really wanted to have a chance to translate it.

I had originally written a reader’s report on the book for Arts Council England for a project being run by Danny Hahn, a precursor to the current In Other Words program that provides support for sample translations of children’s books to reach U.K. publishers. My report was so glowing that Arts Council England chose The Wild Book as one of the titles they commissioned samples for.

And there was interest from some U.K. publishers, but in the end none of them bought the rights, so after a year, I asked if I could show the sample to publishers in the United States.

Restless Books had just published Villoro’s collection of essays on football, God Is Round, when former publisher Joshua Ellison told me at the Frankfurt Book Fair that they were planning a children’s imprint, Yonder. I sent the sample to him, he shared it with the team, and they all fell in love with the book too.

Blind readers are depicted with much affection in The Wild Book. Readers absorb that some of the world’s great bibliophiles have been blind, making Wild a “window” read for children with no experience of visual impairment. Are there plans to publish a Braille edition as well, which could be a “mirror” read for blind children? 

I really admired how the issue of reading in Braille versus in “ink” is both an integral plot element but also a non-event in The Wild Book: the important part is reading and sharing stories.

I don’t know if there is yet a Braille edition in the works in English, but it would be a lovely idea. I myself was recently in Colombia for FILBo, the International Book Fair of Bogotá, where I launched a new picture book of my own, ¡Qué Suerte Tengo! illustrated by Juan Camilo Mayorga and published by Rey Naranjo. This title includes a spread in Braille to offer a “window” into that experience.

Which passages in The Wild Book did you most enjoy that describe first love? 

I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but I love the moment when Juan (who isn’t much of a reader, really) realizes how sharing a book with someone changes the experience of the book. So much of Juan and Catalina’s relationship is reflected in the series of adventure books they both read.

Something else I love about The Wild Book is that it offers a contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of Mexicans in recent United States political discourse. 

Not sharing that stereotypical view of Mexico, I wasn’t expecting such portrayals. But what I am very pleased about is that this is a Mexican novel that is not about Mexican-ness.

Very often, there are good books that wind up not getting translated because what publishers seem to look for in foreign fiction is either armchair tourism, or books that are only/mostly about identity, about being from those countries.

The Wild Book is a title that can be enjoyed by anyone who reads. It seduces you into looking at reading anew, and also gives nods to lots of classic stories (like Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)). Villoro gives enough clues that even if you haven’t yet read those stories, which you’ve likely heard of, however, you can still understand all the references.

At the same time, it is a Latin American book, and I was excited that he includes Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges among those universal stories. That was, I felt, something important—more so in the English translation than the original.

Have you ever heard or seen The Wild Book compared to the Harry Potter series? A boy who has experienced domestic hardship, finds himself in a welcoming magical world? 

I think it would be a stretch, actually. Because the magic in The Wild Book comes not from the world inhabited by the hero, but from reading. And from sharing reading. So it is really a very different approach.

Also, it is the opposite of the school story: The Wild Book is about how Juan, instead of getting to spend the summer holiday with his friend, winds up going to live with his eccentric uncle because of the unexpected separation of his parents. So instead of being surrounded by peers, he is isolated and surrounded by books. And that winds up changing everything.

Are there any other translations of Juan Villoro in the offing? 

Villoro does have more middle grade and young adult fiction, and I’d love to translate more by him.

Some of his adult fiction has recently been published, and I know at least one more title is being translated by Yvette Siegert.

I’m thrilled with how well Yonder/Restless Books credits you for translating The Wild Book. Why is translation a creative endeavor that, while different from authorship, must be recognized and credited? 

I live in Spain where the Intellectual Property Law considers translators as co-authors, who are required by law to share in the benefits of the book (and also things like payments when books get checked out from libraries).

People can get confused by how translation is a subsidiary copyright: I can translate anything I want to, just because I want to, but I can’t publish my translations without the consent of the copyright holder (the author, their agent or the publisher, usually—sometimes the heirs).

At the same time, the author (or their agent, publisher, heirs, etc.) can’t publish my translation of the work without my consent.

As you mention, a lot of publishers don’t recognize still how a literary translation is a co-authorship; my translation of a work will be very different from a different translator’s.

But Restless Books was a joy to work with in that regard.

Are you working on any new translations of children’s literature? 

I’m currently working with the Latvian poet and translator Arvis Viguls to co-translate a book of rhyming poetry for kids about being sick, Līze Analīze by Latvian poet Inese Zandere, illustrated by Reinis Pētersons, into Spanish for the Spanish publisher Esdrújula in Granada. It will be titled Anita está malita in Spanish.

Original Latvian edition, published by Liels un Mazs, 2012

The most recent book I’ve translated into English, La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (Feminist Press), was published as an adult novel, but features a 16-year-old girl in Equatorial Guinea.

It is a coming-of-age story about her search for her father—the mother died in childbirth, and because the father never paid the pride price to the mother’s family, Okomo belongs to her grandparents’ tribe. She struggles, as do other people she meets along the way, to challenge the patriarchal, polygamous Fang culture. This is the first novel by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English.

I do hope to have the chance to translate more middle grade or young adult fiction from Spanish.

There’s lots of great writing out there, it’s just a matter of finding editors who are open to works in translation. . . I think a lot of American editors tend to want books in translation to be about the culture they’re from—as a guide to life and issues in Honduras or Argentina, say—as opposed to just good stories that kids will love reading. But that’s changing, as The Treasure of Barracuda and The Wild Book show.

Hear, hear! 

Cynsational Notes 

Lawrence Schimel tweets in English as @lawrenceschimel. An author as well as a translator, he recently won a 2018 Crystal Kite Award for his picture book Will You Read My Book with Me? illustrated by Thiago Lopes (Epigram Books, 2017).

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator.

Find her on Twitter @AveryUdagawa.