Author-Translator Interview: Lawrence Schimel Talks Process, Market, & Access

By Elisabeth Norton

Today I’m talking with author and translator Lawrence Schimel. He writes in Spanish and English and has published over one hundred twenty books in a wide range of genres. He is also a prolific literary translator.

Lawrence, can you tell us more about how you became both an author and a translator?

I was and still am a voracious reader. I started writing in my teens because I ran out of things to read. I grew up speaking Spanish at home, so when I got to high school, I chose Latin and Homeric Greek as my foreign languages to study. So, translation was both a written exercise and also something I did innately at home.

I later decided to double up on languages and study Spanish as well because I didn’t have a strong grammatical basis (although because I had fluency in speaking, I actually got skipped ahead, so I am missing a year’s worth of grammar in my formal study of Spanish).

I started publishing short stories and poems when I was still in high school (my parents had to sign my first contracts since I was still a minor) and joined SCBWI back in 1992, I think, when I was at university. I had published over 25 books for adults before I moved to Spain in 1999 but didn’t publish my first children’s book (written in Spanish) until 2002. I had published stories and poems for kids in lots of anthologies and magazines before then, and also worked briefly at children’s bookstore Books of Wonder when I lived in New York City before moving to Spain.

Living in Spain and publishing regularly in both Spanish and English, I was increasingly asked by publishing colleagues or contacts to do translations, especially into English. Although I had started, back when I lived in New York, through one of those being-in-the-right-place situations: I ran into a comics publisher I knew socially who needed someone to take on an graphic novel project immediately because the translator who had been assigned to do it unfortunately had a heart attack and passed away.

Two of your books, Bedtime, Not Playtime! (Orca Book, 2021) and Early One Morning (Orca Book, 2021), both illustrated by Elina Braslina, will be released in various languages around the world on May 2, 2021 (International Family Equality Day). How did you it come about to make the book available in so many languages?

I’m both surprised and grateful that these two books, which are fun adventures of kids and pets that take place in same-sex families, are managing to reach young readers in so many different countries and languages. By the end of 2021, there will be 23 (!!) different editions of these books published around the world.

I say “editions” because sometimes there will be multiple publishers within the same language in different territories: For instance, there are three separate English-language editions being published: Orca Book Publishers (for North America), Peniarth (for UK) and Oratia (for New Zealand and Australia). Even though they’re all using my own rhyming self-translation into English, there are lots of variations among these English-language editions: whether to use “teddy bear” or “stuffie,” not to mention Mom, Mum, or Mam.

These two books are a project I control directly with the artist, Elina Braslina, and we’ve been working with a mix of traditional publishers and other partners (sometimes a queer bookshop who recognizes that there’s a lack of books like these on the market, an LGBT organization who plans to use them as part of an educational project, etc.).

Board books can be expensive to print, especially for smaller print runs, and one thing we’ve done was to coordinate some co-printings, especially helpful for those smaller languages or territories for whom the cost of printing on their own would be prohibitive.

That started because the original Spanish-language publisher for the books got a quote from their printer that was too high (€3.75 per copy) and I said, “Let me see if I can find some others to join the project and bring the costs down.” By getting some other European countries involved, the total combined print run brought the per until price down to €1.44 per copy—even for a smaller market, like Catalan, which published only 400 copies of each book.

So, the books were originally published simultaneously in Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Flemish, Latvian and Spanish in 2018, and then in Galician and Slovenian in 2020.

This year they are being published in Hungary, Russia, and Switzerland (in German, French, Italian, and Romansh) in separate editions from different rainbow family organizations, all coinciding to celebrate IFED.

Later in the year, they’ll also be published in English (the three different editions mentioned before), Quebecois, Icelandic, and Portuguese (Brazil), with a Swedish translation forthcoming next year. (Some other editions that were scheduled for last year are still on hold because of the pandemic.)

Was it difficult finding translators for so many languages? What was your process for finding them?

I have a vast network of translator friends and colleagues, and also know many of the translators who’ve already translated other books of mine. Often, when foreign rights are sold, the author is not directly involved with the decisions as to who will translate a book. I write in both Spanish and English, and when I found out that one of my picture books ¡Vamos a ver a papá!, illustrated by Alba Marina Rivera (Ekare, 2010) had sold to Groundwood, it had already been translated into English by Elisa Amado.

It was fascinating to be translated into my mother tongue, and it also helped me step back and be just the author of the book and let her make decisions as translator. With one exception: I asked that they keep Papá in the title, instead of using Daddy, which they respected. It tells the other side of the immigration story, not of those going to a new country, but of the people left behind, in this case a girl in Latin America whose father is working in another country and sending money home to the family. It was published by Groundwood as Let’s Go See Papá! in 2011 and they’re now bringing out a paperback edition this May.

In this case, since I’ve been doing all the rights selling, I’ve also tended to work closely with the translators for these two books, and have often helped find the translators for the projects–especially when they’re being published by a rainbow family NGO instead of a traditional publisher (which might have its own network of translators).

Actually, sometimes it has happened the opposite way: translator friends have made a rhyming version into a language, which Elina has laid out with the art, which we’ve then used to approach potential publishers or other partners who might be interested in the project. For instance, we had a Welsh translation before we found the Welsh publisher that is bringing out the books.

Both books, Bedtime, Not Playtime!, will also have two French versions. I live in a country with spoken dialects (Swiss German and Swiss French) that differ from the written forms of the languages German and French. It is only in the last few years that I’ve seen a few children’s books published in dialect. Why do you think it’s important to have books published in dialect and not just in the formal, written form of a language? What led you and your publisher(s) to make the decision to publish more than one French version?

There are a lot of questions here so let me work backwards.

One thing that’s interesting is that for the Québecois edition published by Orca Book Publishers, the translator Raquel Martinez translated from my English-self translation that Orca is publishing, so that the two versions match closely. The European French edition, by Anne Cohen Buecher, was translated directly from the Spanish original.

(Anne had translated one of my Spanish-language books into French, and we share a special translator-relationship because we’ve sometimes translated the same books or authors, she into French and I into Spanish. Alas, we also both suffer from insomnia, and one sleepless night she translated both books which helped us with placing the European French edition.)

But to answer the other part of the question, I think it is vitally important for kids to be able to have books–and especially fun books–in their own languages, the languages they actually speak. Spain is also a very multilingual country, but there is an imbalance as to what gets published in what languages and how. Some years ago, I created a set of bilingual children’s books, because I’d realized that almost all English-language bilingual editions were with Castilian, so kids who spoke Basque Catalan or Galician didn’t have access to English materials directly from their own languages, it all went through Castilian. So the four books were published in all four language combinations: Basque-English, Castilian-English, Catalan-English, and Galician-English.

I am very interested in what gets published or translated into many of the indigenous languages, and am often frustrated that these projects are often only traditional stories from that culture, usually published in bilingual editions. This is a way of publishing about them for the dominant monoculture, but not for these kids themselves, who may already know their own traditional stories but don’t have access to zeitgeist kid culture, like Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan or The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, in their own language. (There are also so many political elements to keep in mind when publishing bilingual or multilingual books: the order of the languages, the placement of the texts, even the fonts and font sizes, all of which clearly signal who a book is really for and who’s an afterthought or secondary reader.)

But, yes, I strongly encourage and support whenever possible projects to publish kids’ books in languages or dialects that don’t often have vigorous publication programs–both translations into those languages and encouraging creators to develop stories directly in these languages.

There are some very interesting projects along lines like these, like Book Dash in South Africa and Pratham Books in India which work with local creators to create books, and make them available to be translated into other languages, both locally and internationally.

In the past couple of months there has been a lot of discussion about the need for more people with diverse backgrounds to be working as translators. Can you talk about why it is important for the translator to have familiarity with both the language and the culture of the languages they are working with?

There are actually separate if related issues to the two parts of your question.

One is the need for more people with diverse backgrounds (as creators, translators, etc.). That is a publishing-level problem, about who has access to publishing and who is being excluded (due to the insular, cliquish nature of publishing, and how institutional racism is so ingrained in the publishing world on all levels).

Linda Sue Park created a wonderful fact-based video busting the “Scarcity Myth” that giving more opportunities to “diverse” authors means taking away publishing slots from white authors, using actual data of books published in the last few years.

This lack of access, unfortunately, also holds true for translators of color as well.

Separately is the question of finding an appropriate translator for each particular project, which has many different factors involved. This doesn’t always mean only finding translators from that same culture, but definitely one of the problems of many of those possible translators being historically and institutionally denied access (especially compared to their cis, straight, white colleagues) means that often people who could do a better job on a translation than the person who winds up doing it are not having a chance to do so, resulting in a worse case situation for the author, and especially for us as readers.

The discussion has not been about who cannot translate certain authors, but instead about publishers making the effort to make better decisions with regard to who gets offered the chance to translate which books. This requires the publishing world to broaden how and where it looks for translators (and also books–which is a separate issue, and one at which English-language publishing is by and large lacking).

I’ve certainly turned down plenty of projects where I wasn’t the right translator for the job. Even though I make my living as a full-time freelancer, every time I’ve said yes to a project (whether literary or not) that I shouldn’t have, it’s always been an unpleasant experience for me (and usually it’s tied me up so I couldn’t take on a later project that was a better fit for me).

I also personally have a longstanding commitment to make sure I translate at least one writer of color per year, because I know how much harder it is for writers of color to be published in translation, and one of the ways I try to make use of what privilege I have is to be able to spend the time to do a sample translation on spec and use my connections in the field to try and place these projects. Because I never get asked by publishers to do them, they’re always books I need to go to bat for.

I am also currently co-translating a novel with a young Black translator who has published in journals but has not yet translated a book, as a way of trying to share one of my contracts to uplift through an informal mentorship.

People have cited examples of translations that did not accurately convey the meaning of the original text. As an author, is there a way for you or your publisher able to ensure that the translation of your text is true to the original intent and tone of the book?

There is a lot to unpack here. As an author or publisher, a lot of this is outside one’s control, I’m afraid, although it is also important to have faith that the people who have fallen in love with your book want to publish it as well as possible, which includes the translation. A lot also depends on what level of the publishing industry one is at: There are bestsellers which sell because they are bestsellers, regardless of the quality of the work or the translation, where the bottom line is the only important factor to the publishers involved, which is different from those publishers, often independents, whose primary concern is getting great stories and illustrations into the hands of readers.

This is why when I give talks about licensing rights, I always talk about the importance of the moral rights of the creators (author and illustrator) and not just the monetary aspect of the deals. The highest offer is not always the best offer, especially if they’re not going to publish in a format or quality that respects the original. Or a smaller house might offer to publish multiple works by an author, showing commitment and an interest in trying and establish them over time, which might be a better decision than a larger offer for just one book (where the title will be somewhat disposable or just commodity).

For me, as a translator, I always try and recreate the reading experience. So if something has a fun, lively rhythm in the original, I’ll want to recreate that in the translation–even if it requires taking more liberties from the literal translation in order to be more faithful to the work.

To give an example, I translated into Spanish Little You, by Richard van Camp and Julie Flett, which was published by Orca and shows various First Nations families in different compositions. In the book, Richard is very careful never to gender the baby being addressed. So for the Spanish translation, I had dilemmas right away since all Spanish diminutives are gendered, so the title itself was a problem.

Also, Spanish uses the masculine as neutral by default, but I felt that wouldn’t be appropriate in this case.

So I actually turned in two different versions to Orca: one was an unrhymed, straight translation of the text, using the masculine singular throughout, which was literally correct and closer to the original text but not at all faithful to the spirit of the text. I also sent a gender-neutral rhyming version, which had to sometimes take a few more liberties with the text (especially since what rhymes in English is different in Spanish so I could usually keep one of the rhyme words but not both) but was much more faithful to the spirit of the project, and that is the one they published.

Many writers might not have been aware of literary translation as a possible career. What advice would you have for someone who might be interested in finding out more about careers in translation?

As I mentioned, I am a voracious reader and one of the things I love about translating is falling in love with a work and getting to share it with more readers who wouldn’t have been able to read it in the original.

I fell into translation, and am an autodidact, which is not to say that one doesn’t need training but instead that there are many different journeys to literary translation. As a possible career, I think it’s difficult to make a living solely from literary translation, so many colleagues combine literary translation with their own writing and/or with other kinds of translation.

I do think it’s important to become part of the translation community, which is one of the most generous sections of the literary world I’ve found. For newer translators, there is the Emerging Translators’ Network in the U.K. and for those focused more on the U.S. market there is the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network North America.

I also think it’s healthy for all writers (and readers) to read translations, to have a chance to see what is being written and illustrated all around this vast, diverse world we live in. To discover different narrative structures, or familiar ones!

In the children’s literary community we know all about how books can be both mirrors and windows, and one of the things translators do is to unlock windows originally written in another language.

Thank you for giving me and the readers of Cynsations a glimpse into the world of translation and international publishing. We wish you all the best with your books around the world!

Cynsational Notes

Lawrence Schimel is a full-time author, writing in both Spanish and English, who has published over one hundred twenty books in a wide range of genres. He is also a prolific literary translator.

His picture books have been selected for the White Ravens from the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany, chosen for IBBY’s Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities three times, and won a Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, among many other awards, honors, and distinctions.

His writing has been published in Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Catalan, Changana, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Farsi (Dari), Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Latvian, Macua, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romansh, Romanian, Russian, Sena, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Welsh translations.

He started the Spain chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and served as its Regional Advisor for five years.

Originally from the U.S., Elisabeth Norton now lives with her family in Switzerland, where she writes picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels and serves as the Regional Advisor for the Swiss region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).

You can find out more about her writing and involvement in the world of books for young readers on her website .

When not reading or writing, Elisabeth can usually be found knitting, hiking in the mountains or walking along the river in the forest near her home.