Guest Interview: Sylvia Notini Translates Books to Bring People Together

By Helen Kampion

The Mildred L. Batchelder Award is given to the most outstanding children’s book originating in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States.

Today we interview the 2023 recipient of the Batchelder award, Sylvia Notini, for her translation of Lia Levi’s Just a Girl: A True Story of WWII (HarperCollins, 2022).

First of all, congratulations on receiving this prestigious award. What were your first thoughts when you learned you had won?

I was not at all expecting anything like this to happen, so when I received the phone call from an editor at HarperCollins I was elated. I also felt proud and somewhat vindicated – although maybe that’s too strong a word – because so many people think, and even say, sometimes, “she’s just the translator.” But the professional translator is a writer with many skills: they have to know both languages perfectly, they have to understand all the nuances of each of the languages, they have to know history, literature, politics, geography, they have to want to research the topic, they have to be the author’s voice in a completely different language, which means respecting the author’s work, but also constantly thinking about the reader. It’s hard work! I would like to add that while I was doing this translation, I loved the book so much I actually did think, ‘this book deserves to win an award!’

A few of Sylvia’s research books.

Can you tell me something about the award itself?

Mildred L. Batchelder started out as a librarian who eventually went to work for the American Library Association. For 30 years she worked as an ambassador to the world on behalf of children and books. Her life’s work was to “eliminate barriers to understanding between people of different cultures, races, nations, and languages.”

The Mildred L. Batchelder Award was established by the American Library Association in 1968 to honor the translation of children’s books because translations bring people together. We need that more than ever now.

Writing a book takes a long time so I would imagine a translation does as well. How long did it take you?

Every translation is different. Generally speaking, I can translate 3-5 pages a day, but I have to go back over my work several times. I usually translate the whole text, whether it’s long or short, and then go back to the beginning and start the self-editing process, which can involve up to 3-4 drafts.

Lia’s book began as a sample chapter I was asked to translate by the Italian publisher for a book fair. The response was positive, so I was asked to do another chapter. At that point I so wanted to see the book published because I thought it was beautifully written, it was a marvelous story, and it had a very important message for children everywhere, that I told the Italian publisher I was willing to do a synopsis. I wanted anyone considering publishing the book in English to know as much about it as possible.

Soon afterwards I received a message from HarperCollins in New York asking me whether I was interested in doing the whole translation. My answer was Yes! They gave me three months. It was the spring of 2020 and the world was completely shut down because of Covid. I remember working on the translation in my kitchen, identifying with Lia, who was waiting for “the Americans” to come and liberate Italy, while I was waiting for “the vaccines” to be invented and for the pandemic to end. Neither one of us had any idea when those things would happen, we just had to wait.

During the translation process, do you usually work closely with the author?

That is an excellent question. In some cases, I do, and it’s aways enriching. Other times, actually most of the time, I work with an editor who communicates with the author. This can be explained by the fact that I often translate non-fiction with several authors on a very tight schedule. Having an editor who takes care of communicating with all the authors streamlines the process.

In this case, I did not have the opportunity to communicate with the author, although I would love to be able to tell her ‘Thank you, Lia Levi, for writing this important book!’

Your parents were in Italy during WWII. Did any of Lia’s experiences sound familiar?

Yes, they absolutely did. My parents aren’t Jewish, but many of the stories Lia tells, about the fear, the family separation, the hiding, some of her more amusing anecdotes reminded me of my parents’ stories. Lia’s story and my parents’ story have one very important message for everyone: war is wrong.

If I think about what’s happening around the world today, right this minute, I am even more convinced that this book needs to be read by children everywhere. I always say that the children will save us – from war, from climate change, from all our major challenges today – if we love them and make sure they are educated. There’s actually another important message in the book: never lose hope.

What part of the story did you like the best?

I adored the parts where Lia is just a kid who does the usual stuff kids do. I like it when she has those little conflicts with her mother that are so typical of kids her age.

There’s a great part at the beginning where she’s in elementary school and notices that something strange is happening around her. Her father no longer goes to the office every day, her mother tells her that Jewish kids can no longer go to public school. Their beloved Nanny leaves the family to go work for someone else. Lia doesn’t know what anti-Semitism is, and the things that are happening to her family make no sense to her. She’s right, of course, they are inexplicable.

We all face challenges in writing. What is the biggest challenge in translating from Italian to English?

I think I’m lucky because the Italian and English languages share many roots. I admire the translator who has to work with a completely different alphabet, Japanese, or Russian, for instance.

Italian and English are also very different and you have to really know Italian well to be able to say the same thing in English. Sometimes I can’t figure out how to translate a sentence until I’m on my third draft. You also have to be careful not to stay too close to the original language. It’s a balancing act!

A selection of Sylvia’s translations.

You have translated over 200 nonfiction books on topics ranging from Caravaggio to Barbie, to design and architecture, to sheep, chickens, and recently rabbits! Do you have a favorite?

I don’t really have one favorite. I like what I do so much I find every project to be exciting! A few years ago, I translated a delightful book for a German publisher about Kiribati, an island country in the Pacific Ocean that, they say, risks being submerged and disappearing because of the sea level rise. I knew nothing about it and I was fascinated.

Around the same time a U.S. publisher asked me to translate a book about pirates and the history of piracy with the most gorgeous illustrations. I had never even thought about pirates before, but I was absolutely enthralled. To be a good translator you have to love doing research and learning new things.

I know you are not one to sit still, so can you share with us your current project?

Right now, as concerns children’s literature I’m working on two translations: one of them is about a very famous Italian illustrator of children’s books, and the other is a children’s book about a renowned woman scientist. I hope this piques your curiosity…

Cynsational Notes

Sylvia Notini was born in Boston and grew up in nearby Lexington. After receiving a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University she moved to Bologna, Italy, where she raised a family while teaching English at the university and working as a freelance translator.

Helen Kampion writes poetry, picture books, and middle grade novels. She has published stories in magazines and written non-fiction articles for The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA, where she serves as Treasurer. In addition to an MBA from Boston University, Helen holds an MFA in WCYA from Vermont College.

Her debut picture book bio, co-authored with fellow Vermont College grad, Renee Lyons, is scheduled for launch Fall 2024 by Sleeping Bear Press. She lives with her husband and two cats (her “mews”) in Massachusetts. When she is not scribbling away, you will find her curled up with a book, a cat, and a nice hot cup of tea.