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
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

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.

She translated Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a middle grade novel forthcoming from Chin Music Press. Find her on Twitter @AveryUdagawa.

Guest Interview: Marcia Lynx Qualey on #WorldKidLit Month

#WorldKidLit Month image (c) Elina Braslina

By Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

(See this Book Riot list of 100 Great Translated Children’s Books from Around the World.)

Leading the effort are Cairo-based writer Marcia Lynx Qualey, translator Lawrence Schimel, and Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers.

I was fascinated that Qualey, a journalist for The Guardian and other outlets, takes such interest in children’s literature. She answered my questions for Cynsations by email.

As a journalist, why have you made #WorldKidLit Month a special project?

Marcia Lynx Qualey

Many of the books I see promoted as “Middle Eastern literature” for children—indeed, almost all of them—are books written by Westerners and set in the region. Just so, we have floods of books by soldiers, aid workers, and journalists who spent some time in Iraq, for instance, and almost none by Iraqis.

Writing about other places is valuable, yes, but it’s another thing entirely to listen to the stories—the cadences, the art, the beauty—coming from another language.

I find it limiting and echoey to read the narrow band of “our own” Anglophone stories. We can offer our children much much more: more joy, and more ways of seeing.



What would you like the children’s literature community to gain from this annual event?

Just as with #WiTMonth (Women in Translation), I think it’s key to start with recognition—to recognize that we don’t translate much from around the world. We translate a bit from Western European languages, where publishers have connections, and that’s great. But the literature currently translated from the great Indian languages, from Chinese, from Turkish, from Farsi, from Eastern European languages, would fill a few small shelves. These literatures could give us so much!

I’m grateful for the bit translated from Japanese literature, which has been feeding our children’s imaginations in new ways. (And our grown-up imaginations, too.)

What was your own experience of literature as a child? Was your whole world represented in stories you read?

The world outside was a mysterious and scary place, difficult and sometimes painful to understand. But the worlds as presented in my books were so tangible, they really belonged to me, they could be read and re-read.

As for translations, I particularly loved folktales from around the world, and cherished not just Italo Calvino’s collection (which I read until it fell to bits), but Norwegian and Japanese and Arab and other folktales. The folktale is a wonderful global form where there has been much sharing from language to language, culture to culture.

Have you translated any literature for children?

Not in any serious or systematic way; just helping translate picture books for a friend. I would love to, but interest in Arabic kidlit has been vanishingly small.

What currently available Arabic>English kidlit translations would you recommend?

There are precious few, while children’s books translated into Arabic are many. (There are books from French and Japanese, for instance, that I know and love only in Arabic.)

You can get a translation of pioneer illustrator Mohieddine Ellabad’s The Illustrator’s Notebook, and The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine (Faten, in the original, translated by Fatima herself), and Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat, translated by Nancy Roberts. I would love you to read Walid Taher’s award-winning Al-Noqta al-Sooda’, but alas there is no translation!

Cynsational Notes

Marcia Lynx Qualey blogs at Arabic Literature in English.

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

Guest Interview & Giveaway: Translator Cathy Hirano (Pre AFCC 2016 Con)

By Misa Dikengil Lindberg, Alexander O. Smith and Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This month, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore will feature Cynsations’ own Cynthia Leitich Smith speaking on “The Irresistible Fantastical Supernatural: Writing a World that Beckons.”

Also featured at AFCC 2016 will be Cathy Hirano, a leading translator of Japanese children’s literature into English. Hirano’s translation of the middle grade realistic novel The Friends (by Kazumi Yumoto) won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and a Mildred L. Batchelder Award. Her translations of the YA fantasy novels Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi won the Batchelder Award and a Batchelder Honor, respectively, and paved the way for Uehashi to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing. This honor is often dubbed the Nobel Prize for children’s literature.

In addition, Hirano translated a YA fantasy novel by Noriko Ogiwara that went out of print, but drew such a fan following that it was republished with a sequel. The results are Dragon Sword and Wind Child and Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince.

Members of the SCBWI Japan Translation Group have admired Hirano for years. Three members of the group—Misa Dikengil Lindberg, Alexander O. Smith and Avery Fischer Udagawa—interviewed her for Japan-focused publications and here combine their efforts in a “pre-AFCC 2016 omni interview.”

To learn more about the topics discussed in this piece, please follow the links below it to the three source interviews. And don’t forget to enter the Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit giveaway!

Avery Fischer Udagawa: Cathy Hirano, you work as a translator in fields such as anthropology, sociology, architecture and medicine, and you live in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. Where did you grow up, and how did you come to study Japan and Japanese?

Cathy Hirano

Cathy Hirano: I grew up in Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg and came to Japan in 1978 when I was 20. I was not directly interested in Japan at the time but was invited by a Japanese-Canadian friend. My image of Japan was of a highly populated, highly polluted country that manufactured cars and cameras—not a very attractive picture. I had very little idea of Japan’s history or culture and saw traveling here as a stepping-stone to other countries in Asia, and then to the rest of the world.

But my interest in Japan and the Japanese language began as soon as I arrived in Japan. I got lost in Tokyo on my second day here and realized that if I did not acquire reading, writing and speaking skills, I would be lost forever in more ways than one.

I studied for a year in Kyoto at a private language school called Nihongo Kenkyu Center. It was very small with creative teachers who were always experimenting with new methods. I fell in love with kanji [ideograms] at that time. The concept that a “letter” could be a picture with meaning was fascinating. To help memorize them, I used to make up my own stories about how each part of a kanji combined to make the meaning of the whole. In 1979, I went on to study anthropology at International Christian University in Tokyo, which had a fantastic Japanese language program.

How did you discover and cultivate your skills as a translator?

I think it was my Japanese teachers in Kyoto and at ICU who first pointed out to me that I had some ability in this area. Reading has always been a great source of pleasure, inspiration and comfort, and when we had to do translation exercises in class, I wasn’t content with just a literal translation. I had to play with it until it sounded as natural and literary as the Japanese.

Cultivating my translation skills was very much a hit-and-miss, learning-on-the-job experience. I was hired as a translator by a Japanese engineering consulting company after I graduated.

I didn’t know any other translators when I started out, and as far as I knew there were no courses in translation. So I read as much as I could in English about whatever subject I was translating to get a feel for the right language, consulted the Japanese engineers I worked with frequently to make sure I understood, used the dictionaries and references in their library and got native speakers (including my father, who is an engineer) to read what I had written and give me feedback.

This is still the approach I use today for any type of translation. The only difference is that with the Internet, I no longer need to accumulate reference books and dictionaries. Thanks to email, I also have an extended network of friends and relatives, both Japanese- and English-speaking, who I can consult for different subjects.

You have translated a number of picture books—most recently Hannah’s Night by printmaker-illustrator Komako Sakai, for Gecko Press—as well as novels. What attracted you to children’s literature?

I fell into children’s literature entirely by accident. A friend and fellow graduate of ICU who worked in publishing asked me to review English-language children’s books for possible translation into Japanese, a dream job for someone who loves reading. She would give me a stack of books, and when I had finished reading them I would meet her in a coffee shop and tell her what I thought.

She then began asking me to translate Japanese picture books for promotional purposes. My publications of picture books started out as byproducts of the promotional translation: English-language publishers liked the translations and asked for permission to use them.

Meanwhile, when my friend’s company published an award-winning novel by Noriko Ogiwara, I agreed to read it and write a summary. This was followed by a request for a sample and finally to translation and publication of Dragon Sword and Wind Child. This then led to translating three novels by Kazumi Yumoto for Farrar, Straus and Giroux—including The Friends.

Alexander O. Smith: An essay you wrote for The Horn Book about The Friends has become a classic description of Japanese-to-English literary translation. To follow on that discussion, how do you position yourself as translator with regards to the work, the author, and your audience?

I think that my approach as a translator differs significantly for bread-and-butter translation and for literature. With the former, I am more objective. I keep a clear picture in my mind of the target reader and I focus on conveying the intent and meaning of the Japanese rather than on the style, sometimes extensively editing and rewriting the original.

With literary translation, however, I find the translation process more personal and subjective. The author has written the book for me and I’m translating it so that others can enjoy the same experience. In the initial stages in particular, I don’t worry about the readership and instead focus far more on the author, on his or her style, choice of words, rhythm—on the voice. I’m quite faithful to the original.

It is only when I go back and reread it, that I regain some objectivity and become rather ruthless. But I am still trying to convey an experience rather than just content or meaning.

Misa Dikengil Lindberg: Your first novel translation, of Dragon Sword and Wind Child, got republished with a sequel after it fell out of print. How did that come about?

I loved Noriko Ogiwara’s Magatama series and was therefore very disappointed when Dragon Sword and Wind Child went out of print.

Then my daughter grew up and fell in love with Ogiwara’s books as a teenager. Searching the Internet, she found that the English translation had received nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon. She also found used copies selling for up to five hundred dollars and one young reader who had made a website dedicated to the book. This person had even typed the entire out-of-print English translation to put on the site! I was stunned. People had actually liked the book as much as I had!

I contacted the Japanese editor to see if there was a possibility of re-doing it, although I knew most American publishers would be reluctant to publish a book that hadn’t done well before. The editor, who also loves the book, began putting out feelers.

Although we did not know this, around the same time, VIZ Media had decided to branch out into publishing translated Japanese literature and was looking for good Japanese books. One of their editors had read Dragon Sword and Wind Child when she was young and loved it.

When the editing team tried to get a copy of the English translation for review, they found that the majority of library copies had been stolen, which actually made them more interested in the book, indicating as it did how popular the book was. They eventually got a copy and decided to republish it. The original English-language publisher agreed to give them the right to publish it but not the rights to my translation. When the VIZ editor contacted the Japanese publisher, she put them in touch with me and they asked if I would “re-translate” it. Of course, I was thrilled!

Alexander O. Smith: What was it like revisiting the first volume fourteen years after your first translation? 

It was fun, embarrassing, unnerving, confirming. I started by reading it aloud to my kids and their cousins, who by then were in their mid and late teens. They loved it, thank goodness! But they also had some good laughs about some of my word choices while I found myself cringing in places where the language I’d used was stuffy and stilted.

I then went through the translation line by line against the Japanese and caught things I had missed or misunderstood—not as many as I had feared, but still. After rewriting all the trouble spots, I did a final pass through the whole book.

Although it was embarrassing to see the mistakes I had made, it was also confirming to see that I have evolved somewhat as a translator in those 14 years and that I still love to escape into Ogiwara’s world!


How was it to do the sequel?

In a nutshell, the knowledge that people were waiting to read Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince is what kept me going. Readers have power!

Misa Dikengil Lindberg: Nahoko Uehashi’s ten-volume Moribito series, about the adventures of a young female bodyguard, is the winner of numerous literary awards and has become hugely popular in Japan, even spawning anime, manga, and TV series. How did you first encounter Uehashi’s work?

Japanese and English covers

My first exposure to Ms. Uehashi’s work was in 2004, when I was asked to do a summary and sample of Beyond the Fox’s Flute. I was attracted by Uehashi’s writing style and by the fictional world she created. Around the same time, a Japanese friend told me about her Moribito series, and I found it intriguing that a children’s fantasy series was so popular even with people my age (fifty).

Before I had a chance to read the series, however, the Japanese publisher contacted me to do a summary and sample translation of the first book for overseas promotion.

This led to publication of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and later Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Arthur A. Levine Books.

How closely did you work with your editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, Cheryl Klein? What were some of the problems you worked to overcome?

Cheryl Klein is the most thorough editor I have ever worked with. She edited the translation as if it were a new manuscript submitted by an English-language author, which made some of her suggestions extremely radical. As Ms. Uehashi is also one of the most thorough and involved authors I have ever worked with on a translation, the result was definitely a team effort.

Probably the biggest problem was fitting the history of New Yogo (the fictional empire in which the story takes place) into the book in a more natural way.

When I first read Moribito in Japanese, the history stuck out awkwardly in the third chapter, slowing everything down. Until that point, the action is fast-paced and the story gripping. Then suddenly the text switches to an unnamed narrator, jumps back in time, and then jumps back to the present again.

It’s quite abrupt and would have sounded unnatural in English. So when I did the initial sample translation, I took it out (with the author’s and publisher’s permission) and tacked it on as a prologue with a note explaining that this would need to be solved during the editing process.

After playing with several ideas, the three of us finally agreed that the history basically belonged in its original location but that English readers needed more of a transition to ease them into it and keep them from getting impatient during that section.

Ms. Uehashi rewrote certain parts of the history, replacing the unnamed narrator with the more personal voice of Shuga, one of the Star Readers. So the English version is actually different from the Japanese but still written by the author.

Alexander O. Smith: The Moribito series and the Magatama series are interesting to me in that they both fit snugly within a very western fantasy genre and yet their stories and worlds are influenced by Asian history and myth. How did you navigate the process of bringing these worlds into English without losing the flavor of the original? Were you inspired, stylistically or otherwise, by any other books in English?

A hard question! For me, it’s a very intuitive process and I’m never sure if I really have succeeded in keeping the flavor of the original. One thing I try to do is read the translation out loud once I get it to a more polished state. That helps me see whether it “feels” the same.

What I’m looking for at a gut level is whether the English grabs me in the same way as the Japanese. To me, Uehashi’s voice is fast-paced, powerful, compassionate, clear and deceptively simple. Ogiwara’s voice, though just as powerful, is completely different. Her rich, lyrical images and sweeping descriptions vividly convey the emotional atmosphere. She has a knack for capturing a focal point or detail that draws in the reader and for mirroring the inner worlds of her characters’ minds and hearts in the outer world. However, this style, which is very Japanese, is less compatible with the English language than Uehashi’s.

To give one example, Uehashi’s battle scenes are graphically detailed. You know exactly when and how each bone is broken, whose bone it is and what it feels like (ouch!!). This brings home the reality of life for the bodyguard Balsa.

As for what books inspired me during the translation process, I actually strive not to be influenced stylistically by other authors so that I can remain true to the original. At the same time, however, I do read books in the same genre because exposure to good English helps me avoid an excessively literal translation.

While translating the Moribito books I found myself rereading Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. I think what appealed was their common themes such as the search for meaning, the painful journey of self discovery and acceptance, and the fact that their voices both evoke the oral tradition of story-telling.

When translating Ogiwara, on the other hand, I was drawn to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Again, it wasn’t the style but the story’s epic nature and the use of humor to lighten a serious tale that resonated.

Avery Fischer Udagawa: Are you at work on any children’s or young adult projects now?

Yes, I am getting a start on The Beast Player (Kemono no soja), a fantasy novel by Andersen laureate Nahoko Uehashi.

Cynsational Notes: Interviewers & Source Interviews

Misa Dikengil Lindberg is a freelance writer, editor and translator. She translated the new adult novel Emily by Novala Takemoto and the story “The Dragon and the Poet” by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of Japan’s most beloved writers, for the anthology Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. Her full interview with Hirano, Young Adult Fantasy in Translation: An Interview with Cathy Hirano, focuses on Dragon Sword and Wind Child and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.

Alexander O. Smith is the translator of thirty novels from the Japanese, including Brave Story and The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, and the Guin Saga series by Kaoru Kurimoto. He is also known for localization and production of video games, and is co-founder of publisher Bento Books. His full interview with Hirano, Catching Up With Cathy Hirano, focuses on Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince.

Avery Fischer Udagawa translated the middle grade historical novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani. She serves as SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator and SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. Her full interview with Hirano, Children’s Book Translation: An Interview with Cathy Hirano (PDF, pp. 7-9), focuses on ways to get started in translation.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a hardback edition (now a collector’s item) of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano. Eligibility: International.

The design of this volume is described here by editor Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine Books: Behind the Book: Moribito Guardian of the Spirit.

See also: Moribito: Editing YA and Children’s Literature in English Translation: An Interview with Cheryl Klein by Sako Ikegami (PDF, pp. 4-7.

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Guest Interview: Translator Marian Schwartz on Playing a Part

Marian Schwartz

By Avery Fischer Udagawa
For Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

Marian Schwartz is a master translator of Russian literature into English. Active in PEN and past president of the American Literary Translators Association, she has translated more than seventy books including the bestseller The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky and a re-translation of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Recently she has added to her oeuvre the YA novel Playing a Part by Daria Wilke, edited by Emily Clement and published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. Clement discovered the title by reading an article in The Atlantic, which has since been expanded upon by Publishing Perspectives.

Schwartz emailed with me for Cynsations from her home office in Austin, Texas.

Thank you for accepting this interview. How did you develop and cultivate your love of Russian?

First, I fell for the literature. In high school in the 1960s I studied Chekhov’s play “The Seagull,” which has remained one of my favorites, and was also obsessed with the dark side of human nature, always drawn to books about concentration camps, for instance.

But I was also a budding linguist, and once I started Russian at Harvard, I was already farther gone than even I knew.

What led to becoming such a prolific literary translator?

After graduate school I worked in publishing in New York. During those two years in house I learned how to copyedit and translated and published my first book. By then it was clear that I would not fare well in an office environment, so I went freelance, paying the bills by copyediting in the beginning. It’s much easier to be as prolific as I’ve been if you spend the entire day translating.

Playing a Part unfolds in a Moscow “combined theater,” which features both traditional puppetry and a company of actors. The main character, Grisha, has grown up here, and to him the theater is nearly a person—one who blinks, squints, smells, sighs, and even laughs. It was wonderful to meet this theater through your translation!

Thank you!

This novel spotlights traditional puppets, especially the Jester in a version of Cinderella. Is the lexicon of puppets embedded in everyday Russian, or did you have to learn from scratch about gesso and leg yokes, ruches and chiton, controllers and crossbars?

I knew nothing about the technical aspect of puppets when I began this project, but that’s one of the perks of being a translator: the research required to make a translation correct and complete. It’s easy to get (happily) lost learning about a new field. I read books about puppetmaking and consulted with puppeteers. I did extensive Internet image searches. There are books that require no research at all, but they’re very rare.

How did you find it rendering this novel in present tense, with jumps in voice between the first and second person? (“My heart thuds to my feet, which are suddenly heavy and weak. You want to go somewhere, but can’t.”) Is this common in Russian storytelling?

The “you want to” construction is one way English renders impersonal constructions. An alternative would be to say, “one wants to”—but that would give the text the wrong tone in this case. Russian narratives treat tenses quite differently than English-languages stories do, so tense is an important question to be decided for each text. In this case, I wanted the immediacy of the present tense for the basic story line and used the past tense for events recounted that occurred prior to the main action.

Did you linger over how to convey Russian names and nicknames? (Filipp/Filka, Lyolik/Lyonechka, Anton/Tokha.)

Russian has an extensive system of nicknaming that has to be conveyed differently in English. The English reader doesn’t know what the difference is between “Sasha” and “Sashenka,” for example. Both are nicknames, and a Russian reader knows that “Sashenka” is more pointedly affectionate, but if it’s translated that way, the English reader loses that information. To render this nuance, the translator needs to modify “Sasha”—“dear Sasha,” “my Sasha”—or demonstrate the implied affection in some other way. The possibilities are limitless.

So the emotions associated with nicknames can and should be conveyed to the English-language reader without introducing the confusion wrought by having multiple names for the same character.

How would you describe your process of translating this book?

My translating process is essentially the same, no matter what I’m translating and involves four stages: the “inspirational” stage, when I write down every idea that pops into my mind; a cross-check, when I make sure I’ve understood and rendered everything “correctly,” compile my queries, and find answers to them; a third stage, when I set the Russian aside and focus on the English; and a fourth stage, when I ask someone to read the translation to me out loud while I follow along with the original. For some books, that means a total of four passes, but some books require more than one pass at each stage.

The character Grisha in Playing a Part is probably gay, and he admires the actor Sam who is gay—and emigrating to Holland, due to lack of acceptance. Grisha’s grandfather voices this lack of acceptance, calling homosexuality a misguided choice, “popular with you theater people.” The grandfather’s rejection of gays, actors, and even a tomboy teen girl named Sasha is so complete as to sometimes seem absurd. Did he prove tricky to render?

Unfortunately, his attitude is all too common in Russia. I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate this worldview.

I love a scene in the novel where Grisha and Sasha take handstand lessons, acting like children again—“Like when you just lived without thinking whether you were one way or another.” Did you find this to be a central scene as well?

I agree. This scene was a delight, and I particularly recall it rolling it off my keys and onto the screen. There was something true and transcendent about that moment in time that came out directly in English.

I understand that this book has been restricted to adult sections of bookstores in Russia, though to me it reads like a book for tweens. Do you know how the response has been among Russian-language readers?

I asked Wilke the same question, and she wrote: “While we were preparing to publish, I made friends with the children from Children-404 (an Internet project for homosexual teenagers that helps children who have become aware of their own homosexuality with consultations, advice, and so forth. The police have brought charges against the project many times and they’ve been taken to court to be shut down, but so far, thank goodness, none of this has come to pass), and they made the book the talisman of their movement. Later, they arranged a philanthropic action, buying up copies and sending them to children in outlying regions who needed the book but had no opportunity to buy it.”

What can you tell us about the author, Daria Wilke? Did you and she collaborate?

Wilke was very generous about answering my questions and clarifying various points, but she and I have never met. I was approached to translate the book by the publisher.

You have spoken up about rights for translators, supporting the PEN America model contract for literary translators, for example. Can you give us some background on translator rights, and explain how translators can provide more access to world literature?

Translator rights are based on the notion that the translation is written by the translator, not the author or publisher, and, therefore, the translator has a moral claim on the copyright to that English-language work.

Translators themselves are only able to provide more access to literature for works that are in the public domain, because translation rights are secondary to the overarching right to publish a work in a given language. So, for example, if Playing a Part were in the public domain—which it most emphatically isn’t!—I could seek a publisher for my translation and help get it distributed to more children. In practice, this is a rare situation.

In a way, your work reminds me of Grisha’s quiet choice to be himself in Playing a Part. “In life, as onstage, if you do nothing, then nothing happens.” What are some “somethings” you recommend translators do to increase the amount of world literature available in English?

Translators have two approaches available to them. First, they can choose books that are more likely to resonate with English-language readers and then translate them very very well. Second, they can draw attention to their own and others’ translations by writing reviews, for example, or giving interviews, keeping a blog, participating in readings and other literary events, doing outreach to schools—pretty much the same avenues for publicity open to all writers.

Translators tend to be introspective and can be shy of social media and what they see as self-promotion in general. My solution to this temperamental dilemma is to conceive of the effort as an act in support of the author and the book.

Avery Fischer Udagawa

Do you plan to translate any more titles for teen, tween, or younger readers?

I already have (when I have the details you’ll be the first to know!) and am now considering yet another. Both books were written for the tween reader, much the same audience as for Playing a Part.

Cynsational Notes

Marian Schwartz maintains a website and contributes to Words Without Borders and Subtropics, among many other publications.

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. She translated the historical middle grade novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani.

Guest Interview: Helen Wang on Children’s Book Translation

Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, translated by Wang

By Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

What do old coins, the British Museum, and Chinese novels have in common?


Helen Wang.


Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum and also translates Chinese literature into English. Among her works are the middle grade novels Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi (Egmont, 2012) and Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (Walker Books, 2015).


Wang has discussed these books in a virtual school visit, an essay, and an in-depth chat with Playing by the Book. Bronze and Sunflower is current Book of the Month at A Year of the Reading the World.


Helen Wang e-conversed with me for Cynsations about how she came to translate, and about the challenges of rendering two very different middle grade titles.

How did you cultivate the skills needed to translate from Chinese?

I did a B.A. in Chinese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1980s. I’d done French, German and Spanish A-levels in secondary school, and was thinking about archaeology or art history, but ended up doing Chinese instead.
As for translation skills, those came later. I translated some short stories in the early 1990s, but then started working at the Museum and earning a Ph.D. (in archaeology) and having a family and didn’t really have time for translating fiction until a few years ago.

Translation is different from research or everyday communication in another language. Recently, I was one of the judges for the U.K.’s Writing Chinese Translation Competition, and there were 88 entries! The best were those in which the translators had got inside the story and understood exactly what the author was trying to do, and then conveyed this in sharp, crisp English in a consistent and appropriate style. It takes time and effort to get to that level and to maintain it.

Let’s talk about your middle grade novels. Jackal and Wolf is a 282-page novel focused on a female jackal. Her prey alone includes crab, cobra, swan, deer, muntjac, bharal, chicken, boar, partridge, rabbit, mouse, frog, porcupine, gazelle, and vole—and these are just some of the animals in the book! Did you spend lots of time researching animal names, traits and terms in order to translate it?

Cover art by Chen Wen

I did spend some time on the animals, trying to find out precisely what kinds of noises they make and double-checking that I was using the right verbs for the various actions. A good friend who knows a lot about wild animals read through an almost final draft and made some very helpful suggestions.

Did you find you had to add details about less-known animals, or were the fascinating explanations part of Shen’s original? (“Now snow foxes are smaller than jackals, and don’t have their sharp claws or teeth, nor their courage.”)

It’s very much Shen Shixi’s style to explain these things as he goes along. I don’t think I added any details. If anything, I reduced them a bit, to prevent repetition and to avoid saying that the females of a species were “always” smaller and weaker than the males, for example. I toned these down because it’s not “always” true, and because the impact is probably more sexist in English than Shen consciously intended in the original Chinese.

In Jackal and Wolf, the jackal Flame forms a bond with a sworn enemy: a wolf named Sweetie. What did you think of the ties and interactions in the story?

Although this is an animal story, and there are plenty of episodes and descriptions of animal life, there’s also a lot of human behaviour in the story too. Some of the fighting scenes are quite graphic and intense, but it was the psychological behaviour that I found more disturbing, especially where Flame tests a potential suitor.

How did Jackal and Wolf come to be published? Will more of Shen Shixi’s works be translated?

Egmont had a project to publish Jackal and Wolf —and another book, An Unusual Princess by Wu Meizhen, translated by Petula Parris Huang—in eight different languages and to launch them at the London Book Fair in 2012, when China was guest of honour. So Petula and I translated from Chinese into English, and our English versions were then translated into Russian, German, Polish, Turkish, Czech, Swedish and Bulgarian. I don’t know of any plans to publish more of Shen Shixi’s animal stories in English, but he’s written a whole range of bestselling animal books. It would be wonderful to see them translated.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan is set in rural China as well, but features humans: a boy and girl coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution. How did the translation come about?

Cover art by Meilo So

Bronze and Sunflower is a modern classic in China, and the French edition was very well received. Walker Books won a PEN Translation Award to publish it. The PEN awards support the publishers: when publishers apply to English PEN for an award, they have to submit a copy of the original book, which is then read by an expert in the source language, who writes a report to the English PEN committee, who choose which titles to support. So, a huge amount of work went into the English PEN endorsement on the front of Bronze and Sunflower! Someone recommended me to Walker Books, probably because they knew I had translated Jackal and Wolf.

Bronze and Sunflower unfolds in a small village called Damaidi, and begins when a city girl, Sunflower, needs a country boy, Bronze, to save her from danger. Bronze is mute yet possesses vast knowledge and strength. Was it hard to render him faithfully without seeming to overdo it?

When I first read the book, I was more concerned about Sunflower being too good than about Bronze’s credibility. Sunflower is a sweet-natured child and almost too kind, helpful and thoughtful to be true, especially when we consider the trauma she’s experienced in her short life: her mother died of illness, she was uprooted with her father to move from the city to the countryside, her father is presumed drowned but his body is never found, she has to wait under a tree being gawped at by the entire village until Bronze’s family eventually takes her in, and so on.

Bronze may be the only son of the poorest family in the village, but his family is incredibly strong and resourceful. Instead of going to school, he has spent his formative years with his grandmother, a very determined old lady, and as soon as he was old enough, he was out grazing the family’s water buffalo. He’s used his eyes and his ears and knows his environment better than most of the villagers.

This novel, too, must have required research—on everything from the feel of reed shoes, to the look of cogongrass, to the appeal of arrowhead corms. How did you explore new objects and concepts?

It’s brilliant to be able to go online and look things up. Google Images is a godsend! For things that are completely new to me, I’ll play around online and do quite a lot of cross checking to make sure I’ve understood. If I can’t work it out for myself this way, or if I don’t feel I’ve understood it properly, then I’ll ask for human help.

Helen Wang

For example, when a photographer comes to Sunflower’s school in Damaidi, and she knows the family can’t afford to buy her portrait, she tries to hide her disappointment behind a little song. This song is essentially about a married woman with an elaborate hairstyle, and an unmarried girl with a childish hairstyle, who are role-swapping and having fun. But there are so many complex cultural references packed into the four lines!

I found lots of amazing pictures of Chinese hairstyles with elaborate names (e.g. these), but it would have been impossible to explain them in four short rhyming lines in English. I must have tried a hundred variations. None of them worked. To keep the song short, I needed to cut some of the detail.

But I needed to know how far I could go. If the song was as well known as a nursery rhyme in English, then I needed to know which parts I absolutely had to keep. So I asked around, and I learned that it was more of an obscure old song than a popular nursery rhyme. I grew confident enough to improvise a song that would work in a similar way for the English reader—without drawing undue attention to the complex historical terms for hairstyles.

What was it like to translate suffering in the story: a locust plague, near-starvation?

My main concern was to convey in English what Cao Wenxuan was saying in Chinese. Those particular scenes brought home how cut-off the villagers were and how self-reliant they had to be. They were also a poignant reminder that this is what famine is like for people across the world when crops have failed.

You carve out time for translating children’s books from a busy life. What do novels in translation bring to young readers of English?

Good novels are good novels whichever language they were originally written in! But the world is a much more diverse and contemporary place than most English-language bookshops and libraries suggest. Young people all know this, and it’s wonderful to see campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks gathering pace. I translate children’s books in the hope that it makes a difference, and also because I enjoy it!

Cynsational Notes

Helen Wang maintains a profile page at Paper Republic and co-tweets with translator Nicky Harman as ChinaFictionBookClub: @cfbcuk.

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. She translated the historical middle novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani.