Laura Watkinson won the ALA 2012 Batchelder Award for her translation of Soldier Bear (“Soldaat Wojtek”). The Mildred L. Batchelder Award is for an "outstanding children's book translated from a foreign language and subsequently published in the United States."
Last year I interviewed Laura Watkinson for the Through the Tollbooth blog, and I'm reposting that interview here today.
I’m excited about today’s interview! Laura Watkinson joins me to answer my questions about translators and translating books.
translates a wide range of books (picture books, graphic novels, young
adult and adult novels) into English from Dutch, Italian, and German.
She studied languages, literature, linguistics and literary translation
at Oxford, Cambridge and University College London.
She has translated for many publishers including Scholastic Books
(Arthur Levine imprint), Golden Books, Eerdmans, and Peirene Press
(London). She participated on the panel, Mixing it Up: The Process of Bringing International Books to the US,
with publisher Arthur Levine and editor Cheryl Klein, at the 2009 ALA
conference in Chicago (for USBBY and the Young Adult Library Services
After living in many European countries and teaching at universities
in Italy and Germany, Laura moved to the Netherlands in 2003. She
recently moved to a very tall, thin house on a canal in Amsterdam.
[Sarah] What was your path to translating children’s books?
[Laura] It’s been a long and meandering path, which
probably started when I was very small and read a book about a grandma,
but no one in the book called her Grandma. They all called her Oma
instead. And I slowly realised that this book came from Somewhere Else.
As a child, I was always surrounded by books and I became more and
more interested in languages as I went through school and had the chance
to learn French and German.
I grew up and headed off to study languages and literature at St
Anne’s College, Oxford University, and later spent time teaching English
at the University of Erlangen in Germany and at the University of Milan
in Italy, before returning to the UK to do a Master’s in English and
Applied Linguistics at Cambridge, which included an element in
I’d been doing small pieces of translation work on the side all the
way through university and later while I was teaching English as a
foreign language, but I really decided to concentrate on translation
when I took the postgraduate certificate course in literary translation
from Dutch into English at University College London in 2001. It was a
fabulous introduction to the world of literary translation with a
variety of guest speakers, including professional translators of
literature, drama and poetry, and a Dutch writer in residence. It also
was an important first step in building up a network of fellow
translators, as it’s good to know other people in the same profession,
particularly as a freelancer.
When I started out as a translator, I sent my CV to a few publishing
houses and gradually built up a number of regular clients, primarily in
the world of contemporary art. I knew that I wanted to work in
children’s books, so I studied that market and kept an eye open for
houses that published children’s books in translation and started to
make contacts at Dutch and Flemish publishing houses.
I also submitted a sample translation of an excerpt from a book by
Karlijn Stoffels to the NLPVF, now the Dutch Foundation for Literature.
They assessed the translation and placed me on their list of approved
translators of children’s books, which means that my translations
qualify for subsidy. The Dutch Foundation for Literature is a great
support for literary translators, providing training and networking
opportunities for translators, along with the Expertisecentrum Literair
Vertalen in Utrecht. They co-ordinate summer courses in translation and
the annual Vertaaldagen (Translation Days) for literary translators from
and into Dutch: two days of lectures and workshops in Utrecht, just
before Christmas. I
translated a lot of excerpts and picture books and was delighted when
Arthur A. Levine decided to publish my first major translation of a
children’s book, which was in fact another book written by Karlijn
Stoffels: Heartsinger(2009). It was great to have Cheryl Klein, who edited the Harry Potter books, as the editor for the project.
Looking back at that description of my career path, it all seems
rather carefully planned, but that’s not really how it’s felt. I’ve just
always been interested in languages and books and studying, which has
influenced my decisions and has led me into a career that I love. I now
translate primarily from Dutch, often from Italian and only occasionally
from German, which was in fact the main focus of my first university
I should probably point out that there’s no typical career path for
literary translators. Of course, I’m sure all literary translators share
that love of language learning and stories, but I know translators from
a very wide range of educational and professional backgrounds, with and
without relevant qualifications.
[Sarah] In addition to the translator, who is involved with the translation process?
[Laura] Typically, a book will go through a fairly
lengthy process before it’s selected for translation. Let’s say a
children’s publisher from New York travels to the book fair in Bologna,
looking to acquire the rights for some books from Europe that he or she
feels have something to offer to young readers in the US. The first
problem is that old language barrier. It’s one thing having a publisher
from a Dutch house telling you how fantastic a particular book is, but
another thing entirely being able to read it for yourself. So what often
happens is that the Dutch publisher or the Dutch Foundation for
Literature will commission a translation to take along to the book fair.
In this case of a picture book, that’s nice and easy – the translator
produces a translation of the whole text and the American publisher has
access to both the pictures and story and can assess the book there and
then. The final version of the English text may well be very different
from the translation available at the book fair though, once it’s gone
back to the translator and through the editing process. For various
reasons, it may even be translated all over again by a different
However, if a foreign-language publisher is trying to sell something
like a YA novel, it makes little financial sense for them to have the
whole book translated and time is also an issue, so they’ll usually have
just an excerpt translated to take along to the book fair. An excerpt
is typically around twenty pages, generally from the beginning of the
book, although I’ve noticed they seem to be getting shorter lately. The
excerpt may be packaged with extra information about the author, such as
a bibliography and perhaps an interview. These info packs go out to
publishers all over the world, so a publisher in, say, Mexico may read
an excerpt translated from Dutch into English before deciding to
commission a translation of the text into Spanish.
At the book fair, the US publisher will talk to the Dutch publisher
and perhaps to the representatives of the Dutch Foundation for
Literature and the Flemish Literature Fund, who promote books written in
the Dutch language and also subsidise translation and in some cases
production costs. Everyone hopes that the publisher will return home
with a number of possible projects.
If it’s a YA book and the publisher has only seen an excerpt, the
next step might be for the publisher to commission a reader’s report
from someone who knows the foreign language and who has some
understanding of the market. A reader’s report is usually a maximum of
three A4 pages and will include a brief summary of the plot, together
with extra information about the book and the author (awards, reviews,
reception in the home country) and the reader’s opinion about how well
the book might work in translation and where it might fit into the
market and the publisher’s list. Are there any other books out there
like it? How might readers feel when they finish the book?
If the publisher still likes the sound of the book, he or she may ask
a translator to work on a longer excerpt. This may be the same
translator who worked on the initial excerpt, but not necessarily.
All of this material then disappears into the usual internal
publishing process and sometimes, a few weeks or months later, the
publisher comes back to the translator with a yes and the next stage of
the process begins: translation.
For those months of translation, the translator will usually work
alone, sending occasional queries to fellow translators (we have quite a
good network) and maybe to the editor and sometimes to the author. When
the draft is finished, it goes to the editor and you spend a few weeks
working through the normal editing and proofing process. I imagine this
is probably more straightforward than typical editing, as the book has
already been edited and published in a different language.
You shouldn’t think though that the text is writ in stone just
because it’s already been published in the original language. Sometimes,
at this stage, an editor will make changes to the structure of a book,
perhaps breaking the story up into new chapters and reordering events,
maybe making an ending more upbeat or less ambiguous. It depends a lot
on the editor’s knowledge of their market and the publisher’s catalogue
and, of course, on discussion with the author.
Sometimes the process is a lot simpler. I recently translated Vincent and Camille,
a Golden Book that was commissioned directly by the Van Gogh Museum in
Amsterdam, for example, and then I went on to translate a graphic novel
and accompanying teaching material for the museum: Vincent Van Gogh: An Artist’s Struggle, which was a collaboration between the museum and EurEducation. Here's the book trailer:
In these two cases, the museum got in touch with me directly and there
was essentially one point of contact all the way through the process.
I mentioned before that translators usually work on their own, but I
recently had the opportunity to collaborate on a fantastic project with
two other translators, Rhian Heppleston and Michele Hutchison: The Wrong Place, a Belgian graphic novel by Brecht Evens. We were lucky that the publisher, Drawn and Quarterly,
agreed to let the three of us work on it together. It was an
interesting process, as the text was, of course, dialogue, so having
three of us chipping in really helped to establish different voices. For
once, the translation process was more about talking than writing. We
sat there together, the three of us, and worked away to get the same
emotion, colloquial swing and occasional cringe-worthy awkwardness into
the dialogue of the characters. We polished and honed the text and read
it out loud. It was a very rewarding experience and I hope that the
dialogue rings true. When we reached the editing phase, we also did a
little work with Tom Devlin of Drawn and Quarterly to tweak the dialogue
by ironing out a few phrases that worked better in the UK than
elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The author, Brecht Evens, read
the translation too and came up with some suggestions, so the editing
process was a real team effort.
[Sarah] Who usually selects the translator?
[Laura] It ultimately comes down to the publisher
and they’ll usually go for someone they’ve worked with before or, if
they like the translated excerpt, they may stick with the same
translator. I know that some translators fall in love with a book and
decide to translate an excerpt and send it off to publishers. Sometimes
the author will even commission an excerpt directly from a translator so
that they can contact foreign publishers themselves, effectively
bypassing their publisher at home.
[Sarah] Do you ever talk directly with the author? What types of conversations do you have?
[Laura] Hmmm, an interesting question. I know a
number of translators who prefer to translate classic books by dead
authors, as they’re easier to negotiate with! There are tales about
nightmare authors, most of which are probably exaggerated or apocryphal,
such as the author who complained about the words in the translation
being in a different order than in the original…
There’s also the very occasional author who doesn’t quite trust the
translator’s native-speaker credentials. “Are you sure that young people
call it a ‘bike’? I thought the English word for fiets was
‘bicycle’ – that’s what I learned at school and that’s what it says in
my dictionary.” “Why have you used the present continuous here? Surely
it must be the present simple.” Or perhaps you send a translated excerpt
to an author for a quick last-minute check, because nobody knows the
text like the author and it’s great to have the expert read through and
pick up on any problems. However, the author somehow misunderstands his
or her role in the process and, rather than sending a few comments and
queries, mails a “corrected” version of the translation – all the
examples of “because” have mysteriously become “for” and your carefully
crafted dialogue is now full of inappropriate, archaic phrases. Um,
there’s not much you can say in those cases. You just have to grin and
say firmly that it’s native-speaker intuition and that you’ve been
working on your English for a very long time.
Such cases are, thankfully, pretty rare. Many authors never become
involved in the translation process, particularly if it’s just an
excerpt. In my experience, the ones who do read the translation and come
back with queries are, 99% of the time, a pleasure to work with and I
often end up shaping the final version based on their feedback. You
discuss the points, reach a conclusion and polish off the final version
of the text together.
When I start on a new book translation project, there’s a lot of
emailing back and forth and I make it clear to the publisher that if the
author would like to go through the translation and come back with any
questions and comments, that’d be great. I don’t approach the author
directly though unless I have any niggling queries that I haven’t been
able to solve throughout the translation process. That might happen if
I’m not quite sure what the author meant or if I’m about to take
liberties with the author’s words and want to check that it’s all right
or perhaps if there are two options for handling something and I’d like
another opinion from someone else who really cares about the book. Then
we might meet up or email each other to sort out those last few bits and
There are also a couple of authors with whom I’ve had a closer
working relationship. One year, before the book fair, I worked on a
translation of a rhyming picture book by writer Edward van de Vendel,
just for fun. The two of us played around with the text for a few days,
bouncing suggestions about, and I think the end result was a true
collaboration and was better than either of us could have come up with
on our own. Edward’s a fine writer and rhymer, with a great sense of
humour and top-notch English and he’s very into translation too, so it
was a good experience.
[Sarah] Voice is unique to each author. How do you approach voice?
[Laura] I don’t really think too much about how to
approach voice. If the book’s well written, the voice is strong enough
to flow through into the translation naturally. Sometimes it’s tricky to
work out how to reflect a particular dialect or what sort of words and
phrasing might get an individual character’s voice just right,
particularly if that voice is very distinctive, but it’s generally a
very organic process.
[Sarah] Languages take
different amounts of space which can affect length and page count. (The
reason for this question is I noticed deletion of what I felt were
important sentences in a German translation of one of my favorite
children’s novels.) Do you ever need to cut words? If so, how do you
decide what to leave out?
[Laura] The number of words doesn’t really matter in
a typical book for middle grade or YA. The translation may come out
shorter or longer than the original text, but it is what it is and the
number of pages/words in the original won’t have any impact on the
length of the translation. It just gets published as a normal book with
no restrictions on the translator.
Those cuts you saw in the novel will probably have been down to an
editorial decision. That could happen at any point in the process for a
number of reasons: perhaps the translator spots an inconsistency and
tidies it up or maybe the editor thinks the wording is too flowery or
bloated for an English-speaking readership. It could even be that the
author has had second thoughts and has trimmed down the text for the
translated version or a reader has spotted an error and written in to
let the publisher know.
As a translator, I generally translate pretty much what’s on the
page, unless I spot a continuity error (someone’s still drinking from
the glass of lemonade that they finished two pages ago) or something
that really won’t work in English, such as a play on words that only
works in the original language (then I have to get creative…) or a
concept that doesn’t exist in the target market (a Dutch stroopwafelmight
just become a simple waffle – it satisfies the same need for sugar and
is known in both markets). Dramatic cuts to the text are more likely to
involve an intervention by the editor.
Two cases where space is an issue are picture books and comics, where
the words have to fit into a text box or a speech bubble or a
particular space on the page. You have to bear that in mind as a
translator and try to keep the text at around the same length as the
original, which isn’t too difficult, but you can’t tell for sure whether
it’s going to fit until the words are actually on the page. Usually the
designer can do a few tricks, but you need to pay close attention to
the line breaks at the proofing stage, as sometimes the words are split
strangely to make them fit. I recently came across a “fair/y tale” in a
text, for example, so the “y” had to be moved up and squeezed in to make
the poor “fairy” whole again!
[Sarah] Do you also change the names of characters for some books? How do you choose the right names for the characters?
[Laura] I haven’t yet changed the name of any
characters in books or pieces that I’ve translated for adults. I think
that adult readers don’t mind the occasional unpronounceable name in a
book. In fact, it sometimes adds to the appeal, as it’s a reminder that
the book is foreign and a little bit different, even though the emotions
and story should be universal. The exception to this would be if a
character has a nickname that means something. In that case, I’d have to
make a choice between translating the name and using that name all the
way through the text, which is generally the smoothest, least intrusive
method, or explaining the nickname when it appears the first time and
then using the original name throughout, which may be a little
irritating for the reader. You have to decide on a case-by-case basis.
As you can imagine, the situation’s different for children’s books.
Just this week I’ve been translating an excerpt of a book that has a
girl called Geesje in it. Most younger English speakers who have no
experience of Dutch would be pretty stumped by that name. Is it a girl
or a boy? How on earth do you say it? So, in the English version she’s
become Gina. I generally go for a name that has a similar feel to it as
the original in terms of length and initial letter and I think it’s
important to choose a name that could still work in the context of the
original book. You could find a Gina in a school class in the
Netherlands, in America, in Australia… The name Gina doesn’t make the
character of Geesje any less Dutch – it just makes her a little more
pronounceable! Hmmm, but maybe Gina’s not the best option. I wonder if
there might be a more suitable name for her. Geesje, Gina, Geesje… Hmm… I
think that little puzzle’s a good illustration of what a children’s
translator gets up to all day at work.
Sarah has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a writer and photographer whose blog explores writing craft, stories and the cultures (and places) she lives.
She has lived in Brazil, Finland, Iceland, China, Germany, Nigeria, and many places in the United States. Currently, she lives in Egypt. Her website is at http://www.sarahblakejohnson.com/