An Interview with Laura Watkinson

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

LW photoHow can translators of children’s literature advertise their skills? How can they bring deserving titles to light? Why do they join SCBWI?

I had the privilege to ask these questions of Laura Watkinson, an accomplished translator into English from Dutch, Italian and German. Passionate about children’s and young adult literature, Laura co-founded the Dutch chapter of SCBWI in 2008. Her translation from Dutch of Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak won the 2012 Mildred L. Batchelder Award for Eerdmans.

Laura graciously answered my questions in time for Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2013, which took place this week in Singapore. I shared Laura’s response in a talk on promotion of translations, and her words “network, network, network” became a catchphrase throughout the AFCC Translation Seminar.

Below are my questions followed by Laura’s responses, which she sent by email from Amsterdam. Thank you, Laura, for sharing your expertise to help bring Asian stories into English. Your words were appreciated by listeners from Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Malaysia, India, and elsewhere.

What are good ways for translators of children’s literature into English to let the publishing world know of their skills and interests?

Translators come from such a range of different backgrounds. Some have studied languages, creative writing, or literature, or have worked in publishing, whereas others have picked up foreign-language skills later in life and gradually moved into translation or made a mid-life career change. So the paths that translators take into the publishing world and the links we have with publishers differ from translator to translator.

I’ve heard of translators who have graduated from Masters courses that have allowed them to create a body of work and make contacts in publishing houses, so that’s one possible approach. I’ve also come across translators whose first commission has resulted from a chance meeting or a lucky letter that happened to land on the right editor’s desk at the right time.

Soldier BearI can’t emphasize enough that there’s no single established route into translation. That’s great, because it means we’re free to make our own opportunities and steer our own career paths. One thing that really does matter is to build up a network of fellow translators and publishing professionals, which is where an organization like the SCBWI comes in. A chat over lunch at a conference can result in a commission for a translation project a couple of years down the line. Other friendly translators can help out with advice about translation queries, contracts and chances for work and training.

In short, I’d say: Network, network, network. I’ve mentioned going to conferences, but there’s also nothing to stop translators making submissions of work to publishers in the same way as authors do.

Find a book that you love and make sure it hasn’t already been translated, then translate an excerpt. I’d say between five and twenty pages if it’s a novel—and make sure you start at the beginning of the book, not the “best” bit. When you think you’ve completed your translation, put it in a drawer, come back to it a few weeks later when you’re feeling fresh, and proofread it and proofread it over and over again until you’re happy that it’s the best you can do. Then write a letter to the publisher to explain why you’re so crazy about this book and why you think it would be such a great title for that particular publisher’s list. This would be the place to describe the “best” bit of the book. You could also write a synopsis of the book and provide some relevant info about the author and about yourself. Finish your query letter by offering your services as a reader (I’ll say some more about that later) and mention that you’d be delighted to help out with any queries that the publisher might have about the book or about other titles in the language(s) that you work from. If you don’t hear back from them, you can always resubmit elsewhere, but if you’re polite and you appear helpful, the publisher may well be interested in the book and in you as an expert.

Book fairs are also handy places for picking up contact details and catalogues, but don’t necessarily expect to talk to a publisher unless you have an appointment. Of course, you can always write to the publishers you’ve targeted and suggest setting up a meeting at an upcoming book fair . . . If Bologna (the biggest children’s book fair) is too far for you to travel, the SCBWI has a list of international publishers that you can write to directly. Books like The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market and the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook are also very handy, containing a wealth of information about publishers you could contact.

Don’t forget to get in touch with the original publishers of the book too and let them know that you’re planning to contact English-language publishers with a sample of one of their books. Not only can they tell you if there are already translation plans for the book, it’s an excellent way to make an important new contact. They’ll want to hear if you’re planning to translate an excerpt, as you’ll need permission for any publication that might result. Also, foreign publishers often take English samples of books along to book fairs with them when they’re trying to sell the translation rights. Publishers will pay for these sample translations and you may even end up translating the whole book if an English publisher likes your sample.

You founded the Dutch chapter of SCBWI—as a translator. What do translators gain from interacting with writers and illustrators? And vice versa?

My SCBWI friends in are a great bunch. SCBWI The Netherlands logoWe have similar attitudes to work and to fun. I don’t think any of us followed our career paths with the idea of making lots of money, but we’re all motivated by great stories and by meeting other people who are working hard to convey their ideas to young readers. So there’s a lot to talk about when we meet up. When you’re working as a freelancer, it helps to have friends you can contact for advice and support. “Do you think this clause in this contract makes sense?” “Does the editor have a point here?” “What do you think about this title?” Whether we’re translators, illustrators or writers, we’re there for each other when it comes to commiserating—and, of course, celebrating!

In addition, I’m also a member of the Society of Authors in the UK, which has a section for translators, the Translators’ Association, and a special group for children’s writers, which translators are welcome to join. They provide legal advice and vet contracts, organize events, and have an online forum for translators and a register of members. You don’t have to be a UK resident to join. The Society of Authors also has a model contract and recommends a minimum rate for translation. It’s important to know which clauses matter in a contract and to maintain community standards of pay and recognition.

Some other valuable organizations for translators are the British Centre for Literary Translation, the American Literary Translators Association, and the European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations. I’d recommend googling around and reading blogs and signing up for as many newsletters about translation and children’s books as you can. There are lots of interesting workshops and conferences out there—and they’re a great opportunity for getting yourself out of your office and making new connections. And Outside In World is a great website that’s dedicated to children’s literature in translation.

Once a translated book is published, how can the translator contribute to promotion?

Good old Twitter and Facebook help here, as does a blog or 153website. I was once involved in a “blog tour” to publicize an adult novel that I translated for Peirene Press in the UK, Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona. The publisher has built up a relationship with a number of book bloggers and she invited them to submit questions for the author and translator. We then went on a virtual tour of the blogs, answering questions as we went, and readers who were interested in the interview followed us from blog to blog.

I also took part in a panel discussion about translation at the ALA conference in Chicago, which focused on the traslation of Heartsinger, published by Arthur A. Levine Books. Marianne Martens chaired the discussion, and publisher Arthur A. Levine, editor Cheryl Klein, and author Karlijn Stoffels all took part. That was a great experience and raised the profile both of the book and of the translation process.

What benefits come from having a Web presence?

If you have a website, people always know where to find you. It’s also a good place to keep potential clients informed about what you’ve been up to lately. I’ve found that some of my clients, particularly authors that I work with directly, often communicate with me through Facebook or Twitter these days, rather than emailing. Both Facebook and Twitter are good for staying up to date with what’s going on with publishers and fellow translators. I’ve also had plenty of queries and even offers of work arrive through FB, Twitter, and, of course, my website.

When Bibi Dumon Tak’s Soldier Bear, which I translated for Eerdmans, won the ALA’s Batchelder Award for the best translated book, my SCBWI friend Roxie Munro sent a happy message to me via Facebook only minutes after the publisher had contacted me with the good news—and her message was followed by lots of other lovely comments on Facebook, Twitter, and via my website. These things matter, particularly when you’re used to working in isolation.

Translators often work “behind the scenes,” but do they have power to bring stories that deserve to be translated to light? 

Absolutely. That’s something very important that translators have to offer to publishers. We often hear that publishers would love to publish more books in translation, but they need people with language skills not only to translate the text, but also to help with making the selection. This is why some publishers employ readers, many of whom are also translators, to read foreign-language books and write reports on those books. Such reports will typically feature a brief plot summary, some background information about the author, an assessment of the book (interest for the foreign market, accessibility, originality, style, suitability for the publisher’s list), and a recommendation of whether the publisher should commission a translation. So, in our role as impartial readers, translators are an essential part of the assessment process. The publisher may encounter a book at an industry book fair, such as the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and then request a report from a trusted reader, but equally the recommendation may have come from the reader, who has happened upon a book that he or she feels is a good match for the publisher. That recommendation may not make it to the translation stage, or even to the reading stage, but this is definitely an area where translators can influence the process and help to bring great literature and fun stories into other languages.

As an example, one of my recent projects is a book for Arthur A. vdi9789045111964Levine Books, which is now in the final editing stages: Hidden Like Anne Frank by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis. The book features a number of accounts by Jewish people who, like Anne Frank, went into hiding during the Second World War, but they survived to tell their own tales. I translated some publicity material about the book and thought it sounded like a perfect candidate for translation. Editor Emily Clement at Arthur A. Levine had also heard about the book and she asked me to write a report. I was very enthusiastic and the book made it through the various stages and was selected for publication. It’s been a beautiful title to work on and I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished book.

I’m also absolutely delighted to be translating a classic Dutch children’s book for Pushkin Children’s Books in the UK. Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King was published in 1962 and was voted the best Dutch children’s book ever in a “winner of winners” poll of books that had won the award for best children’s book of the year. Astonishingly, it has never been translated into English. Adam Freudenheim from Pushkin is committed to publishing some of the best children’s stories from all around the world and he was really excited when he found out about this title. Publishers really do want to hear from enthusiastic readers and translators!

Thank you, Laura Watkinson, for reaching out from Amsterdam to encourage translation of stories from Asia!

Visit the Cynsations blog to read another interview of Laura Watkinson by SCBWI Assistant International Advisor Angela Cerrito.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] books, translations, networking and promotion. We exchanged a few emails and put together an interview for Avery to share with the members of the translators’ group in Tokyo and incorporate into a […]

    Reply

  2. A very positive article, recommended to my by a friend in Japan. Thanks for making the effort to write this! I translate German to English myself, currently finishing up “Berlin Gothic” by Jonas Winner (a kind of intellectual horror-thriller). Fascinating process to go through and enjoying it immensely. I think I can do a lot more on the self-promotion front as well, and you’ve given me some useful tips here!

    Reply

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