Translator Andrew Wong on the SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

When nature gives us a pandemic, SCBWI takes its summer conference online to keep us at home!

While its virtual nature removed the physical part of meeting people, the SCBWI Online Summer Spectacular opened up five days of sharing to the world. And how the global SCBWI family responded—with more than 4,000 participants from across many US states and over 40 countries, from Alaska to Australia!

Kicking off with a rare cross-Atlantic pre-recorded chat between two giants, Sir Philip Pullman and Arthur Levine, and rounding off with a panel of agents from a diversity of backgrounds, what struck me most was the candid conversations between the speakers. It was as if everyone was—as executive director Lin Oliver said time and again—having friends over for dinner (or whatever meal fits your time zone). It wasn’t just the presenters, but I also caught glimpses of the people in and around these long-time friends and colleagues. Whether it was a family member passing by in the background returning just to wave hi, or an agent coddling his baby while speaking, I felt completely at home among very real on-screen people.

Lin Oliver (center top) with panel of agents and ASL interpreter Brian Truitt at SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020 (Source: Official Conference Blog).

As a first-time attendee, it was a joy for me to hear what creators of children’s books had to share about their passion for their craft, how literary agents chose the right time and fit of a press for a story, and what editors and publishers do to place a story in a market. I was in awe of the spontaneity of Jason Reynolds and Judy Blume, and I was left amazed by the masterstrokes and concepts of Caldecott-winning illustrators LeUyen Pham and Dan Santat.

Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds in conversation, with ASL interpreter Vania Mollinedo, at SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020 (Source: Official Conference Blog).

Jane Yolen was also on hand to talk about how the flow and choice of words matters in poetry and picture books with her daughter and editor Heidi Stemple. Like their session, many others also recognized the importance of collaboration. In such exchanges, whether it was between writers and illustrators or writers and their editors, there was also an unshakable trust to leave the other person room to do what they could to create the best possible work together. Publishers and agents too, spoke of long-term relationships with creators, and I certainly agreed when someone mentioned how vital a local critique group is for our creative pursuits.

Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, with ASL interpreter Jennye Kamin, at SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020 (Source: Official Conference Blog).

Even though there was very little about translation per se over the five days, I found a common thread through the many sessions: connections. Stories connect people. First in their creation, and then when they are read. And when a story strikes deeply, it evokes emotion, and sometimes it compels action. I often start on the receiving end. The resonance with a Japanese story drives me to create an interpretation for readers of another language, English. This process of translation, like other creative processes, calls for collaboration with the right person in publishing who connects with the work on the other side. When that connection happens, it may only be a matter of time before the story translates into still another language that makes new readers feel at ease and welcome in the book’s pages. While I haven’t heard of any translator enjoying the luxury of having an agent to handle the business side of things and find those vital connections, perhaps some translators grow into agents of a kind themselves.

The Summer Spectacular also inevitably touched on Black Lives Matter, when Lin Oliver asked Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone what they hoped to see come out of the movement. To paraphrase Reynolds simply, life will go on for those on the inside, and it comes down to what those on the outside want to achieve now, because they are the ones who can make things better.

The idea of the “other” constantly reminds me of the necessity of translation. How stories build understanding. How inhabiting characters from other cultures helps us realize that we are not so different from each other. That we are all in this together.

In all, the Summer Spectacular was a deeply gratifying and inspiring five-day conference, made possible by human endeavor despite the raging pandemic. If you missed what was a truly spectacular event with a stellar lineup, you can still sign up and catch the recordings from wherever you are until the end of the month!

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