Takeaways from AFCC 2021

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

A tinge of uncertainty seemed to hang over the start of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) 2021 when an email from the Singapore Book Council notified me that the hybrid event would be moved entirely online. Joining remotely from Tokyo, I wasn’t affected by this change, but as I caught up on the event’s recordings, which remain available to attendees until the end of June, I could sense that children’s content creators from the UK across Asia to the US were glad to see a familiar face or form new connections with people on the other side of their screens.

As with past editions, AFCC 2021 offered something for every breed of children’s content creator. Sessions on diversity, mental well-being, and accessibility in children’s books mixed with those on digital content, market entry, and distribution that were presided over by writers, illustrators, publishers, book sellers, and digital creators, and a handful of translators too.

From Japan, Mariko Nagai helped to envision poetry not as “Poetry” but as “poetry,” and Oscar nominee Koji Yamamura talked about his process and the differences between animation and picture book illustrations.

Lawrence Schimel who traverses both writer and translator realms spoke at length about producing picture books that are sensitive to their audiences. On writing about disabilities, he demonstrated how he sought to embrace disability and difference as normal, for example, by not needing to mention them in the text and leaving readers to see the pictures as they are. While this approach was made possible by the stories, reframing “the other” as part of the “normal” came across as both refreshing and liberating.

Screenshot edited by Andrew Wong

 

Speaking about translated works, Lawrence noted how visual cues were sometimes adjusted in translations of his books. For instance, a no-parking sign was changed from an “E” (proibido estacionar) in the Portuguese version to a “P” (no parking) for the English version. A quirkier change was how a pack of margarine was magically transformed into butter for the Swiss version of another of his picture books. He also appreciated how sometimes a translator of his work would come up with a much better expression than he had, like the German title Hundemüde (dog tired) for the English title Bedtime, Not Playtime!.

The conversation continued into how translations are often published in and processed through dominant languages and how decisions in translation can sometimes be influenced by the political relationships between or among the languages. In tune with embracing minority representations, Lawrence also asserted to keep words from a foreign language in regular style instead of italicizing and “othering” them.

Because this idea of the “other” is deeply entwined with translation, it was only natural that the topics carried on into a panel involving not two or three, but six (yes!) literary translators. Lawrence was joined by Avery Fischer Udagawa (Japanese-English) in Thailand, Helen Wang (Chinese-English) in the UK, Vertri (Hindi-Tamil) in India, and Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar (Indonesian-Malay) and Shelly Bryant (Chinese-English) in Singapore.

Screenshot panel by Andrew Wong

Moderated by Shelly Bryant, the lively roundtable kicked off with the question of access to translated works. This part of the chat covered how there are many translated classics around us and what needs to be done for everyone to see more translations, from getting past the numerous gatekeepers of the publishing industry to giving translations the space and attention they need as literary works that are both relevant and important. On bypassing the dominant English gatekeepers, I quickly noted that Epigram Books in Singapore are looking for translations, particularly of stories from Southeast Asia.

Besides sharing experiences of working with cultural differences, such as how it is considered normal (or at least not weird) in Japan for the whole family to sleep side by side on futon in the same room, Vetri, Nur-El-Hudaa, Lawrence, and Shelly also touched on an interesting topic, of bridge languages, which normally would be dominant languages such as Chinese, English, Spanish, or, in the case of India, Hindi.

This discussion on bridge languages linked to a separate session on books featuring dialects and vernacular languages. Writer/publisher Yulia Loekito spoke to field linguist Alexander Coupe about using Javanese in her picture books. In one example, Yulia used Bahasa Indonesia, the dominant language, for the narrative and the vernacular Javanese for the dialogue so that readers can experience the diversity of spoken tongues and Javanese children can reaffirm their identities. In another one, she used different scripts (Javanese and romanized Bahasa Indonesia) to create a bilingual text, which works to bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between readers of the two languages and preserve the Javanese script at the same time. Lawrence also spoke about how bilingual texts faced the need to be pretty much parallel in content. This illustrated a key difference from a translation – translations do not give readers the luxury of access to the original nor are they as strictly bound by it.

Screenshot by Andrew Wong of bilingual book by Yulia Loekito

The idea of preserving languages and their wisdoms came up again when Daphne Lee and Joel Donato Ching Jacob spoke about retelling folktales for today’s children. Conversations with someone on the same wavelength can sometimes reveal unexpected connections, so I wasn’t surprised when they stumbled upon a similarity in the much-loved Malaysian trickster mouse deer Sang Kancil and the Philippine pilandok while they discussed various versions of the Pontianak in the region. But while they both agreed that folktales from minority peoples need to be passed on, Joel opined that it might be hard to find such own voices because they might be busy with putting food on the table.

To that end, I found that what storyteller/writer Rosemarie Somaiah had to share from her experience during this pandemic – be kind, first to yourself, and also to others – emanates through my takeaways from AFCC 2021. Embracing the less represented among us; sensitivity to portraying cultural nuances; awareness of political perspectives in dominant languages; reaching out to help those stories waiting to be told. A clear guiding light from AFCC shone through the apparent uncertainty – when we have the breathing space to find and spread kindness, we’ll pull through this pandemic together better.

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