A Translator’s Takeaways from an Illustrator’s Presentation

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo, Japan

I took the chance to join last week’s SCBWI Japan session with Dow Phumiruk, as she took us through her journey of transitioning from pediatrician to award-winning picture book illustrator.

The session began with Dow sharing her background and how she came to illustrate for children. It was not surprising to hear that her success came from much hard work and perseverance, but her reminder to steel ourselves with the ability to see criticism objectively (it’s about your work, not you) would have been heartening to hear for anyone who is a content creator. She also made a special note of the importance of joining a community made up of the competition, like SCBWI, because this is where we can find support and a critique group to help ready those manuscripts for submission.

So what did the translator in me take away from it all?

Dow spoke about the amount of research she would do and reading manuscripts out loud to get the feel of the text, which we all know are so important. She also mentioned some projects where text was just so sparse. Those challenges for the illustrator would eventually translate into more visual information further down the road. So, translators would enjoy the luxury of having more clues in the form of the illustrator’s portrayals and interpretations that would already have passed through the hands of editors, book designers, and everyone involved in creating the finished piece.

And then came a lesson in reading illustrations. Dow dug deeper into her methods, for instance, showing how she warped images of textures from everyday life to apply, literally, textural overlays to add depth to her artwork and how white space or layout is sometimes used to create focus. That felt like a lesson in training the eye to see what’s not immediately apparent, a prompt to look out for hints everywhere.

Besides covering how she actually drew, Dow took some time to talk about perspectives in her work and mixing them up. Sometimes, after I read with children, they would say how the views on every page kept changing and how that was so interesting, so the point she made on perspective certainly echoed. For those of us working with text, the idea of perspective seemed to link more closely to reading widely to get familiar with how tone, rhythm, and flow work in the language of children’s literature.

Dow also mentioned book signings and marketing events after publication, another aspect of being in this line. The fact that she didn’t bring her dry pediatric persona to those sessions drew a few laughs. For translators, even though we might not get the same level of attention or visibility as authors or illustrators, we would do well to be on the lookout for ideas and methods for reaching and interacting with more readers. I’ve recently noticed translators coming together with the original authors to talk about the translations, so wouldn’t it be great to also hear from the illustrators of translated picture books too?

Overall, the session was fascinating, thanks to Dow’s immense generosity in sharing her methods and stories from creation and pitching to publication and marketing. You would probably have left with some takeaways regardless of whether you write, illustrate, or translate. Naturally, since we create for the same readers – children.

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