According to an oft-cited and oft-lamented statistic, a mere 3% of books published in the U.S. are works in translation. In recent years, several independent publishers have strived to fill this literary chasm, with companies such as Blue Dot Kids Press, Enchanted Lion, Levine Querido, and minedition, and imprints including Archipelago’s Elsewhere Editions and Restless Books’ Yonder specializing in bringing international children’s books to the U.S. Amid the current pandemic, when overseas travel is restricted and people’s lives have become more insular, literature in translation offers a vital means of connecting readers across the globe. In honor of World Kid Lit Month, we spoke with 10 acclaimed translators about the unique challenges and rewards of adapting international children’s books for English-speaking readers.

Rhythm and Voice

David Boyd, translator and assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, recalled his transformative first encounter with Japanese fiction in translation. “The big moment for me was finding a Yukio Mishima novel at the public library as a teen,” he said. Boyd was so intrigued that he searched out other Japanese translations and eventually began learning the language, later becoming a translator himself. Approaching a poetic picture book like Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada, illustrated by Ryōji Arai (Enchanted Lion, Oct.), Boyd said he weighs each word. “In the original, I saw a lot of openness, so I did what I could to retain that. When I translate a picture book, I think I’m even less tolerant of excessive language. Every word has to earn its place on the page.” Boyd said, “Ultimately, a good translation is one that captures everything you felt when you read the original work. For me, there’s a lot of power in Every Color of Light, and I wanted that to come across in English.”

Lawrence Schimel, English/Spanish translator (bidirectional), author, and co-founder of World Kid Lit Month, is also experienced with translating the delicate poetry of picture books. For his forthcoming project, Some Days by Argentinian author-illustrator María Wernicke (Amazon Crossing Kids, Nov.), he said, “The difficulty was polishing the language enough to make it as spare and elegant as the original.” Schimel likened the process to a dance. “Take Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: she’s doing everything he does backwards and in heels. Like with translation, the effort is there, but you have to make it look graceful.”

Schimel, who is based in Madrid, said that his editor at Amazon Crossing Kids, Marilyn Brigham, was extremely supportive throughout the process for Some Days. “It was clear that Marilyn fell in love with the book and cared so much about the translation,” he said, noting, “Amazon has been stellar in terms of including me from the very beginning. When they first announced the book in PW Bookshelf, they credited me as translator and showed a photo of me.”

Boyd has a similarly collaborative relationship with his editor at Enchanted Lion, for whom he previously translated What What What by Tendo Arata, illustrated by Ryōji Arai, and books in the Chirri & Chirra series. “Claudia [Bedrick] was involved in the translation in the most supportive way imaginable. Once I was done with my draft for Every Color of Light, we talked on the phone and went over pretty much every line in the book. This allowed us to really listen to and think about the sonic impact of the choices we had made.” Sound was key to the book, he said. “What starts out as quiet becomes slowly louder, page after page. In the Japanese, that gradual buildup is conveyed through a rich onomatopoeic vocabulary. That part was a lot of fun to translate.”

German-English translator Elisabeth Lauffer, recipient of the 2014 Gutekunst Prize for Emerging Translators, also spoke of honoring the voice that underscores a given text. “I feel to translate convincingly the aim is for the words to sound as though they were originally written in the language they're translated into,” she said. Describing the kind of rigorous work required, she mentioned her forthcoming YA translation, Beyond the Blue Border by Dorit Linke (Charlesbridge Teen, May 2021), about two teens who try to flee the German Democratic Republic in 1989—just months before the Wall comes down. Lauffer said, “There was tons of research involved in translating the many cultural and historical references, particularly as one of the characters is given to joking about East German and Soviet politicians and current events. The novel is dialogue-heavy, so beyond the nuances of historical setting, I had to find the right voice for a range of characters.” For the teenage dialogue, she was able “to channel some of my personal knowledge of late-’80s/early-’90s slang without being overly hokey.”

Daniel Hahn, a U.K.-based translator from French, Spanish, and Portuguese and co-author with Joy Court of A World of Books in Translation (SLA, 2017), is committed to translating the essential harmony between words and images in pictures books. “It’s a complex, hybrid storytelling form,” he said. “If this relationship is going to be retained, the new text needs to be mindful of this constantly. It’s not enough to extract the old text, translate it, and dump the new text back on the page—you need to see the space the text will occupy, how it relates to the detail of the page and the page turn and the rest of the book’s architecture.”

Cross-Cultural Creation

For the most part, translators operate like illustrators, working independently of the book’s author with the editor acting as go-between (in cases where the author is still living). Summing up her work as a translator, editor, rights manager at Callisto Media, and creator of the YA imprint Fantástica Rocco in her native Brazil, Larissa Helena said, “I am attracted to positions that allow me to build bridges, whether it is acquiring and agenting international books, or straight up translating them.” Though Helena was not in touch with author Lucas Rocha during the translation process for Where We Go from Here (Scholastic/Push, 2018), she said, “I did meet Lucas afterwards on a trip to Brazil, and it was one of those pleasant moments when you confirm that the author of a story you care about is just as nice as you imagined them to be!”

Helena did work closely with editor Orlando Dos Reis on bringing the book from Portuguese to English, a new process for her. “I had translated several books into Portuguese when Orlando first fell in love with a couple of projects from Brazil, and asked if I would translate them into English instead. In translation studies, you’ll be frowned upon for translating into a language that is not your native tongue, so I was hesitant at first. But Orlando convinced me.” Helena faced another “editorial challenge because in Brazil YA books can be geared towards a much older audience than in the U.S. So my adaptations were on the sentence level, making sure the dialogue is fluid and that every depiction makes sense to non-Brazilians, whereas Orlando focused on the bigger picture concerning his target readers, and the needs of his imprint.”

By contrast, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, author (Truthtelling, Delphinium, Oct.) and translator from Italian to English, was in direct contact with Silvana Gandolfi, author of Run for Your Life (Restless, 2018). “Since much of the action takes place in Sicily, a good deal of the dialogue and references was in Sicilian dialect: that was the main challenge. I had to consult Silvana as well as some good dictionaries to understand the dialect and render it in English.” Schwartz and Gandolfi were awarded a grant by Omi, an artists’ retreat in upstate New York, which brings together writers and their translators for several weeks. “This was a wonderful opportunity, for which I’m forever grateful. Silvana and I spent many afternoons sitting together studying the text.” Their joint work paid off; Run for Your Life earned a 2019 Batchelder Honor.

Whether they are in contact or not, translators and authors exist in collaboration. Mexican American author and translator David Bowles said, “Certainly my experience crafting original work aids me in becoming the co-creator of the translated text... because ultimately, that’s what translations are: new works that are co-created by the author and the translator to do essentially the same job as the original, but with a wholly different audience.”

'Gained in Translation'

There’s a common assumption that things are lost in translation, while translators are often judged in reductive terms as either remaining “faithful to” or “betraying” a text. Hahn voiced his frustration with this mindset. “We seem to worry so much about the way a translation falls short of an impossible, notional perfection, rather than being thrilled at the inherent qualities of the thing it gives us,” he said, “What other form of art or craft is measured against perfection, rather than against possibility, or ambition, or achievement?”

Marcia Lynx Qualey, Arabic-English translator and founder of the ArabLit cooperative and ArabKidLitNow, said, “I don’t think of it as gained or lost. Things are changed in translation, just as they are changed when any reader ‘translates’ a book into their head through the act of reading. No two readings of a book are the same; no two readings of a translation are the same.” She added, “Certainly some translations are more attentive, loving, and better. But what’s gained in literary translation is that the book is accessible to a whole new audience!”

Françoise Bui, French-to-English translator and former acquisitions editor at Random House’s Delacorte Books for Young Readers imprint, agrees. “Translated books allow readers to access different cultures and different perspectives, which is incredibly enriching. It’s a way of traveling without leaving your armchair,” she said. As an editor considering potential books for translation, Bui explained, “I looked for many of the same qualities as for a manuscript from a homegrown talent: compelling characters, fluid narrative, plus a story that an American author wasn’t likely to write, but that would resonate with readers because the emotional journey was universal.”

Hahn cited the numerous works of classic children’s literature to which translation afforded him access, “As somebody who grew up in the English-speaking world: Pippi Longstocking, the Moomins, Asterix, Emil and the Detectives, The Little Prince and Tintin—plus the Greek myths, Pinocchio, and every fairytale I ever heard. They were all gained in translation.”

For her part, Qualey emphasized the fun of reading books from abroad, saying, “I just believe in bibliodiversity as giving readers of all ages a more imaginative and intellectual landscape. Often we look at literature in translation as being ‘good for us’ or ‘healthy,’ whereas the act of celebrating and delighting brings home that books in translation are just... great books.”

Windows to the World

As the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices movements continue to widen the contemporary children’s publishing landscape, translation offers another means of promoting more inclusive and authentic representation for young readers. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, who is a British literary translator from Arabic, German, and Russian into English, as well as a co-editor of the WorldKidLit and ArabKidLitNow blogs, said, “I believe that sharing diverse children’s books with young children and engaging with translation and global reading in the classroom can foster more outward-looking perspectives and critical thinking about language, identity, and the way we interact and empathize with people from other countries and backgrounds.”

Bowles is mindful of geographical and literary borders as a resident of a town called Donna in the Río Grande Valley in south Texas, on the border with Mexico. He believes that translation is essential “to expose young readers to a broad swath of voices, thereby increasing the visibility of the global majority for them—rather than erasing nearly everyone except white U.S. folks. To show communities of color with roots in other countries that their traditions and stories are valued here as well.”

A co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, a coalition of Latinx members of the literary, publishing, and academic communities, Bowles said, “Part of the reason behind the underrepresentation of Latinx authors in traditional publishing is a phrase that gatekeepers repeat ad nauseum: ‘I couldn’t connect with the voice.’ The more translated work that feeds into the U.S. market, expanding the available gamut of voices and comp titles, the more likely it is that agents and editors will stop making this ridiculous excuse, either because they’ve become exposed to other narrative styles in translation, or because an enlightened readership will demand more variety.”

Helena added, “It was quite a shock to move from a country that overvalues works in translation such as Brazil to one that undervalues it. In the U.S., there is a widespread, largely unproven belief that readers will not understand a work of literature that does not reference their daily experiences.” She explained that “things get worse in the children’s and YA space, which is so funny when you consider the [youth-centered] media the U.S. exports all over the world, with very non-universal yellow school buses, cheerleading squads, and beer pong with Solo cups. The beauty of translation is that emotions are universal, so we can recognize ourselves even in the most unfamiliar of contexts. This alone has the power to shed new light on our own experiences, foster empathy, and make us all feel part of humankind first, and members of a nation second.”

Reading Without Borders

On the importance of celebrating children’s books from other languages and territories, Hahn said, “Rather than just grumbling about that lack [of translated books]—I’m guilty of this—there’s a lot to be said for being grateful also for what does exist, and finding ways of drawing readers’ attention to it.”

For children and families who are looking for resources to aid in book discovery, Lauffer suggested, “As the daughter of a lifelong children’s librarian, I would say turn to your librarian! Libraries have done a lot of work to remain present in communities and in people’s lives [during the pandemic]. My local library in Burlington, Vt., is doing a lot of online and outdoor programming, particularly for kids. If your library is closed now because of Covid, go online to see what materials are available.”

Kemp advised readers, “Explore #WorldKidLitWednesdays on the Global Literature in Libraries blog, and use the Outside in World and Planet Picture Book websites to choose a destination and fly there by book!”

Bui recommended that readers “start by checking out the many superb titles—picture books through YA—that have been Batchelder Award recipients. And don’t overlook the Honor books.” During her tenure at Delacorte, Bui worked on a number of Batchelder Award-winning translations, including Jean-Claude Mourlevat’s The Pull of the Ocean, translated by Y. Maudet; Joelle Stolz’s The Shadows of Ghadames, translated by Cathrine Temerson; and Annika Thor’s A Faraway Island, translated by Linda Schenck.

Qualey offered the following tips: “visit the WorldKidLit blog, Stephen Spender Trust, Words Without Borders, and The Common. Find a publisher that brings out kid lit in translation, whose books you love and trust. There are a growing number.”

As Boyd put it, “Good books allow you to see the world in new ways, but books in translation can show you just how big the world really is.”

On the Horizon

On an optimistic note, Lauffer said, “I’ve been very busy with work during this time, which is encouraging. It seems to me a sign that publishing itself is in decent shape, maybe because people have more time to read now. In fact, works in translation are being sought out and the demand is being maintained.”

The following children’s books are new and forthcoming from the translators we interviewed:

Beyond the Blue Border by Dorit Linke, trans. from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer (Charlesbridge Teen, May 25, 2021)

Chirri & Chirra: The Rainy Day by Colas Gutman, trans. from the Japanese by David Boyd, illus. by Marc Boutavant (Enchanted Lion, Apr. 2021)

The Day Saida Arrived by Susana Gómez Redondo, trans. from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, illus. by Sonja Wimmer, (Blue Dot Kids, Sept. 15)

Every Color of Light: A Book About the Sky by Hiroshi Osada, trans. from the Japanese by David Boyd, illus. by Ryōji Arai (Enchanted Lion, Oct. 13)

Fossils from Lost Worlds by Damien Laverdunt, trans. from the French by Daniel Hahn, illus. by Hélène Rajcak (Gecko Press, Mar. 2, 2021)

Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins, trans. from the Portuguese by Larissa Helena (Scholastic Press, Nov. 10)

How Do Bridges Work? by Roman Belyaev, trans. from the Russian by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (b small, Apr. 2021)

A Mother Is a House by Aurore Petit, trans. from the French by Daniel Hahn (Gecko Press, Apr. 6, 2021)

My Favorite Memories by Sepideh Sarihi, trans. from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer, illus. by Julie Völk (Blue Dot Kids, Aug. 18)

The Immortal Boy by Francisco Montaña Ibáñez, trans. from the Spanish by David Bowles (Levine Querido, 2021)

Jacob’s Fantastic Flight by Philip Waechter, trans. from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer (Blue Dot Kids, Oct. 13)

The Postman from Space by Guillaume Perrault, trans. from the French by Françoise Bui (Holiday House, Apr. 2020)

The Postman from Space #2: Biker Bandits by Guillaume Perrault, trans. from the French by Françoise Bui (Holiday House, 2021)

The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas by Maria Garcia Esperon, trans. from the Spanish by David Bowles, illus. by Amanda Mijangos (Levine Querido, Feb. 31, 2021)

Some Days by María Wernicke, trans. from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Amazon Crossing Kids, Nov. 1)

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, trans. from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink, Sept.)