Anyone who knows about Anthea Bell’s translations of children’s books ought to know of the Marsh Award for Children’s Books in Translation, a prestigious prize which Anthea was awarded three times. Though she’s best known for Asterix, it was always her translations from German for which she won the Marsh Award: The Flowing Queen by Kai Meyer, Where Were You Robert? by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and A Dog’s Life by Christine Nöstlinger. Besides these winning titles, she was also shortlisted for the prize three times, with The Flying Classroom by Erich Kästner, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, and Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories by Reinhardt Jung.
I was lucky enough to attend the award ceremony once (and for the last time, as the Marsh Award has sadly been discontinued), where a panel of three editors from children’s publishers discussed what we might do to bring more children’s books from other languages into English. It was an inspiring event but I was dismayed to hear one editor remark that it was close to impossible to consider foreign books because they didn’t know where to look for a reader. Happily, the last couple of years have seen an explosion in initiatives aimed at helping English-language publishers overcome the barriers to considering and commissioning children’s books from overseas. Here are a few.
In 2016, the UK charity BookTrust began a two-year project called In Other Words, which funded a sample translation and synopsis of a number of children’s books originally published in other languages besides English. These texts were presented online and in a dedicated print publication. Three of the selected titles have already been published in English translation and another is to follow this year. The project included Katy Derbyshire’s sample translation from German of The Amazing Adventures of Groana Schmitt by Finn-Ole Heinrich (Hanser Verlag); the rights are still available and any interested publishers can find the sample on the BookTrust In Other Words site.
Heinrich’s work also featured in the Hay Festival Aarhus 39 selection of Europe’s best emerging writers for young people: see Odyssey: Stories of Journeys from Around Europe (Alma Books), an anthology of twenty-one short stories for young adults, which also included Nataly Elisabeth Savina and Stefanie de Velasco from Germany; Cornelia Travnicek and Elisabeth Steinkellner from Austria; and Stefan Bachmann from Switzerland. These authors also had stories published in Quest (Alma Books), aimed at readers aged 9-11.
Most recently, literary translator Daniel Hahn secured Arts Council England funding to take ten commissioning editors to Bologna International Children’s Book Fair in spring 2019, with the aim of showing them the books, authors and publishers out there and what the UK market could be missing out on. The project intends to foster contacts, bringing British publishing houses closer to the global network of publishers, agents and translators involved in international rights sales – aiming for a change in sales into the UK, rather than out of the UK, which we are traditionally better at doing.
A powerful tool for connecting people in the world of picture books is the website dPictus, a curated platform where international picture book publishers and agents promote their titles, secure rights deals, and make new publishing connections throughout the year.
A group of translators started a blog in 2016 about WorldKidLit, featuring children’s books in translation and sample translations of ones which are not yet published in English but should be. Contributors also share news and reviews on Twitter (@worldkidlit). Inspired by the success of #WITmonth (Women in Translation month), the collective launched the hashtag #WorldKidLitMonth and declared September to be the month for celebrating translated children’s books. It’s a relatively new affair but it was wonderful last September to see libraries and bookshops in the UK and USA tweeting photos of their displays of translated children’s books. Another site worth checking out is the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative blog which now showcases translated titles every week on #WorldKidLit Wednesday.
And how are German-language writers faring? Well, in WorldKidLit blog’s list of children’s books translated into English and published in 2017-18, there were six titles originally from German. These included picture books by Sebastian Meschenmoser and Lilli L’Arronge, a children’s novel by Kathrin Rohmann, and non-fiction by Dieter Braun and Thomas Bärnthaler. In the School Library Association publication Riveting Reads: A World of Books in Translation, edited by Daniel Hahn and Joy Court, there were an impressive thirty-four titles listed from German, second only to French with thirty-five.
Titles for young readers to look out for in 2019 include Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost by Alex Rühle, illustrated by Axel Scheffler and translated by Rachel Ward (Andersen Press); A Tiger Like Me by Michael Engler, illustrated by Joëlle Tourlonias and translated by Laura Watkinson (Amazon Crossing Kids); The Magic Story Shop by Katja Frixe, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Oneworld/Rock the Boat); A History of the World with the Women Put Back In by Kerstin Lücker and Ute Daenschel, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Jessica West (The History Press); Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier, translated by Romy Fursland (Macmillan); and Nobody Can Stop Don Carlo by Oliver Scherz, translated by Deirdre McMahon. This last book was picked up by Dedalus Press after the original was reviewed in NBG.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a literary translator of German, Russian and Arabic into English. She translates fiction and non-fiction (especially history) for adults and children. Recent translations include children’s books from Palestine, Syria, Russia and Germany. She’s co-editor of two blogs about diverse children’s publishing (WorldKidLit and ArabKidLitNow) and she tweets at @ruthahmedzai and @worldkidlit.