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Watch out for the Umlauts! Children’s Books in Translation from Little Island by Siobhán Parkinson

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult
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By Siobhán Parkinson

Most Little Island titles are by new or emerging Irish writers, and we are very proud that some of our discoveries have started to become the newly established figures in Irish children’s literature (Sheena Wilkinson and Deirdre Sullivan). Threaded through our growing list of new books by Irish authors, though, you’ll come across books by authors with names that have an international look: watch out for the umlauts, cedillas and tildes! These represent our commitment to publishing books in translation.

This commitment began with my own interest in translating, and we’ve published quite a few books that I’ve translated from German myself, most recently No Heroes by Anna Seidl, a gripping psychological study of how a group of teenage girls, all friends, cope with and recover from the trauma, grief, loss and guilt left in the devastating wake of a school shooting. Anna will be appearing in May at the Dublin International Literature Festival, on a panel of authors who write about difficult subjects for young adults. Indeed Anna was a very young adult herself, only sixteen years old, when she wrote this novel, which appeared to great acclaim in Germany just a few years ago.

Also translated by me and appearing this summer is a delightful poetic novella by one of Germany’s leading YA authors, Tamara Bach, entitled Wherever it is Summer. This touching and amusing study of an unlikely friendship between two teenage girls reveals how the power of friendship can overcome grief and loss. Bach has an unusual elliptical style and an unerring empathy with the discontents of adolescence.

Siobhán Parkinson
Siobhán Parkinson

People always want to know how we find our titles to translate. The answer is that it’s mostly serendipity. The Bologna Book Fair, which we attend every year, is of course a super source of all books international, and indeed that was where we came across No Heroes. As well as attending conventional meetings with foreign publishers who want to pitch their books to us, we talk to people, we listen out, and we ask international friends for their recommendations. For example, Thin Ice was recommended to us by the director of the International Youth Library in Munich, who had read it in German translation from the Swedish; on her recommendation, I read it also in German, and loved it, and after that it was just a case of tracking down the Swedish publisher, buying the rights and finding a translator ­– which we did with the help of the Swedish Arts Council. It’s some years now since that book came out, and we are still meeting people who rave about it.

Buerste_Kuh_IlluThe super-mad Cow Belle Beauty Queen, from Finland, on the other hand, arrived on our desk from a Scandinavian agent, who’d picked up that we were interested in publishing books in translation, and we were able to buy the equally super-mad illustrations from a German publisher I’d happened to meet the previous year on a trip to Köln. Similarly, I heard a debut German writer reading from her lovely book Fennymore and the Brumella (you have to read the book) at the Leipzig Book Fair, where I happened to be on a visit as guest of the Goethe-Institut. Strokes of luck!

We came across The History Mystery by Ana Maria Machado, one of the top Brazilian children’s writers, through the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), whom we meet at Bologna also. Brazil has a particularly rich output of children’s books, and at the end of this year we are planning to bring out James Joyce’s well-loved story The Cat and the Devil, with illustrations by the Brazilian illustrator Lelis – not exactly a translation, but certainly an international title. The Irish children’s book expert, Valerie Coghlan, has a special interest in this story, and when she came across this very beautiful edition at the book fair she quite rightly insisted we take a look at it. We did; and it’s happening. Incidentally, it was also initially through Valerie that we got to know the fabulous German illustrator Binette Schroeder, and ultimately published her gorgeous picturebook The Wizardling.

Very recently, another friend introduced us to a lovely French picturebook, which for various reasons did not suit us, but we immediately set about exploring the rest of the publisher’s list. We have Secret Plans and Clever Tricks up our sleeves on this one – regardez cet espace, as the French most assuredly do not say.

As you can gather, finding titles to publish is a mixture of adventure, luck and skill. The secret is not to feel that you have to find THE German or French or Swahili book – that way madness lies; the secret is to find A German or French or Swahili book that you love enough to want to publish it for Irish and other Anglophone children. Because that, at the end of the day, is the point. Anglophone children are saturated in Anglo-American culture and have access to hundreds of thousands of books written in English – which is precisely why they also need something different. Everything that happens in the world does not happen in English. To bring that realisation to young readers is at the heart of my project as a translator and a publisher of books in translation: opening minds to other views and possibilities.

Thankfully, there is less resistance than there used to be, from booksellers and from readers, to books in translation, and there are some financial supports for translation both from countries of origin and from our own Ireland Literature Exchange. These things help. But it still costs more to publish a book in translation and it’s still harder to sell it, because the author is unknown and usually not very available to help promote it.

But it is tremendous fun and hugely worth while; and we are delighted to be able to offer a truly international list of children’s titles to our readers.

(c) Siobhán Parkinson

Siobhán Parkinson is a former Laureate na nÓg; she is also a translator and publisher of Little Island Books. Her next children’s novel, Miraculous Miranda, is coming out in September from Hodder Children’s Books.

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