Children’s Books in Translation

When I launched Wacky Bee Books in 2015 I never thought I would be publishing books in translation. In fact there were quite a lot of books I didn’t think I would be publishing, including picture books (we now have five) and board books (we now have two). But books in translation never even crossed my mind.

This all changed last year when just before Bologna Children’s Book Fair, BookTrust told me about their ‘In Other Words’ project.  Launched in 2016, this project, funded by Arts Council England, is designed to showcase great writing from outside the UK and to help UK publishers acquire books in translation. 

The project received almost 400 entries of outstanding children’s fiction from around the world. This was narrowed down to eight finalists, out of which four honour titles were chosen and announced at last year’s Bologna by the then children’s laureate Chris Riddell.

The great thing about the ‘In Other Words’ project is that the eight finalists were partially translated so that it was easy for potential publishers to get a feel for the books. I was actually interested in three titles from the eight finalists – A Good Day for Climbing a Tree by Jaco Jacobs (original language Afrikaans), The Amazing Adventures of Groana Schmitt by Finn-Ole Heinrich (original language German) and Elise and the Second-hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter (original language Danish). However as a very small publisher I couldn’t afford all three so I had to choose to offer on my favourite, which was Elise and the Second-hand Dog.

The book is about a lonely, little girl called Elise. Elise’s mum is far away in Brazil helping to finish the building of a suspension bridge in the Amazon rainforest and her dad is busy trying to get by as a musician in Copenhagen where they live. So when Elise asks for a dog to keep her company, her dad finds it hard to refuse. But the dog that Elise ends up with is no ordinary dog. He is second-hand, he looks like an ugly rabbit, he smells of cheese…and he can talk (bizarrely in a strong Scottish accent)!

I immediately knew that this book was perfect for Wacky Bee. It’s quirky, funny and moving which is what I always wanted Wacky Bee books to be all about. Plus it’s illustrated. All our books are illustrated regardless of target age range. 

Elise is out next month, but little did I realize when I got involved in the ‘In Other Words’ project that I was also going to get involved in the whole topic of children’s books in translation. At a recent discussion forum on the subject Nicolette Jones (Chair of the ‘In Other Words’ judges and Sunday Times Children’s Books Editor) said that “children’s books in translation give us hope in an increasingly parochial world”. Writing in the ‘In Other Words’ rights guide Jill Coleman (Director of Children’s Books at BookTrust) expanded on this,

“We know that reading changes lives. Books in translation allow children to reach beyond their own language and culture and to share what one of our judges calls ‘the international language of the imagination’. Now more than ever, our children need an international perspective.”

Pushkin Press and Tiny Owl are probably the best-known publishers doing books in translation but there is a growing band of smaller publishers also on the lookout for great fiction from outside the UK. Red Robin Books is one such publisher and Red Robin Publisher, David Rose, feels that there are plenty of positives to be taken from publishing books in translation.

“Knowing that a book has already sold well in its native language should indicate that it will do well in the UK,” he says. “And for a small publisher it can be more cost effective to buy foreign rights than to start from scratch. Often a small advance can be negotiated along with a sensible royalty percentage which is particularly useful when buying in picture books.”

Red Robin are publishing a children’s detective series from Norway (The Art Detectives), a picture book from The Netherlands (Hey Who’s In the Loo?) and a series of picture books from India (Farmer Falgu). However Rose feels that target age range does make a difference.

“It’s easier to buy picture books as they will appeal to a broader range so there is less risk.”

Our own experience of publishing Elise has also been mostly positive. We acquired a really great book, at a reasonable rate with all the illustrations thrown in. On top of that BookTrust offset the difficulties of publicising a book where the author may not speak English and lives in another country, by offering a £1500 bursary to help with publicity. As a small publisher publicity campaigns are something that we struggle with so this was gratefully received and has meant that Elise is getting the exposure she deserves.

However there are certainly negatives to publishing books in translation. It is relatively easy to assess a picture book in another language, but when it comes to books for older children it’s almost impossible to make a decision simply based on the cover and a description.

It’s certainly worth getting a good translation (and ours, by Sian Mackie, is one of the best I’ve ever come across) but costs are high. Just to get the second half of Elise translated cost £1400.  On the plus side there are very often grants available from the host countries and we are very grateful to the Danish Arts Foundation for the financial support they have provided.

Lastly, there can be difficulties when it comes to editing the translation as what is acceptable in one country in terms of language may not be acceptable in another. This was certainly the case with one chapter of Elise…ironically chapter thirteen!

However, for all its challenges publishing our first book in translation has been a fun experience. Foreign publishers are delighted when UK publishers take an interest in their titles as the numbers bought are extremely small. We’ll be on the lookout for more titles at Bologna this year so watch this space!

This blog post was provided by Louise Jordan of Wacky Bee publishers. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

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