TRANSLATION Daniel Hahn advocates for children's literature

This month, Daniel Hahn tells us what goes into his work as a translator and advocate for children's literature, and talks about The Big Little Thing and The Encyclopedia of Grannies.
Photo of the cover of Encyclopedia of Grannies
Éric Veillé's book translated by Danny Hahn

How did your Spanish, Portuguese and French become so good? 

I understand Spanish and Portuguese very comfortably because I have Latin American parents, so I’ve always been in the habit of hearing those languages around me. My French is high-school French and I’ve been reading it since. By some measures, none of my languages is very “good” – I certainly don’t speak them with any kind of competence, or confidence – but I’m a pretty comfortable reader of them all.

How did you become a translator?

By accident, as is so often the way. A publisher friend asked me to translate a book and I said yes – though I’d never intended anything of the kind. Indeed, after doing that one book, I didn’t translate again for years, not until that same publisher invited me to do another, by the same author, and I was on my way. That second book was a dozen years ago now, and I haven’t really stopped since.

What made you want to translate for children?

I’ve always loved children’s books – I’ve reviewed them, I interview children’s writers regularly, I’ve co-edited reading guides for kids and teens and a couple of years ago published a huge reference book, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. But for many years, my translation work and my children’s books work kind of ran in parallel. We translate so little for children in the Anglosphere, the opportunities just never came up. Then I was asked to do my first, a picture book called (in English) Happiness Is a Watermelon on Your Head – and I’ve managed to wangle twenty-something more since. Picture books, middle grade, YA – all kinds of things.

How did your latest translation work “find” you?

Both came directly from the publishers – The Encyclopedia of Grannies was offered to me by Gecko Press, The Big Little Thing by Tate. Neither was completely out of the blue, though – I’d done a lot of books with Gecko before, including one by the same author/illustrator, and I knew they were acquiring this one. And I knew the Tate editor, and I knew Beatrice’s beautiful work, too (though this is my first shot at translating her).

How long did the translations take you? 

Depends what you count, I guess. In both cases the first draft was a matter of an hour or two – neither of these books has more than a few hundred words. But the first draft is only a fraction of what these books demand. Even for the Alemagna, the simpler of the two, there was revising, smoothing out, reading aloud, then a back-and-forth with Holly, the editor, plus tinkerings on the proof and so on. For the Veillé it was even more involved, because the book is all little bits of wordplay, jokes that tie the text to the illustrations, and so on –  the first draft still had dozens of problems unsolved. I had several weeks of the book just percolating in the background while I worked on other things and occasionally I’d just get a brainwave and scribble it down until it was complete(ish). But again, a fair bit of time is the editorial process, working back and forth with Rachel and the Gecko team to make it as sharp as possible. And especially making those jokes as funny as possible.

Do you think European languages are easier to translate into English than say, Japanese, because the language and culture are closer to English? Or is it harder, because so many more English-speakers understand them?

I’m sure the languages I translate are fundamentally easier – structurally there’s a lot that connects them all. And yes, as you say, the cultures are sometimes closer, and more familiar, though that is less consistently the case, because the languages I translate are all big global languages as well as European ones – so my children’s books aren’t only linguistically from French and Spanish and Portuguese, they’re also culturally from Brazil, Quebec, Argentina, etc.

Not so obvious how to translate the Granny whose nickname is 'Francis Cabrel'!

What were the hardest parts to translate? Did you find any untranslatable nuances, cultural references, or language play that you had to leave out?

This is most obviously easy to answer for the Veillé [Encyclopedia of Grannies], which is so playful, and requires a lot of inventiveness – or, to put it another way, it requires changing a great deal. I left *everything* out if you want to think of it like that, except for the spirit of the original, which I hope is there, alive and intact. To give you an example, there’s a page of silly little aphorisms about grandmothers, which rhyme, and for each of the rhyming aphorisms there’s a picture – so I couldn’t simply translate the aphorism at the risk of losing the rhyme, or just do something totally different at the risk of losing the connection to the illustration. So in each case, I had to make up an aphorism about grandmothers, which rhymed, and for which this existing image could still work as an illustration. E.g. I had to make up an aphorism which could be illustrated by a picture of a grandmother who’s just knocked out Santa Claus, or a picture of a grandmother peering through some shutters, etc. It’s a fun game.

Did you make any choices in favour of 'transatlantic',  'classic', or non-slangy English? 

Even a book with a few hundred words has a distinctive “voice” – you’d never mistake a Veillé line for an Alemagna one; the English has to reflect that - the Alemagna is more lyrical, quieter. But the “transatlantic” question did come up: both Gecko Press and Tate publish single editions across the English-speaking world, so we needed translations that wouldn’t be problematic anywhere. This caused a problem with my previous Veillé book for Gecko – how do you caption a dummy/pacifier or a diaper/nappy with a single word that works for readers everywhere? In a book for adults, you could probably simply assume the reader might recognise common vocab from other Englishes, but it’s a harder assumption to make for kids.

What kind of sources do you use when you don't understand what something means? Were there any words you didn't understand at first?

Fortunately, this happens pretty rarely with a picture book – but there was one point in the Veillé where I simply couldn’t see what a phrase was doing. My Facebook friends put me straight pretty quickly, though. Normally I’d be in close contact with the author so they could help out, but that wasn’t the case with either of these.

Have you ever translated a book you didn't like?

Not a children’s book.

Have you received any letters from children about the book?

No, these two books have only been out for a couple of weeks, but I always hope to!

What are you going to translate next, if anything?

I’ve got another French picture book for Gecko coming up, which is brilliant; and a Brazilian one for Two Lions (Amazon), which is at the final tinkering stage. But most of the rest of this year is grown-up stuff, I’m afraid. I’m translating a Mexican novel now, and two Venezuelan ones to come. And other things already in process: doing final edits of a couple of Brazilian plays and proofs of an Angolan novel, etc. Lots of nice variety!

Do you have an ideal project? 

Picture books are uniquely challenging in some ways (as well as being blessedly easy in others) – nothing more satisfying than getting one of those just perfect. And working on a book you love, with a great publishing team…


Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator. Find him here. And follow him on Twitter.

[The Words & Pics editor would like to point out that Danny donated part of his International Dublin Translation Prize award to create a new translation prize! It was awarded for the first time last year.]

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