TRANSLATION Lawrence Schimel

In our series of interviews with children's book translators, translators explain just what goes into their work. This month's interview is with the well-known literary translator (and founder of SCBWI Spain!) Lawrence Schimel. Two children's books he translated into English are coming out this month: The Wild Book, by Juan Villoro, and Poems the wind blew in, by Karmelo C. Irribarren.

How did you become a translator?

I fell into translating by accident, as happens to many of us, I think. I ran into a comics publisher in New York who I knew from various book fairs, whose regular translator from Spanish passed away quite suddenly. They needed someone to take over right away. I started by translating those comics, and years later when I moved to Spain I started to get asked by publishers here to translate works into English for them, to use as samples to sell rights with, or for them to publish in English themselves.

Now I both pitch projects I want to translate to publishers and, sometimes, get asked by publishers to translate projects they've already found and think I'd be a good match for. Oftentimes, I'll get recommended by colleagues who work in different language pairs. I regularly do the same for translators in my own combinations, if I'm too busy or it's not a good match for me; I regularly get asked to do sports titles, usually soccer, and I don't have an interest in nor the vocabulary to do a good job on these, so I recommend colleagues who are both professional translators and soccer fans. That's a win-win situation for everyone. 

What made you interested in translating these two books?

These two projects had very different origins.

Not a straightforward path to publication:

I was originally asked to write a reader's report for The Wild Book by Juan Villoro, for a project organized by Daniel Hahn with Arts Council funding (a precursor to Booktrust's In Other Words initiative). The project was to help encourage the UK editorial scene to become more diverse in terms of buying translated children's titles. I loved the book, and said so in my report, and this book was one of the few titles which passed to the next level. I was commissioned to translate a sample, which was then sent to 30+ UK editors. There was interest from some, but in the end, none of them decided to buy the rights. After a year, I asked if we could submit the project to American editors. Restless Books bought the rights and commissioned me to do the rest of the translation. in the meantime, HopeRoad Publishing (which hadn't been publishing children's books when the original project took place) started a line for middle grade and young adult books, and bought the UK rights from Restless Books. So it is nice for the book to finally appear in the UK where this project got its start.

For Poems the wind blew in by Karmelo C. Iribarren, the project was one that I found on my own, because I'm a fan of Iribarren's poetry (for adults as well as kids). I spoke to him and his publisher to get permission to translate and pitch the project, and then showed it to Emma Wright at The Emma Press. I'd worked with them previously on some of their poetry anthologies. 

What made you interested in writing and translating in the first place?

I write in both Spanish and English, and I translate in both directions—especially for children's books and poetry. Translating is stimulating, an intellectual challenge, but doesn't exhaust me the way my own writing does. 

It's a joy to fall in love with a book and eventually be able to share it with more readers, who can't access it until it's been translated into a language they know. Even when all the business side of pitching projects or negotiating rights can be exhausting, time-consuming, and often demoralising, that end result - kids in other countries being able to fall in love with a book I loved - makes it all worthwhile.

There is so much great work out in the world, it's a pleasure to share those stories with readers in other parts of the globe.

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

Certainly, especially when I was starting out and didn't have as much choice of projects. I think it can be useful a part of one's apprenticeship and as a learning experience, although it's much harder to translate well something you actively dislike (or disagree with). 

Since so little (relatively) gets translated, I prefer to avoid translating works that I find objectionable in some way, usually by recommending that the work not be translated, or in any event, trying not to be the translator who works on it. 

While translating, I make note of things that might be problematic or objectionable, depending on the country where the translation will be published. Spanish, for instance, tends to be much more descriptive than English, in a way that can come across as insensitive or politically incorrect (especially in the US); if a character is called El Negro (literally The Black Man) or El Calvo (The Bald Man), these are the kinds of issues I raise with my editor and figure out a compromise that's faithful to the book but won't make the book fail in the new country where it will be published. Sometimes this involves dialogue with the author, sometimes the editor will just make a decision, or sometimes I'll come up with a workaround that everyone is happy with. 

Have you received any letters from readers about your books?

I'm afraid that we translators get very few letters from readers; if anything, kids would tend to write to the author, not to us. Even if a translator might be necessary for the author to understand their letters...

What do you hope to translate next? What would you love to translate?

I have a long list of books I'd love to translate, mostly picture books and middle-grade novels.

What I need though are more editors who are keen to publish works in translation! 

The process takes perhaps a few more steps than acquiring an English-language manuscript, but it only seems scary at first, when editors or publishers don't yet have experience in negotiating for the rights and for a translation, but the end result is so very rewarding.

Also, it is often easier to launch a translation of a work that has already been published in another language, because it already has reviews that can be quoted, and other promotional material (sales figures, other languages the book has been translated into etc.), that doesn't exist for an unknown writer who writes directly in English. 

Do you have an ideal project?

More than an ideal project might be an (unattained) ideal of being able to focus on just one project at a time. Unfortunately, given publishing schedules, I seem to always be juggling edits or page proofs on an earlier project which show up just as I'm hitting my stride with a new translation. 

My favorite part is that first draft of the translation, when I'm first grappling with the text and trying to recreate it in the target language.

Ideally I'd get to spend more time doing that and less on things like pitching projects, going over proofs again, etc. 

What other translators do you admire?

Daniel Hahn, who is such a wonderful translator (from Portuguese, Spanish, and French) and promoter of translations, for readers of all ages;
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, tireless promoter of #WorldKidLit, and translator from Russian, German, and Arabic;
Laura Watkinson, who translates from Dutch, German and Italian;
Antonia Lloyd Jones, who translates from Polish;
Marcia Lynx Quayle, better known for her work promoting Arabic literature in English, through her blog and the ArabLit Quarterly magazine, but also becoming known for her own translations, particularly of work for young readers.


Lawrence Schimel is a bilingual (Spanish/English) author based in Madrid, Spain. He has published over a hundred books as author or anthologist, for readers of all ages. He won a Crystal Kite Award for his picture book Will You Read My Book With Me? illustrated by Thiago Lopez (Epigram). His books have also won the Lambda Literary Award (twice), and been chosen for the White Raven Award, IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities (twice), and other honors. He is also a prolific literary translator. His translation of La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono was an Honor Title for the first Global Literature in Libraries Award

His recent children's book translations into English include picture books The Band and Under the Water, written & illustrated by Carles Porta (Flying Eye), graphic novel Out in the Open, by Jesús Carrasco & Javi Rey (SelfMadeHero), and middle-grade novel The Treasure of Barracuda, by Llanos Campos (Sourcebooks).  

Follow Lawrence on Twitter: @LawrenceSchimel 

Hope Road on Twitter: @hoperoadpublish 
The Emma Press on Twitter: @TheEmmaPress

Bird speaking cow, illustration by Jess Stockham
Cover illustration for The Wild Book by Jori van der Linde
Cover illustration for Poems the wind blew in by Riya Chowdhury

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