TRANSLATION Nanette McGuinness

In our series of interviews with children's book translators, translators explain just what goes into their work. This month's interview is with translator – and opera singer – Nanette McGuinness, who has translated many graphic novels.

What is a recent project you’re excited about? 

I’m going to focus – mostly – on Luisa: Now and Then, which I translated from French, because of its recent Honor Book status. But first I’d like to briefly mention two other graphic novels that were fun to translate and somewhat typical of what I work on. One is a middle-grade series; the other is an issues-based, standalone YA graphic novel.

Cover of Geronimo StiltonLost in Translation by Ryan Jampole

1) The Geronimo Stilton graphic novels (Papercutz), written by Elisabetta Dami, were such a joy to work on, with 19 volumes and mounds of cheese, mouse and cat puns, jokes and wordplay in a time-travelling setting. The books feature digestible snippets of information and a race to save the world before the Pirate Cats change history irrevocably.

Cover of California Dreamin' by author-illustrator Pénélope Bagieu

2) California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second Books), is an upper YA biography by award-winning writer/illustrator Pénélope Bagieu. In the context of the early life of Mama Cass, Bagieu addresses issues of body image, self-esteem, music, and more.

What made you interested in translating this particular book?

Luisa: Now and Then is a fabulous coming-of-age story that sensitively handles an important topic, coming to terms with one’s repressed sexuality; it’s also a time-travelling fantasy that uses the graphic-novel format imaginatively by having the protagonist meet her younger self. 

How did you become interested in French, Italian, and German?

Because my mom was a Francophile, I spoke French before English when I was very little. Italian came about from my being an opera singer and studying Italian to sing it, as Italian is the prime language for classical singing – Italy being the birthplace of opera. 

Many years ago, I was singing the role of Musetta in a production of La Bohème in northwestern Italy. Alfredo, our wonderful Italian stage director, spoke French, and we quickly became friends. When the maestro (conductor, in this context) asked me if I wanted a translator, I told him that if he didn’t mind the inconvenience, I’d rather try to improve my Italian; Alfredo volunteered to help me out in French if I got stuck. That really helped me improve quickly. Interestingly, though, because I had more years studying German formally, I found it easier later on to write to my Swiss-Italian agent in German (Lorenzo wrote me back in Italian and we got along quite well).

I first studied German in college because I’d always been interested in languages. (One of my life goals has always been to study 10-12 languages, and although I’m not fluent in even half of those, I’ve studied and/or sung a dozen by now.) When I was working on my doctorate in musicology, I’d already decided my dissertation topic would be the Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, who spent much of his career in Bavaria. As most of the secondary literature was in dense, scholarly German, I knew I’d best improve my German to be able to do a good job and so I took a summer course in Germany with the Goethe-Institut. Later on, when I was auditioning in Germany for agents, I studied at the Goethe-Institut again. In the end I’ve sung a good deal in German, too.  

Cover of Luisa: Now and Then by author-illustrator Carole Maurel

How did you become a translator? What made you interested in writing and translating in the first place?

I’ve written all my life, despite – or in addition to – being a singer, and have both a Master’s in Vocal Performance and also a PhD specializing in musicology – essentially, writing about music history.

During an extended period of health issues when it was harder for me to perform, I found myself drawn to writing for children, as I’d never lost my love of children’s books. I also found myself drawn to book translation. I started writing articles and stories and doing commercial translation, hoping to find literary work. Once healthy – my singing career moving forward again – I continued to write and translate. About seven years later, I was looking for the right house for a manuscript submission when I bumped into a publisher who needed a translator. 

What made you want to translate for children/young adults?

I love books and especially children’s literature: some of the best writing today is being done for young readers, with fascinating, often difficult issues addressed directly and well. Good children’s literature in any language, let alone in translation, allows the reader to see through another’s eyes and feel another’s feelings, opening a window to other world views. So children’s books in translation help shape children’s minds, insidiously influencing tomorrow’s adults. In what other forum can an artist have such an impact and cast such a long shadow?

Some of the best writing today is being done for young readers.

How did this translation 'find' you?

As did all my other translations: the publisher asked me if I was available and interested… and I definitely was! I’ve been lucky to work with great editors, whose punny bones often exceed mine, and who send me lovely books to translate.

How long did the translation take?

Roughly six weeks, as I recall. Graphic novels tend to have tight turnaround times. (I find deadlines a useful antidote to perfectionism.) Given the compressed timelines, I’m often to be found pondering the perfect word choice in the wee hours. I always start with a first rough draft filled with alternatives and questions marks – especially for the wordplay, rhymes, slang and jokes – and revisit choices across multiple passes of revising and proofreading, to make sure that my final version sounds smooth, native to the new language, and with a voice true to the author and characters – also that I wasn't so absorbed by the story that I’ve missed a stray balloon, which I find easy to do.

A page from Luisa: Now and Then with kind permission from Humanoids imprint Life Drawn

What were the hardest parts to translate? Was there anything you wished you could ask the author? Any funny stories about the translation?

I love translating rhymes, jokes, lyrics, word play and puns, but these can definitely be a challenge. And they need time to marinate in my brain. References to current pop culture often send me scurrying to the internet. 

Sometimes it would be great to ask the author whether the internal rhyme in a prose line is deliberate or a happy accident. Kipling’s ‘satiable Elephant's Child is clearly a relative…

What kinds of sources do you use when you don't understand what something means?

I consult a host of online bilingual dictionaries and websites, plus I search Google, YouTube, translator’s forums and email listservs, if necessary. In a pinch, I can ask friends who are native speakers. When I started out, I had huge bilingual dictionaries – heavy tomes that threatened to pull my back out if I carried them carelessly.

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

At the very start, there were a few that I didn’t adore, although in general, I love books, so most have something to hook me. But since the early days, no. At this point, I would turn it down if I can see I won't like it. I live with a book in my mind and my emotional landscape for too long and too strongly to take on something I truly dislike. 

Have you received any letters from readers about the book?

Although translators are mostly invisible to readers – our names are typically buried rather than emblazoned on the title page – a reader once wrote to me on Goodreads about two of the Sherlock, Lupin, and Me novels, asking me if I’d please translate more of the series. I explained that it was up to the publisher, but that I would pass their feedback on. It’s a lovely series – a teen Sherlock… what’s not to like, right? – but the U.S. publisher stopped at the fourth volume.

I’ve also had a lot of adults come up to me and tell me how much their kids or students love the Geronimo Stilton graphic novels, although nowadays, it’s more likely to be The Sisters graphic novels they comment about, as these are still being written and published, whereas this particular Stilton graphic novel series has ended (others continue).

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

I recently heard about an Italian novel, Nebbia, which won the 2020 Strega Prize for 6-10 year-old readers and sounded fascinating. Also, it would be great to return to that young Sherlock series. Finally, although I’m only known to graphic-novel publishers, I would love to translate picture books, too: there are so many excellent ones coming out.  

What other translators do you admire?

There are so many fine children’s translators! I’d hate to forget someone important accidentally if I started a list… However, if I had to single out a translator, probably the one I admire most out of all those many excellent ones is Anthea Bell, who passed away recently. She translated one of my favourite graphic novel series into English – one that I have read in several languages at this point, Asterix et Obelix – along with works by Hans Christian Anderson, Cornelia Funke, Kerstin Gier, Freud, Kafka, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and many more. She was a giant in the field.

Feature image: Jess Stockham


Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Life Drawn, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Luisa: Now and Then was also named a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book and a 2020 GLLI YA Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Undead Messiah 3 (TOKYOPOP, 2020, German>English), Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces (Life Drawn, 2020, French>English) and Super Sisters (Papercutz, 2020, French>English). She was honored to give SCBWI’s first presentation on translation at SCBWI’s 2015 summer conference.

Nanette's website: 

Avatar from Nanette McGuinness

Some of the "origin story" part of this interview appeared originally in Nanette's interview with Avery Fischer Udagawa in the SCBWI blog.

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