TRANSLATION Laura Watkinson

This month, Words & Pictures' regular series on translation of books for young people brings you an interview with Laura Watkinson. 
Among her other honours, Laura has won the British Vondel Translation Prize for The Letter from the King, a long-popular children's book from the Netherlands that she brilliantly translated into an English bestseller — it was a Times, Sunday Times and Metro book of the year. Laura's latest translated children's book is The Goldsmith and the Master Thief, published in 2019 and in paperback in 2020.

What made you interested in translating this particular book?

This is the fourth book by Tonke Dragt that I’ve translated for Pushkin Children’s Books. I was absolutely delighted when the publisher at Pushkin, Adam Freudenheim, decided to go for Tonke Dragt’s classic children’s book The Letter for the King, which has been voted the best Dutch children’s book ever. It’s a book that I’d been longing to translate. Every time I asked Dutch friends to recommend a Dutch children’s author, Tonke’s name came up first, and after I read The Letter for the King, I was hooked! I wanted to know why this book hadn’t been translated into English yet. And, about half a century after it had been published in Dutch, I finally had the opportunity to bring this wonderful story into English. It’s now been made into a Netflix series too.

I also translated the sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, which perhaps secretly (or not so secretly!) I like even more than The Letter for the King, partly because I love the character of Lavinia and she has a very interesting role to play in this book. Then I translated Tonke Dragt’s The Song of Seven for Pushkin, which has all the intriguing fairy-tale elements that I love (plus green hair and a fabulous cat) and, most recently, The Goldsmith and the Master Thief, which is about a pair of twin brothers who are very alike in many ways, but also quite different. It was a joy to follow the brothers on their many adventures.

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

I think it was meant to be! :) I’ve always had my nose in a book, ever since I learned to read. And I’m a complete language nerd. Studying languages and literature at university was a natural choice, and I never seriously considered any other career than translation, although I did combine it with language teaching, editing and work on subtitles, phonetics dictionaries and spells at the BBC Pronunciation Unit and a local bowling green before finally becoming a full-time literary translator.

What are you most proud of in your writing and translating work?

I really like it when a reader gets in touch to say how much they’ve enjoyed a story that I’ve translated. It’s great to know that I’ve been able to share a story I love and to make it available to a new readership.

In Bainu, the beautiful capital city of Babina, there once lived a poor cobbler and his wife.

How did you become interested in languages?

I remember flicking through the lists of foreign phrases in the back of my mom’s dictionary when I was little and before I even had any idea that one day I’d be able to learn languages at school. I still remember being so excited when I found out we’d be doing French at 'big school' – and then how delighted I was when we were told that we’d be the first group at our school to take up German in the second year, in addition to French. For me, languages never felt like the other classes at school. It was fun, not work. 

I later went on to pick up other languages through summer schools, evening classes and self-study, and I lived and taught in Scotland, Germany, and Italy before settling in the Netherlands in 2003.

In 2018, I went to Iceland and to the Faroe Islands to do summer courses in Icelandic and Faroese, and, all being well, I’m hoping to return to study Icelandic in Ísafjörður next year.

How did you become a translator?

As I studied languages, I’ve been translating on and off for years. However, I really began to get into literary translation as a profession when I did a postgraduate course in Dutch–English literary translation at University College London. We worked with professional translators and learned a lot about translation and the publishing industry. That gave me more confidence and some helpful leads into translation.

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

I enjoy reading many different genres, and much of what I read was originally written with children and young adults in mind. When I’m in bookshops, I tend to gravitate to the section for younger readers. Translating books for those age groups feels like a natural fit for me. Those books contain so many important life lessons. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy translating books for other age groups, though!

What were the hardest parts to translate? 

In general, puns and poems can be tricky. I’ll often make a few notes on them as I’m first translating the book and then let my brain puzzle away in the background for a few weeks before coming back for another go. Sometimes a helpful idea hits me out of the blue, and I have to send myself an email so that I don’t forget it.

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

Dictionaries, the internet (how did translators cope before the internet?) and native speakers. Externalizing my thoughts by talking things through with someone else often helps me to find a solution, too.

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

No, I wouldn’t do that. And if I ever had done that, I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. :)

Have you received any letters from readers about the book?

Not letters as such, but the occasional email or message via social media. Twitter can be an odd place at times, but it’s also great for being in touch with people and for remembering that you’re not translating in a void.

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

Let’s see what the future brings! I do have some favourites up my sleeve, but I don’t want to jinx anything. If you’d asked me some years ago, my answer would have been Tonke Dragt’s books, and now I’m lucky enough to have translated four of them, which makes me so happy.

What other translators do you admire?
It’s a fantastic job and I can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else, but I think it can seem like something of an uphill struggle at times, particularly for translators at the start of their careers. It’s important to keep remembering and reminding people that literary translation is certainly viable as a career option. 

So, hurrah for all the translators who support other translators and translation as a profession. Hurrah for everyone who reaches out and helps new translators. And hurrah for all the lovely publishers out there who understand and respect our work!

Here’s to great books in translation!


Laura Watkinson translates Dutch, Italian, German, and occasionally Frisian. She has a particular interest in children’s books, both as a reader and a translator. She lives in a tall, thin house on a canal in Amsterdam with her husband and three cats.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @Laura_Wat

On Instagram: @Laura_Watkinson

Her website: Laura Watkinson

Picture credits

Logo for Translation feature: Jess Stockham

The Goldsmith and the Master Thief by Tonke Dragt: original Dutch book published in 1961. 

Translation published by Pushkin Children’s Books in 2019. Paperback edition published in 2020.

Illustrations including cover illustrations: by the author, Tonke Dragt, who is also an illustrator.

Cover design for Goldsmith: Nathan Burton

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