TRANSLATION Johanna McCalmont

In our ongoing series of interviews with children's book translators, translators explain just what goes into their work. This month, Words & Pictures interviews Johanna McCalmont, a Northern Irish translator and interpreter based in Brussels, Belgium, where she works from French, German, Dutch, and Italian.


W & P: How did you first become interested in translation? How did you become a translator? 

 Johanna: At school, French and German were the subjects I enjoyed most. I loved hearing what life was like in other countries. Even ‘simple’ things like the fact that lots of people in Germany lived in apartments were fascinating for me – I didn’t know anyone who didn’t live in a house!

Studying languages at university was therefore the ‘natural’ path for me. I had the wonderful opportunity to take up a paid five-month translation internship with a large tech company in Germany during the Year Abroad part of my degree, and the experience confirmed my decision to apply for a Masters in Translation and Conference Interpreting. The rest is history, as they say.


How did you become so good at French, German, Dutch and Italian that you can translate from all of them?!?  

I learned French and German in the traditional way at school and university. Lots of vocabulary lists, grammar exercises, reading and listening exercises.

My German, however, really took off when I had the chance to take a gap year and work as an au pair for a wonderful family in Frankfurt am Main.

For French, the key was a fantastic 8 months in Strasbourg as an English language assistant in several primary schools during my Year Abroad. I learned not only a lot of French, but was also amazed at how easily the 8-10 year olds picked up English and my Northern Irish accent!


Dutch and Italian came later, after I moved to Brussels, a city where Dutch is one of the official languages and which is also home to a vibrant international community, including a large Italian population.


What made you want to translate for children? 


I enjoy translating all sorts of texts, but translating for children is one of the types of work I enjoy most. Picture books are simply beautiful works of art and it’s always refreshing, and even relaxing, to look at the illustrations as I reflect on the text to translate. There’s something magical about entering a visual world alongside a written story. There is also a lot of great YA out there in languages other than English, and the authors often push boundaries slightly further than what readers are offered in English.


A few years ago a couple of encounters showed me that working as a translator for children was actually possible! First, I met Rwandan writer Joseph Ndwaniye in Brussels and began to work on a translation of his middle-grade book Plus fort que la hyène (Stronger than the Hyena) in the hope of finding a publisher. I also attended the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, where I met Claire Storey who quickly got me involved in the World Kid Lit blog when I asked for her opinion on my translation of Joseph’s text. She introduced me to the vibrant kid lit translator community, many of whom are SCWBI members you may have met, and it has been exciting to see growing interest from publishers in more translated kidlit in recent years.


Two books translated by Johanna McCalmont (Cover I'll Take Care of You: Nicoletta Bertelle; Cover
 My Day in the Park: Marta Orzel)


How did your latest children's book translation find you? How long did the translation take you?  


I believe my latest translations with Blue Dot Kids Press found me via the World Kid Lit network. Heidi Hill reached out to me last year when she needed advice on a couple of board books. Since then, we’ve worked on three stunning picture books and two more board books. It’s been exciting watching them come to life in English and reach bookshops as beautiful stories.


The translation of each picture book took about six to eight weeks, including some great discussions back and forth with Heidi’s editor, Summer Laurie. It was fascinating to read Summer’s questions and watch how she tweaked the text to make it work well for the US audience. Summer was also able to catch a few British-English words that slipped through, despite my best efforts to double-check with my US friends here!

How do you go about translating a children's book? 


Before starting to translate a children’s book I try to make sure I have as much information as possible. For example, if it’s a picture book, I’ll need the illustrations as well as the text. I’ll also check if the text should be UK or US English or if there is no major preference.


Then, if it’s a picture book, I’ll read it five or six times, and also try to read it aloud to get a feel for the sounds and rhythm. I might try to get a native speaker to read it aloud too, if possible – or find a reading on YouTube. If it’s a longer book, I’ll try to make sure I’ve read it through once so I know where the story is going and have a good feel for the general atmosphere and style.


After that I’ll type up my first draft quite quickly to get something on the page as fast as I can. My revision/self-editing process is fairly long and I’ll work through the entire text several more times. Reading the translation aloud towards the end of my revision work is very useful, for all kinds of books, not just picture books.


I also try to share extracts with translator colleagues to get their opinion and often ask teacher friends and their kids for feedback too. It’s interesting to see how differently various readers react.


It may also be necessary to contact the author with questions or suggestions along the way, either before the editor works on the translation or after editing. A lot of authors can read English, so it’s usually helpful to share the English translation with them before publication or before a pitch is sent to publishers. The best way to avoid surprises all around!


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


I think that my main sources of advice for really tricky words and expressions are my colleagues and friends. The Internet and online dictionaries and forums are great for most things, but sometimes you need to find out what sort of impression a (literary) text makes on a reader of the original language. 


Images of Reblochon De Savoie cheese (credit Los Telares de Sil blog)


I had fun, for example, digging into what a certain type of cheese might represent in the picture book Just to See by Morgane de Cadier and Florian Pigé (Blue Dot Kids Press). The cheese wasn’t pictured in the illustration; there was just a mouse reading a newspaper and saying there was a special offer on Reblochon. This meant there was room to play around with how to ‘translate’ Reblochon into something that might work (better) for a US audience. A bilingual French-Canadian colleague and friend, Marina Lavoie, suggested Reblochon made the mouse sound sophisticated, so we worked on finding a kind of cheese that sounded sophisticated (expensive?) to a US audience but was still recognisable as the name for a cheese and easy for (adult) readers to pronounce. To find out what we picked, you’ll have to read the book!


Johanna translates a variety of books, from adult fiction to picture books (Cover 39 Berne Street: Indiana University PressCover Just to See: Florian Pigé)

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to become children's book translators?

First, read, read, read! Read both in English and as much as you can in your foreign languages. It’ll help you get a feel for what’s popular in English, what’s ‘acceptable’ in English, and what’s unusual or stands out in English, in every sense of the term, whether it be the language used or the topics covered. In turn you’ll be able to see where books in other languages might fit in – and how your translation may or may not work well for English-language readers.


Second, connect with other kidlit translators. World Kid Lit, for example, is always happy to hear from translators who would like to review books in English, pitch titles for translation, interview authors, suggest lists from various countries and more! So feel free to drop us a line. The Emerging Translators Network is also a great way to informally connect with other translators working in all genres of literary translation and hear about upcoming summer schools, workshops, resources and networking events.


What other translators do you admire? 


Edwige Renée Dro is a fantastic translator from Côte d’Ivoire who I admire a lot. I first discovered her work through the Afro YA Anthology Water Birds on the Lakeshore. She not only translates but also runs workshops and is the founder of 1949 Books, a library of Black and African women writers. With the benefits of modern technology and social media, we were able to connect online, and it was wonderful to have her as a guest, for example, on the World Kid Lit Live – African Kid Lit panel. I’ve also learned a lot from her as a translator through a project we recently collaborated on for a literary agent.

Do you have an ideal project?


I’ve recently worked on extracts of novels by French YA author Marie Pavlenko for her agent Roxane Edouard at Curtis Brown. Marie’s novels convey her passion for our fragile environment and ecosystem in a sensitive way and her characters and their relationships are so vivid, that translating her work is a wonderfully immersive experience. I would love to be selected to translate her work if – when – a publisher picks up the rights for the English translations. 



Photo credit Rebecca McCalmont

Johanna McCalmont was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in Brussels, Belgium, where she works from French, German, Dutch and Italian. Her work has been published by Blue Dot Kids Press, the Los Angeles Review, Asymptote and Lunch Ticket. She is Co-Editor of the World Kid Lit blog and is currently Events Coordinator for the Emerging Translators Network Committee. She also loves connecting writers with audiences when interpreting at literary festivals. Read more about her here. You can also find her on Twitter @jo_mccalmont and Instagram @johanna_mccalmont


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful description of all behind the scenes work that goes into learning a language and into the translation process!


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