This month The Tollbooth welcomes accidental tourist–er translator – Lyn Miller-Lachmann, who describes her journey into the world of picture book translation.
In winter 2014 I had returned to the U.S. from six months Portugal and recently completed an advanced Portuguese class at the University at Albany. My YA contemporary novel, which I began at VCFA, was on submission but not getting interest from editors.
A longtime member of PEN America, I attended a Children’s Committee meeting with a guest speaker – Claudia Zoe Bedrick, the publisher of Enchanted Lion. Since 2002, Enchanted Lion has published picture books and graphic novels, most of them from Europe and Asia and translated into English. Claudia talked about the opportunities and challenges of publishing international books in translation and showed us some of her award-winning titles. Then she said she’d recently acquired the rights to a picture book from Portugal that she’d scheduled for 2015 but lacked a translator.
I raised my hand.
Until then, I’d never translated a book. I’d edited translated articles when I worked for MultiCultural Review, a journal focused on diversity that closed in 2010. I’d also translated songs from Spanish and Portuguese for a bilingual radio program that I co-hosted. I’d read and appreciated the work of other translators. But I considered myself a writer, not a translator.
Working on The World in a Second, my debut translation, made me realize that perhaps I was meant to be a translator all along. Translators are writers. We provide the words in English to a story written in another language, in a way that both captures the voice, story, and characters of the original and makes them accessible to readers from a different culture.
Like authors of their own books, translators make choices: the perfect word, the phrase that sings, the sentences that flow from page to page. Especially with books for children, we make other choices so that readers will appreciate what is fresh and different while not putting down the book as too strange. For instance, in Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words, my second translation for Enchanted Lion, I changed the protagonist’s name, João – popular in Portuguese-speaking countries but difficult to pronounce in English – to Pedro, also a popular name in Brazil where the book is set but more familiar to U.S. readers.
Translation also ties into my activist side. Translators serve as the representatives of the author in a new country. None of the creators of the books I’ve translated has spent much time in the U.S. They will not go on tour to promote their books or write blog posts. Only one of them – Isabel Minhós Martins, the author of The World in a Second – is fluent in English. My publisher and I have the sole responsibility of getting the word out.
While finding a new role as a translator, I haven’t given up on my own writing. After shelving the YA contemporary, I started a historical novel set in the same time and place as Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World), my just-published translation from Enchanted Lion. For me, translating other people’s books and writing my own nourish each other and create new possibilities.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the novels Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago, and Rogue and the translator of The World in a Second, Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words, The Queen of the Frogs, and Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World). Gringolandia was selected for the ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list in 2010 and was an Américas Award Honor Book, and her translations have been included on award lists from Kirkus, the Boston Globe, USBBY, and the CCBC. Three Balls of Wool, which portrays a refugee family from Portugal in the 1960s adapting to a new home, is published in cooperation with Amnesty International. Lyn reviews books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com) and blogs regularly on her website, www.lynmillerlachmann.com.