Surviving and Thriving as a Translator of Children's Literature
By Sofia Brizio
Translation is, arguably, the most underrated and lesser-known profession within publishing. As an Italian living in the UK, translation has quickly become a significant part of my day-to-day life and as a result, I have developed an interest in translating literature. I have read the latest UK bestsellers, or an enlightening collection of essays, thinking what a difference that book could make if it was made available to the rest of the world in different languages. I have thought about how I would translate a book into Italian, knowing very little about the enormous responsibility that comes with bringing literature to the realms of different languages. A bad translation can ruin the chances of a book ever selling in a foreign market and vice versa, a good translation can make a book even more successful than it was in its country of origin. Sometimes, competing translations of the same text are published so that the reader can choose, demonstrating that translation truly is an act of creativity – just like writing. Although books in the English language constitute the majority of the translation market for non-English speaking countries, Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and Finnish books are gaining popularity in the UK, especially when it comes to children’s and young adult (YA) literature.
Despite its success and undeniable importance in educating a large number of young readers, the translation of children’s literature is still considered inferior and a profession that does not require any kind of expertise. Many emerging translators, like myself, get their first job translating children’s literature. This is often without the need for a degree in translation studies, because it is perceived as something that anyone can do. As a result, translators of children’s literature are paid significantly less than their colleagues in adult literature. However, translating literature for children presents its own challenges, making it more difficult than translating adult literature. Think about rhymes, puns and fictional names, for instance. Think about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or all of Roald Dahl’s books. Translators all over the world, and their ability to convey the magic of those universes in different languages, is a huge contributor to these authors’ global successes. Yet, translators are rarely recognised for the work they do. Is it possible then, to survive or even thrive, as a translator of children’s books?
This is the question that translators worldwide have been trying to answer at this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF). I was lucky enough to attend a series of online panels which took place last month, discussing the state of the profession and its future. Although translators have been advocating for, and getting, increasing recognition for their work in recent years, the key issue is still visibility, both in terms of fair remuneration and inclusion in literary awards. Recently, the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb, sparked controversy across different European countries such as Italy, Germany and Denmark, starting a debate around questions of identity in translation, whether a white translator should translate a Black author's work. While this is an important step in recognising the impact of translation on literature, translators of children’s books are still being left behind.
According to recent research by the International Federation of Translators (FIT) presented at the BCBF, in the majority of European countries, translators are not given contracts and are not paid royalties, let alone awarded prizes. In the words of Kevin Quirk, President of FIT,
“the translation of children’s literature may be considered, by some, to be a glamorous
profession. Nevertheless, the highly skilled individuals who craft works of cultural
diversity are often poorly paid and at times even exploited. Good translators deserve
greater recognition of the work they do and an increase in their revenues.”
It’s easy to see how, for an increasing number of translators, it is becoming impossible to live off translation alone. Many are also editors, writers, or also working better-paid jobs in marketing, for example, because they don’t get the same recognition as the writers they translate. Further data presented at the BCBF, as part of a research project by the European Council of Associations of Literary Translators (CEATL), revealed that less than a quarter of European countries offer prizes for translators of children’s literature. Most translators are merely surviving, but is it possible to thrive?
In spite of everything, the future of children’s literary translation doesn't look so bleak. The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), along with various Writers’ Unions across Europe, is implementing new awards for children’s literature, in order to include translators. In Italy, the Strega Prize for Boys and Girls awards the same amount of money to the writer and the translator of the winning book. Andersen, a magazine entirely dedicated to children’s publishing, features regular interviews with translators with the aim to increase visibility. Finally, a children’s literature award for translators will be launched next year in Slovenia, focusing on graphic novels, YA literature, children’s books and picture books. As the recognition of translators’ work in children’s books increases, the hope is that it is possible to thrive in this profession. However, we need to continue to actively fight the stigma and injustice around it. Because, as the keynote speaker at the BCBF International Forum on Children’s Literary Translation, Enrico Terrinoni, said: “Translation is the stuff we’re made of.”