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Children’s Literature in Translation: An Interview with Daniel Hahn

Next week we’re celebrating the launch of Elsewhere Editions, the new children’s book press from Archipelago Books, with a reading of Roger Mello’s You Can’t Be Too Careful! followed by a discussion about international children’s literature with the book’s translator, Daniel Hahn.

Daniel Hahn is a prolific, award-winning writer, editor, and translator. He has translated countless books from Portuguese, Spanish, and French and is the editor of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.

Needless to say, he’s got a lot going on. Lucky for us, he was able to answer a few questions for us in anticipation of next week’s event.

Sarah Coolidge: How did you first get involved in translating children’s literature?

Daniel Hahn: It’s odd, I’ve worked regularly as a translator for ten years, and worked in children’s books for longer than that, but it’s only been a few years since I was able to bring these two things together and translate books for children. There’s relatively little work of this kind for Anglophone translators—even compared to the more general dearth of literary translating—so it took a while for me to get my first opportunity. But finally a publisher did invite me to translate a picture book (a translation which ended up as a rather dramatic rewriting…) and I’ve been getting pretty regular gigs since.

SC: You’ve translated literature for adults and for children and in a range of languages. How do you decide which projects to take on?

DH: There are so many possible answers to this! In theory I choose to work on books I like, books I think would be fun to work on, books I think Anglophone readers should meet, books I think I’d be good at. But that’s really only in theory—there are so many other factors involved. I’ll often agree to translate a novel I haven’t read, based on, for example, having liked the author’s previous work, or because the approach happened to come from an editor I’ve always wanted to work with. Or, frankly, I happen to have a brief gap in my schedule which I need to fill with something in order to make my rent. The idealistic reasons (“this book will improve global human knowledge!”) are the best, but there are practical and personal considerations, too!

SC: What do you think makes a great children’s book?

DH: Once you’ve agreed what makes a children’s book in the first place (which isn’t as easy as one might think…), I think the basic measures of quality for children’s fiction are the same as for adult fiction. How well plotted, how well imagined, the commitment to a voice and the skill in realizing it, the aliveness of the characters, the vividness of the world, the originality and wit and surprise and charm and everything else that demanding readers look for in great writing. Books for younger children tend to be heavily illustrated, in a way that most adult books aren’t (more’s the pity…), a fact that of course brings with it a whole other set of ways in which a book can succeed or fail. (The illustrations and their relationship to the text aren’t, of course, minor factors incidental to the substance of the book, they are among the hardest things to get perfectly right.)

SC: Do you think that making more international literature available to children will make those readers more likely to read international literature as adults?

DH: I’ve never thought about it in quite those terms, but yes, I think developing a reading habit that has wide horizons will affect what you expect from your reading in later years. Discovering reading as a thing that can be about variety and curiosity and strangeness as well as about familiarity and reassurance, that’s a habit worth having. But I don’t think it’s quite as direct correlation as you suggest, either, not least because plenty of children’s books in translation (or adult ones, for that matter) aren’t about discovering new cultures and developing empathy for new etc. etc. (the usual thing)—they’re just great books we shouldn’t be missing out on that just happen to be from another language or culture. Did the fact that—as a non-American child—I read Charlotte’s Web or The Phantom Tollbooth mean I was supposed to grow up to be a Cormac McCarthy fan? No, but they did help me to understand what great books, wherever they hail from, can do, and to demand that excellence of them.

SC: You’ve been a big advocate for translators, including establishing the TA First Translation Prize earlier this year. What can people do to support, specifically, children’s literature in translation?

DH: Find it. Buy it. Read it to the children in your life. Donate it to your local school. We don’t have enough translated for children in the English-speaking world, not by a long shot, but we do have some, and what we have is mostly excellent—so I’d like people to remember that! Last year a friend and I put together a guide to translated children’s books for the School Libraries Association in the UK, and there were about 150 books, from baby books to YA, that we really wanted to recommend to young readers. So as we try to persuade those-who-need-persuading that there should be more children’s books in translation published in our cultures, we can all do better at remembering and celebrating and disseminating what we’ve got!

Join us Wednesday, October 18, at 5:30 pm at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books in the Park.