Opening horizons: An interview with Laura Watkinson, the translator of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

posted in: Laura Watkinson, Tonke Dragt | 1

As I anticipated its publication last year, one book – above all – got my heart trembling.

When it finally hit the shelves, The Guardian said, “The book is beautifully constructed, and has passages of urgent writing that take their inspiration from fairytales as well as the Arthurian legend.“, The Irish Times said, “a fast-moving, wonderful old-style adventure“, Julia Eccleshare on LoveReading4Kids said, “Gripping from its opening moment onwards, this award-winning book that doesn’t miss a beat from its thrilling beginning to its satisfying ending“, and Booktrust said it “deserves to be richly treasured“, whilst both The Times and the Sunday Times selected it as a book of the year.

letterforthekingThat book is The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. First published in 1962 in Dutch (as De brief voor de koning) this book is a seminal children’s book in the Netherlands. In 2004 it was voted the best Dutch children’s book of the last 50 years and in our (Dutch/English bilingual) family here at Playing by the book it has a particularly special place in our hearts, being one of those very special books that as a parent who simply cannot wait to share with your children.

I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with the translator of The Letter for the King / De brief voor de koning, Laura Watkinson (@Laura_Wat).

Playing by the book: ‘De brief voor de koning’ is perhaps my husband’s favourite Dutch book – he has read it almost too many times to count, including twice in Dutch during the last 12 months to our children. We can’t deny we were rather anxious when we started to read your translation; how would something so special and meaningful to our family fare in another language? I was almost terrified; I had heard so much about the story, discussed it so much but had never actually read it myself (reading in Dutch is still quite hard work for me). Would I fall in love with the book the way my husband and kids had? You can see: when we opened the covers, the stakes were very high!

However, we were hugely impressed with your translation which is both loyal and lucid. It was wonderful to read aloud – a sure sign that you did that mercurial job of translating brilliantly, and family members who can quote long sections of the book in Dutch were delighted by the fidelity and yet freshness you brought to the text.

Laura Watkinson: I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed the translation, Zoe. De brief voor de koning is a book that’s very close to my heart too, and I’m delighted that Pushkin Press have now published it in English. It was originally published in 1962, so it’s taken 51 years for the book finally to come out in an English-language version. It’s always been a hugely popular title in the Netherlands, though, and in 2004 was even voted the best Dutch children’s book of the previous fifty years. I’m so pleased that publisher Adam Freudenheim has championed this book.

Laura reading an excerpt from The Letter for the King at the launch of The Letter for the King at the American Book Center in Amsterdam.
Laura reading an excerpt from The Letter for the King at the launch of The Letter for the King at the American Book Center in Amsterdam.

Playing by the book: Could you tell us a little about your working process, for example do you read other books by the same author to get a feel for their style? Do you first do an entire “rough” translation and then go back, or do you go in detail chapter by chapter?

Laura Watkinson: I’d already read quite a lot of Tonke Dragt’s works before, so I know her style pretty well. It’s always good to have an opportunity to reread her stories, though, so I indulged myself again. Some translators recommend reading similar books in English to pick up turns of phrase and the right kind of language. I can see the value of such an approach, but I didn’t do that with this particular book. I did, however, watch the film version of the book again, as I thought it might provide some inspiration, but it actually strays quite far from the plot in places and some of the characters didn’t look as I’d imagined them, so it wasn’t much help.

My first pass is a rough translation. I’ll generally start with a document that has the entire Dutch text and then type my English translation into the text, alongside the Dutch. If I’m confident that a sentence is going to stay, I’ll delete the Dutch as I go along, but if I think I might want to rephrase, I leave the Dutch there, so that I can rethink it on a second pass. It’s good to have an entire rough version of the translation at a fairly early stage, as you’re aware of the challenges and have more time to think through the trickier issues.

After that, it’s a repeated process of reading and editing, and going back to the original, polishing away until it’s time to send the text to the editor, after which another round of polishing begins.

In the case of this book, the publisher’s children were really keen to read the story and Adam asked if I could send the translation as I completed each section. That worked for the first two parts of the book, but it’s so at odds with my normal approach to work that I had to hang on to the last six sections until I was happier with them. I often have queries and alternative versions lurking in the text until the last couple of rounds of editing.

Laura's work desk
Laura’s work desk

Playing by the book: Do you avoid working on other translations (especially in other languages) at the same time where possible? What is your favourite part of the process?

Laura Watkinson: I like to vary my work, so that I stay fresh. I don’t find it possible to work on one book for hours on end, as I don’t want to run the risk of the translation becoming stale, so I’ll usually take on a number of smaller projects at the same time as a major book translation. There tend to be overlaps as well, as edits from previous books will come back and interrupt translation on the current title. That’s great, as it means that you don’t get bogged down.

Most of my translation work these days is from Dutch, although I do also translate from German and Italian. I don’t find that the languages interfere with each other when it comes to translation. I translated a couple of German picture books as I was working on The Letter for the King, and that made an interesting change. I’m just about to start an Italian rhyming picture book about animals going to the supermarket, which I think is going to be great fun.

Playing by the book: Moving away from the nuts and bolts of translation, who is your favourite character in The Letter for the King and why? (Mine is probably the jester, Tirillo)

Laura Watkinson: I like Tirillo, too. He’s a sound character with a wicked glint in his eye and a deceptive appearance. Aside from the main characters, I think I’d have to say Lavinia of Castle Mistrinaut. She doesn’t play a major role in this book, but she shows herself to be fierce, fair and independent. Even though she’s a young woman in a world of knights and chivalry, she stands up for what she thinks is right, and she’s braver and more clear-sighted than the hidebound knights. And her adventures in the sequel are even more exciting. Hoorah for Lavinia!

Ah... Amsterdam! The view from Laura's desk.
Ah… Amsterdam! The view from Laura’s desk.

Playing by the book: In 2008 you founded the Dutch chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Tell us a little about what this involves.

Laura Watkinson: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is based in the United States, but has chapters all over the world. I knew various writers and illustrators who had joined the UK chapter and were very enthusiastic about the friends and the professional connections that they’d made through the society, so I decided to join up. However, the local chapter at the time was for the Benelux region and based in Brussels. I contacted SCBWI HQ and received their backing to start a local group. There were a number of existing SCBWI members in Holland and we soon had a bunch of new recruits. We set to organizing various events, such as workshops with publishers, authors, and illustrators, and an exhibition of members’ work at the American Book Center in The Hague.

I’m no longer the organizer of the group, as Mina Witteman took over from me and is doing a fabulous job, but I help out from time to time and I’m still active within the group and appreciate the support of the other Dutch members. Illustrator Rachelle Meyer has been a stalwart since the early days of the group. She’s now SCBWI’s international illustrator coordinator, and the two of us are heading off to the Bologna children’s book fair in March to meet up with publishing professionals and fellow members of the SCBWI.

I’d recommend the society to anyone who’s interested in children’s books. It’s great for published children’s writers, illustrators, and translators, and also for those who are still finding their way to publication.

Playing by the book: What are you working on at the moment?

Laura Watkinson: I’m delighted to say that I’m about to start work on the sequel to The Letter for the King. Publication is planned for 2015.

Playing by the book: That is just brilliant news!

What are you reading for pure enjoyment at the moment?

Laura Watkinson: As usual, I’ve got several books on the go, stacked in piles up and down throughout the house. We live in one of those old houses in Amsterdam, which is tall and thin with lots of steep stairs. The rooms are tiny, with one room on each of the seven floors, and a pile of books in most of them, from picture books to literary novels and poetry.

I’m a big fan of graphic novels, and I’m going to the Angoulême comics festival at the end of this month with my fellow translator Michele Hutchison, to scout out more comics to translate, so I’m rereading some Dutch comic books in preparation, by authors Barbara Stok and Guido van Driel, and I also have a couple of Dylan Dogs on my reading piles. Dylan Dog is an Italian graphic novel series that’s been going for years, about a British investigator of the supernatural, whose appearance is loosely based on Rupert Everett. They’re fantastic and funny and I really do read them for pure enjoyment.

I’ve just finished Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which is every bit as good as my friends on Facebook have been saying. Before that, I read a proof copy of Liz de Jager’s Banished, the first in a new YA fantasy series, which is coming out in February 2014 and is a cracking read.

Non-fiction and travel memoirs are also a favourite. I’m currently halfway through Pete Jordan’s In the City of Bikes: The Story of an Amsterdam Cyclist, which is an enjoyable read for anyone who loves Amsterdam.

Thanks so much, Zoe, for your interest in my work and in the story behind The Letter for the King!

Playing by the book: Laura, Thank YOU!

Laura Watkinson’s translation of Aline Sax’s The War within These Walls won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature just last week. In 2012 Laura’s translation of Bibi Dumon Tak’s Soldier Bear won the 2012 Batchelder Award. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if 2014 brought her an award for The Letter of the King. You heard it here first 🙂

One Response

  1. […] I also talked to the lovely Zoe Toft, who’s a keen reader of Dutch children’s literature, about books and about The Letter for the King in particular. Zoe’s posted the interview over at her website Playing by the Book. […]

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