Today I’m delighted to kick off my monthly series highlighting the work of translators of children’s literature.
Translators play a crucial role in bringing a wealth of stories from around the world to those of us who read in English; alongside travel (but without the same cost and environmental impact), books from other cultures are wondrous eye-openers, connection-makers, bridge-builders and perspective-changers, helping us to navigate an at times confusing world.
Nuance, diversity, complexity, difference-and-similarity and connections-despite-difference.
These are things that I value in my reading diet, and that I want to include in what my children discover, and highlighting translated books (both fiction and non-fiction) is one way I’m able to do that. And so without further ado, I’m delighted to share with you an interview with Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, a Latvian translator working both in and out of Italian and English, who I discovered thanks to the funny, fresh and delightful collection of poetry, The Noisy Classroom by Ieva Flamigo, published by The Emma Press.
Žanete was born in Riga and graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Languages, University of Latvia, in 1995, at the as same time completing a course in Italian language and culture at the University of Perugia. My first question was about how and when she became aware of different languages, and the joy of moving between them.
“Languages have been important to me since I was a little girl. My early childhood and teenage years happened to coincide with the last twenty years of the Soviet Union under the regime we had to live with. I loved what we could read of the world literature, the stories of my aunt in exile about the free world and her travels and I longed to be able to see the world with my own eyes one day. For me languages were in a way a question of my personal freedom and independence.”
“It may sound a bit too romanticized but I firmly decided to learn English when, as a child, I first saw the “Sound of Music” which was shown also around the Soviet Union. The film was dubbed but we could still hear the beautiful English of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer while they were singing, besides the film was also about breaking free from the Nazi regime, I had to break free from the Soviet domination and this film made me determined. I decided to start with the languages. In high school I concluded that English wasn’t enough and learnt also Italian and French. Now I couldn’t imagine my life without these languages and also Russian that was our only positive remnant from the Soviet times.”
Perhaps because it reflects my own personal beliefs and experiences of speaking more than one language it seems that, for Žanete too, being able to move between languages has a political aspect, something that is empowering, by giving a type of freedom and greater awareness of different ways the world can be. It also strikes me that Žanete is someone who is not afraid of challenges and I wonder if perhaps that is an aspect of what she find most enjoyable about being a translator.
“I love the English language and the feeling that I can transmit the works of Latvian authors into this language. For me it was certainly a bit of a challenge to prove that also a translator who is not a native speaker can become a good translator. I hope I can perceive the style of the author and know English well enough to find a corresponding feel in the target language. If I succeed, I’m happy.”
So what about the process Žanete goes through when translating a book? Is it basically the same process for each book or does it vary? And what does she find are the most useful tools to use?
“For me translating is a way to relax, think of nothing else but the book, leave the outside world with all its problems out. My thoughts merge with the literary work in question. I translate quickly sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, revising the text when I have reached about 20 – 30 pages still leaving multiple choices where I’m in doubt, checking the quotes. When I have concluded the whole book, I read the whole text comparing its correspondence to the original for one last time. I’ve been lucky to try my hand in various genres – children’s literature, poetry, novels for adults and currently also a life-style book. Mostly, it’s the same process for every book, just the level of difficulty varies, in some books there are more complicated solutions to find, in some everything is clear from the very beginning. As I’m not a native speaker, I’m quite self-conscious and scared of making mistakes, so my best tool is speaking to my English language editor and friend Sara Joan Smith, she always helps me to make the right choices.”
And talking about Žanete’s colleague, I’m reminded that translating is rarely a solo or self-contained job. I know that some translators play a role in suggesting books to publishers to translate; for many, being a translator isn’t just about doing a job to earn something of a living, but rather it is something that comes a passion to spread great stories. I ask Žanete about how much of what she translates is commissioned, following an initial suggestion by her to the publisher.
“My situation is quite particular because I work as literary agent for Latvia, taking part in drawing up the country’s catalogue and searching for possible works to offer in future, brainstorming with my colleagues and also taking inspiration from my conversations with foreign publishers whom I meet at the fairs and other events. My career as a translator actually started doing sample translations and synopses. So, for me it’s a natural course of events. My colleagues and I have to consider the interests of all local publishers, still making a step back from our personal tastes and national interests to see what might eventually work abroad.
I must evaluate carefully what may correspond to the profile of every foreign publisher I meet. If we speak of children’s literature, it has been a very difficult task as children’s literature abroad is very systemized and divided according to certain rules, such as the amount of text if we speak of picture books, number of pages etc. There are no such rules in Latvian children’s literature, we love picture books containing a great amount of text, so it was quite difficult to compile our national catalogue for children. Our only hope was to convince foreign publishers to risk and dare doing something different. A real strength of ours was a great range of good illustrators. It was really hard but in a way we have succeeded.”
“There’s a strong tradition of children’s poetry in Latvia but we were initially told that it would be impossible to sell children’s poetry in translation but we managed. My first published translation in English was The Noisy Classroom by Ieva Flamingo, illustrated by Vivianna Maria Staņislavska and published by Emma Press. Later this year it’s going to be followed by “The Book of Clouds” by Juris Kronbergs, translated by Māra Rozītis, again published by Emma Press. Firefly Press will be publishing Dog Town by Luīze Pastore (@iluizija) in April. It’s an adventure story for 8-12 year olds, richly illustrated throughout.”
Whilst adding The Book of Clouds and Dog Town to my virtual reading list, I can’t resist asking what else I should look out for; What are Žanete’s favourite children’s books translated from Latvian and why?
“We started promoting Latvian literature actively just three years ago and it is a very short period of time to conquer the international book market. Given also the difficulties I already mentioned, the number of Latvian children’s books translations is still very limited. However, I like all of them. Our first success was One House for All by Inese Zandere, illustrated by Juris Petraškevičs and published by Book Island which is a wonderful picture book on tolerance (and finding a way to live together). The second book was “The Noisy Classroom” published by Emma Press, a touching collection of poems for children depicting all the problems and issues of modern children’s lives in all their diversities. As I’ve mentioned already, Firefly will be publishing “Dog Town” – an amazing adventure story of a boy who has only his dad by his side and leads a solitary life. But life offers him a challenge and opportunity at the same time to meet his cousin and save a whole district of Riga, while making friends with the community of speaking dogs. These books will be soon followed by the already mentioned poetry book “The Book of Clouds” and also “The Queen of Seagulls” by Rūta Briede, illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa, a witty and slightly philosophical cross over fairytale.”
It’s exciting to hear about these Latvian books which are either already available, or will be published later this year. Latvia is one of the focuses at this year’s London Book Fair, and I’m sure that this focus has helped drive an interest in translations. So next I ask Žanete about her those (as-yet-untranslated) Latvian books she would you like to see translated into English and why?
“The first work I would like to see published in English pushes the boundaries again as I would like to see the transformation of Latvian collectable small size children’s poetry books Bikibuki into the “Parcel of Five or Bitofabooks”. Their format is completely unusual for the UK market but I still think it might be very attractive everywhere as the artwork and the idea behind it is amazing. It was a unique project when publisher Liels un mazs commissioned modern illustrators their interpretation of 101 most popular rhymes of all times. I have selected about 30 poems which I find very well translatable and relevant in any part of the world. I would like to market as a gift set of 5 books which would offer five short pieces of poetry for five evenings of the school week to be read after a busy day. Each one would take just 5 minutes to read but their beautiful illustrations would transport children beyond the rhymes themselves, challenging their minds and imagination to make them dream and reflect. The editors could create their own collection or series of collections from a selection of different illustrators and poets which suit all tastes.”
“To tell the truth there are several books I would like to see published, so it’s hard to choose. I would definitely like to see published a book about a white rhino born in the north of Europe and his journey back to Africa by Juris Zvirgzdiņš with wonderful digitally painted illustrations by Reinis Pētersons which in a playful way touches upon so many social and cultural issues or “Tobias, Charley and the Invisible Ghost”, a story on compassion, by the same author illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa. As well as “Hello, Whale!” – a funny and touching story about granddad and his beloved granddaughter by Lauris Gundars, a theatre director and drama teacher who wrote this story for his granddaughter. This book is enriched with beautiful and vibrant illustrations by Anete Melece.”
“And I can’t not to mention the wonderful and versatile work by Inese Zandere. There are two books which I would like to highlight particularly, the first is “The Boy and His Dog” which consists in literary depiction of the diaries of a small boy whose family saved dozens of Jews and people of other nationalities during the war regardless of their political convictions and nationalities involving their children, it’s all based on a true story and in Riga there is a very impressive memorial to remember these events and people. This book carries with itself the breath of its time helped by the illustrations by Reinis Pētersons. The other book by Inese Zandere I would like to highlight is a picture book “Riding High” intricately illustrated by Anna Vaivare on the boy learning to play a piano compared to learning to ride a horse as also the melody can be slow and steady, wild and galloping.”
I really do hope that some of these exciting books are picked up by publishers at London Book Fair so that in a year or two we will be able to read them in English. It’s been fascinating interviewing Žanete and learning a little about Latvian children’s literature. Thank you, Žanete!